In Holland at the end of the 17th century, tulip fever is a thing of the past, incautious investors learning the harsh lessons of commerce, the economy precarious for some time after the avid speculation. In the years following Holland’s great debacle, the country has become known for its appreciation and respect for its great artists - Rembrandt in Amsterdam, Johannes Vermeer and Franz Halls.
A student of Franz Halls, Hendrick Visser maintains an established clientele, supporting his wife and three daughters, two of whom, Francesca and Aletta, hope to be sponsored by their father. But Visser has little time or patience for his daughters, consumed by his own work and the obsessive gambling that too frequently brings the family to the brink of financial ruin: “His debauchery was taking its toll on his eyesight and his hands.”
When Hendrick’s wife dies in childbirth, his excessive drinking and gambling jeopardize Francesca’s training as an artist. Agreeing to an advantageous marriage for Francesca with a devious suitor, Ludolf van Deventer, Visser ransoms the girl’s future in service to his debt, begrudgingly permitting her apprenticeship to Johannes Vermeer prior to acceptance by the Guild. Like Vermeer, Francesca’s canvasses are saturated with light, Hendrick still painting in the manner of the Old Masters.
The other sisters suffer for their father’s duplicity as well, but all remain loyal and respectful to the man whose self-centeredness taxes the most dutiful of daughters. With Holland on the cusp of war with an aggressive Louis XIV, unrest permeates even the artistic world, the country restive under William of Orange, dreading a confrontation with France.
All three sisters are dependent on the whims of a selfish and arrogant father. Francesca is determined to prevail in spite of Deventer’s interference in every aspect of her life, Aletta taking a more circuitous route to painting, Sybylla settling for security with a husband.
A suspicious figure, Francesca’s betrothed is not what he seems. Like an evil spider, Ludolf remains the family’s nemesis, skillfully manipulating Francesca’s environment while scheming behind a façade of gentility to cement his position in Holland’s future. Deventer remains in control of Visser’s fortunes and the happiness of his eldest daughter, circumventing Francesca’s every endeavor to escape his manipulation. Still she persists, unwilling to lose this critical battle for independence.
In spite of the social constraints of the 17th century and Hendrick’s hubris, it is the pursuit of artistic excellence that binds this family: the smell of paint and brushes, the light-drenched studios where life transcends the ordinary, canvasses depicting an idealized world in the face of war, an island of respite from reality.
Unfortunately, the characters in this novel falls victim to stereotypes - the male figures handsome, noble and heroic or crude, dastardly and evil, lacking nuance, Francesca the helpless damsel in distress. Given the relatively few choices her century and circumstances allow, Francesca is limited only by the imagination of her creator.