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British writer Geoffrey Wolfe recalls the first time he met the infamous painter Charles Strickland: Strickland, a married stockbroker, seems to be a commonplace person, who inexplicably leaves his wife, abandons his children, and moves to Paris to pursue his lifelong dream of being an artist. On Mrs. Strickland's behalf, Geoffrey visits Strickland in his rundown apartment in Paris, but is unable to convince the egotist to return to England. Several years after Strickland's divorce, Geoffrey visits another artist friend in Paris, Dutchman Dirk Stroeve, and meets Blanche, Dirk's new wife. Dirk, a sweet-natured but uninspired artist, avows that Strickland is a genius, despite the fact that Strickland continually insults him. Geoffrey soon finds that Strickland is completely destitute but shows no interest in selling or exhibiting his brilliant work. At Christmas-time, Dirk brings Strickland to his home to convalesce from pneumonia, despite the protests of Blanche, who feels threatened by the arrogant artist. Blanche becomes a devoted nurse, however, and although Strickland is ungrateful, she leaves her husband for him when he recovers. Strickland, who is only interested in her as a model, soon deserts her. Blanche commits suicide, and while devastated by the circumstances, Dirk is so moved by Strickland's talent that he invites him to return to Holland with him. Strickland unkindly rejects his offer, but gives him a painting of Blanche as a gift. Many years later, Geoffrey goes to Tahiti, where the artist had moved from Paris, to further research the book he is now writing about Strickland. Geoffrey learns from a talkative British local about Strickland's final years: In Tahiti, Strickland marries a young island native named Ata at the urging of jovial matchmaker, hotel proprietress Tiara Johnson. Having at last found sincere happiness with Ata, Strickland is stricken with leprosy. Ata insists on remaining by his side through the debilitating illness, although she is stoned by ignorant locals who fear that the disease will spread. Two years later, Dr. Coutras, the physician who initially diagnosed Strickland returns because he has heard that Strickland is dying. Coutras arrives after Strickland's death, but sees the painter's final works, which he later describes as sublime, lovely and cruel masterpieces, some painted by Strickland after he had gone blind. Ata, overcome by grief, fulfills her husband's dying wish that she burn the hut in which his paintings are contained, and the last of his genius disappears forever.