11 Novels Every Art History-Lover Should Pick Up
Books and art are both major cultural touchstones, so it makes sense that they go together like Picasso and paint. I love a book with a solid art history component, because, obvi, I'm a huge fan of books and art, but also because I retain information much better when it's in novel format. If all my high school classes had used novels instead of textbooks, I'd probably be able to recite the entire history of Western civ right now.
Instead, I can tell you a fair amount about a few iconic works of art. Just as painters and sculptors are influenced by epic stories, the reverse is true as well — great novelists are influenced by extraordinary works of art. From The Goldfinch to Girl With a Pearl Earring, writers have long found artwork a rich and compelling source of creativity. Whether you're a full-blown art history buff or just an amateur admirer, there's nothing more engrossing than a masterful re-imagining of the story behind a great piece of art.
So read on for a few of my favorite novels that artfully (I can't resist the puns, it's like an illness) bring to life some of the world's most iconic paintings and sculptures. Even if the details are fictionalized, these novels pay tribute to some of history's most gifted artists and their work.
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
I love Elizabeth Kostova's writing in general, and she outdid herself with the Swan Thieves. The novel revolves around a painting called Leda, by a french artist named Gilbert Thomas. Although both are fictional, painters throughout history have created canvases in tribute to the ancient Greek myth about the maiden Leda, who is seduced by Zeus in swan form. (Including the gorgeous painting above by François-Édouard Picot). Kostova puts a totally original spin on the story behind the painting, taking us from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., to the office of psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, to France circa 1800. Along the way we get passion, crime, betrayal, tons of love letters, a little bit of insanity, and some magic. The novel is a fitting homage to the power of art and storytelling.
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Tamara de Lempicka was a beautiful, bisexual, bohemian who took the art world of 1920s Paris by storm with her lush, hyper-realistic art deco nudes. Avery's novel is a fictionalization of the story behind one of Lempicka's most famous paintings, Le Rêve (Rafaëla sur fond vert), shown above. Lempicka was a fascinating woman, and a truly original artist, but it's 17-year-old Rafaela, with her lack of artifice but undeniable sensuality, (those eyes!) who steals the story. Ellis brings the brash, libertine world of Jazz Age Paris to vibrant life, but the affair between her and Rafaela — sometimes tender, sometimes tragic — gives the novel its heart.
Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb
Camille Claudel was a fascinating woman, and even though this is a fictional account of her life with the famous sculptor Rodin, she is worth reading about in any context. An immensely talented sculptor in her own right (see Bronze Waltz above), tragically Claudel was born at a time when women artists weren't even recognized, much less respected. She was apprenticed to Rodin as a young woman, and quickly became his lover and muse as well as his assistant. As you can imagine by the title, Webb's novel focuses mainly on Claudel's passionate, volatile relationship with Rodin, but it also gives some insight into the frustration Claudel experienced throughout her career.
Many of Rodin's most inspired works were influenced and even executed by Claudel, but her contributions were minimized and overlooked, driving her to intense jealousy, and, eventually, dangerous obsessions.
Strapless by Deborah Davis
Stunning, right? That's the first thing that crosses my mind when I see this painting. I want to be this woman. This is essentially the reason John Singer Sargent so desperately wanted to paint Virginie Gautreau. Originally from New Orleans, she moved to Paris and quickly became an "it" girl, for obvious reasons. But her reputation was in tatters after Singer's portrait, titled Madame X, went on public display. The original painting had the left strap of her dress hanging off her shoulder, a clear indication in those times that she had just come from a quickie. It was basically today's equivalent of a sex tape gone viral.
Davis loosely interprets the facts to create an entertaining, observant novel about the gorgeous, enigmatic Madame X. But her novel is also an exploration of celebrity culture, how we like to elevate our stars to impossible heights just so we can tear them down. The path to stardom has never been an easy one. Just ask Madame X. Or Lindsay Lohan.
The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Epstein takes the truly incredible life story of celebrated painter Pan Yuliang, and makes it even more compelling with her luminous, tribute of a novel. Yuliang was born an orphan in China at the turn of the 20th century. When she was 14, her uncle sold her to a brothel. For many years, survival was her only goal, until a man bought her out of prostitution, made her his second wife, and introduced her to a whole new world. Despite a total lack of guidance, or even basic knowledge, Yuliang felt compelled to paint. Against all odds, she becomes a lauded artist, as is evidenced by her Women in Conversation, above. It's difficult to convey what an extraordinary woman Yuliang was, but Epstein does it with masterful grace.
