After the death, the artist Charles Strickland was recognized as a genius, and, as is usually the case, anyone who saw him at least once, hastens to write memoirs and interpret his work. Some make a good-natured family man from Strickland, a caring husband and father, others mold a portrait of an immoral monster, not missing the slightest detail that could arouse public interest. The author feels that he must write the truth about Strickland, because he knew him closer than others, and, attracted by the originality of the artist’s personality, closely followed his life long before Strickland became fashionable: after all, the most interesting thing in art is the creator’s personality.
The novel takes place at the beginning of the 20th century. The author, a young writer, after his first literary success is invited to breakfast for Mrs. Strickland – the bourgeois often have a weakness for the people of art and consider themselves flattering for themselves to rotate in artistic circles. Her husband, a stock broker, does not happen on such breakfasts – he is too mediocre, boring and unremarkable.
But suddenly the tradition of breakfasts is interrupted, – to everyone’s amazement, an ordinary Charles Strickland threw his wife and went to Paris. Mrs. Strickland is sure that her husband escaped with the pussy – luxury hotels, expensive restaurants… She asks the author to go after him and persuade him to return to the family.
Mrs. Strickland, with all her love for art, it seems much more insulting that her husband abandoned her for the sake of painting, she is ready to forgive; she continues to support rumors about the novel Strickland with the French dancer.
Five years later, once again in Paris, the author meets his friend Dirk Streva, a short, plump Dutchman with a comical appearance, to the absurdity of a good man who wrote well-selling sweet Italian genre scenes. Being a mediocre artist, Dirk, however, perfectly understands the art and faithfully serves him. Dirk knows Strickland, saw his work and considers him a brilliant artist, and therefore often lends money, not hoping for a return and not expecting gratitude. Strickland does, indeed, often starve, but poverty does not weigh him down; he seems to be obsessed with writing his pictures, not caring about prosperity, fame, or observance of the rules of the human community, and as soon as the picture is finished, he loses interest in it – he does not exhibit, does not sell and even just does not show anyone.
In the eyes of the author, Dirk Streva’s drama is played out. When Strickland fell seriously ill, Dirk rescued him from death, took him to his room and, together with his wife, nursed him to full recovery. In “gratitude” Strickland comes into contact with his wife Blanche, which Stev loves more than anything else. Blanche goes to Strickland. Dirk is completely crushed.
Such things are in the spirit of Strickland: he does not know the normal human feelings. Strickland is too big for love and at the same time it is not worth it.
A few months later Blanche commits suicide. She loved Strickland, and he could not stand the claims of women to be his aides, friends and comrades. As soon as he was tired of writing naked Blanche, he left it. Blanche could not return to her husband, as Strickland had pointedly remarked, unable to forgive him the sacrifices he had made. After the death of his wife, Dirk, heartbroken, forever leaves for his homeland, Holland.
When Strickland finally shows his paintings to the author, they make a strong and strange impression on him. They feel an incredible effort to express something, a desire to get rid of the power that owns the artist – as if he knew the soul of the universe and is obliged to translate it into his canvases…
When fate throws the author in Tahiti, where Strickland spent the last years of his life, he asks about the artist of everyone who knew him. He is told how Strickland, without money, without work, hungry, lived in a doss house in Marseilles; as for fake documents, fleeing from the vengeance of a certain obstinate Bill, hired a steamship going to Australia, as already in Tahiti he worked as a supervisor on the plantation… The inhabitants of the island, who during his lifetime considered him a tramp and were not interested in his “pictures” that in due time have missed an opportunity for a penny to buy canvases, which now cost a lot of money. The old Tahitian woman, the hostess of the hotel where the author lives, told him how she had found Strickland’s wife, the native of Ata, her distant cousin. Immediately after the wedding, Strickland and Ata went into the woods, where Aty had a small piece of land, and the next three years were the happiest in the artist’s life. Ata did not bother him, did everything he ordered, brought up their child…
Strickland died of leprosy. Upon learning of his illness, he wanted to go into the forest, but Ata did not let him. They lived together, not communicating with people. Despite the blindness, Strickland continued to work, painting on the walls of the house. This wall painting was seen only by a doctor who came to visit the patient, but did not find him alive. He was shocked. In this work was something great, sensual and passionate, as if it was created by the hands of a man who penetrated into the depths of nature and discovered her frightening and beautiful secrets. Having created this painting, Strickland achieved what he wanted: he banished the demon who had possessed his soul for many years. But, dying, he ordered Ata after his death to burn the house, and she did not dare to violate his last will.
Returning to London, the author meets again with Mrs. Strickland. After the death of her sister, she inherited and lives very well. In her cozy living room hang reproductions of Strickland’s works, and she behaves as if she had excellent relations with her husband.
Listening to Mrs. Strickland, the author for some reason remembers the son of Strickland and Ata, as if seeing him firsthand on a fishing schooner. And above it – the dense blue of the heavens, the stars and, as far as the eye can see, the water desert of the Pacific Ocean.