Nello is a young man born into a challenging world. Orphaned at birth and living with his kindly grandfather in a small village in the early 19th century, Nello cherishes the sketchbook left to him by his mother. Inspired by her art and blessed by a chance encounter with noted local artist Michel La Grande, Nello sets out against all odds to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist, like his idol, the genius Rubens. Though often thwarted by his circumstance, Nello finds solace, love and support from his best friend, the beautiful and wealthy Aloise and companionship from his beloved dog, a large Bouvier des Flanders named Patrasche. When Nello's poverty threatens to crush his dream and Aloise's father forbids the two life-long friends from seeing each other, the talented young artist (urged and schooled by his mentor La Grande) completes a beautiful painting for entry into a competition-hoping the recognition and the prize money will ensure his career and appease Aloise's family. But when the judging panel chooses a less deserving entrant simply because he is from their own upper class, the heartbroken Nello and his trusty companion Patrasche begin a challenging journey that educates the young boy about the true value of friendship and ultimately teaches the villagers about compassion, mercy and forgiveness.