Madame Picasso by Anne Girard
Picasso was a notorious Lothario, but his early relationship with Eva Gouel (aka Marcelle Humbert) has always been a bit of a mystery. Girard brings Gouel to (fictional) life, creating a lively, ambitious girl who chases stardom to Paris, landing at the Moulin Rouge as a costume designer. She catches Picasso's eye, and he pursues her mercilessly. Although Girard's depiction of her as the great love of his life may be a little extreme, Gouel did inspire Picasso's celebrated cubist period, including the above painting entitled Ma Jolie, his nickname for her.
Girard definitely amps up the romance factor in this novel, but she also works hard to portray Gouel as the multi-dimensional, ambitious woman that she was. In the end she gives us an engrossing portrait of an artist in love, and the passionate woman who captures his heart (at least for a little while).
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño
This Newbery Award-winning novel tells the fascinating story of renowned painter Diego Velázquez and his slave, turned assistant and eventual friend, Juan de Pareja. Pareja was half-African, and therefore forbidden from painting on his own, but he assisted Velázquez on some of his most famous works, and also modeled for one of his most noted portraits, shown above.
Eventually Velázquez frees Pareja, who goes on to have his own respected career as an artist. Their relationship is fascinating, and even though Treviño's rendition probably isn't the gospel truth, it's an illuminating glimpse inside the life of one of history's most celebrated painters and his assistant. Plus the friendship between the two men will give you all the good feels.
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
You'd basically have to live under a rock to not recognize Michelangelo Buonarroti's name, and his paintings, like the detail from the Sistine Chapel above, pretty much define Art with a capital A. He was also larger than life, which makes this "biographical novel" by Stone essentially unputdownable. Michelangelo did everything big, from love to faith, even though the two often left him bitterly conflicted. Stone explores the man and the artist in equal measure, giving us a complete portrayal of the compelling, charismatic person. Possibly why we're still talking about him some 400-ish years after his death.
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
The movie, with the lovely Scarlett Johansson playing the titular Girl, was good, but the book is better. Chevalier does an incredible job of detailing the domestic life of a Delft household in the 1600s, and instead of making Griet (the girl) the victim of an overly amorous employer, she makes her a strong, smart woman.
Johannes Vermeer is famous for his painstakingly detailed, vibrant depictions of household life. Doesn't the girl in the painting look like she's about to start talking? She could be your neighbor, or your cousin. You also get the sense that whoever painted this was extremely, probably amorously fond of his subject. Chevalier does an extraordinary job of creating a fittingly fascinating backstory for this undeniably compelling portrait.
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
This subject of this book is close to my heart, since I've probably spent half my life as a girl reading. But even if I hadn't fallen in love with it the moment I read the title, Ward's novel would still have resonated with me because of its sheer originality. In seven distinct "chapters" Ward focuses on a different portrait of a woman reading, from an Italian girl posing for artist Simone Martini as he creates his famous altarpiece of the Annunciation, to Pieter Janssens Elinga's Woman Reading, shown here. The stories are meticulously researched and well documented, but Ward's fictional interpretations really make them shine, as she explores the role women have played in art as wives, mothers, sisters, feminists, and as the creators themselves.
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
Paul Gauguin was a brilliant artist, but his personal life was a bit of a shambles. Especially after he basically abandoned everyone he knew and hightailed it to Tahiti. Luckily he was incredibly gifted and his years in Tahiti were some of his most productive as a painter, as is evidenced by the gorgeous work, Trois Tahitiennes, above. Charles Strickland, the protagonist of Maugham's novel, is not as fortunate. When the book begins he's a staid, successful London banker. Then he decides he has the soul of an artist and therefore must literally follow in Gauguin's footsteps to Tahiti. The abrupt departure leaves the lives of those who love him in tatters. Maugham's novel is really an exploration of the heavy emotional and spiritual toll creativity can exact. But when the muse calls, artists come running, despite the sometimes devastating consequences, because it's really hard to turn a deaf ear to the siren call of potential greatness.