Art makes good books
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
I love reading. I read (or more recently listen to) at least one book a week. Often I listen while I'm painting. While I’ll read just about anything, historical fiction is my favourite genre. I also love to read anything that is even remotely art related. And when the two overlap, I’m in reading haven.
So if you’re looking for some good books to read whilst in lock-down, here are my top 10 books inspired by art. Whilst most are fiction, I’ve included a couple non-fiction, just for good measure. And if you have any recommendations, I'd love to hear them.
1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the story follows Theo Decker, a boy who miraculously survives an explosion in the museum of art. He thereafter becomes obsessed with a painting by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius called the Goldfinch. Combining unforgettably vivid characters, the author takes you on a journey of loss and love through its many twists and turn. But be warned, it is long and some reviewers found that it dragged in parts, but I loved every single minute of it.
2. What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
This fictional story is set in New York and opens with a description of a painting depicting a woman and the shadow of the artist painting her. The book is told from the point of view of Leo Hertzberg, a professor of art history, who recalls his family’s relations with Bill Weachler and his family. Weachler is the aforementioned shadow throwing artist and both he and his mate Hertzberg inhabit a world of New York art galleries and the art elite. What I Loved is a moving and engaging story about love and friendship that may take you a while to get in to. But hang in there, because by the end, you’ll be hooked.
3. The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
This fictional story follows Claire Roth, a struggling artist, who makes her living reproducing famous art works for an online retailer. In a desperate attempt to improve her situation, she agrees to forge a famous painting by Edward Degas, one that was stolen from the Gardner Museum. The Art Forger is “an absorbing literary thriller that treats us to three centuries of forgers, art thieves, and obsessive collectors.” The only disappointment for me, as a massive Degas fan, is that the painting in question is as made up. Despite this, I utterly enjoyed this tale and historical references to the real life Isabella Stewart Gardner.
4. The Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier
Johannes Vermeer is one of the great enigmas the art world. To be honest, I never understood what all the hype was about but after reading this book I found an appreciation for the both artist and his work. One of his most famous paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring, depicts an unknown woman in exotic dress and a large pearl earring. Tracey Chevalier imagines her to be a housemaid who works in Vermeer’s home and becomes his paint mixer. This historical fiction was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted to film. However, as always, the movie did not do the book justice. So just read the book.
5. How To Be Both by Ali Smith
This tale weaves together the story of a Renaissance artist of the 1460s with a fictional character from the 1960s. These two tales of love and injustice come together into a singular story which explores the intrinsic value of art and how it shapes one’s identity. How To Be Both has won a number of awards and has been described as “playfully experimental, emotionally wrenching, and aesthetically inquisitive.” The character of Renaissance artist is based on real life artist Francesco del Cossa, an Italian female painter who had to disguise herself as a man, makes it all the more intriguing.
6. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
What’s not to like about this classic novel? Yes, the language is a bit old fashioned but the themes are as relevant as ever. Oscar Wilde points out our obsession with youth and beauty, our acceptance of narcissism and self-indulgence as the norm, and our general fear and loathing of old age. And all this is metaphorically represented in one fictional portrait which is the title of this book. How clever is that? On a historical note, this was the only novel written by Oscar Wilde and it was considered very controversial at the time of its publication.
7. I Was Vermeer by Frank Wynne
This non-fiction work looks at the legend of the forger named Han van Meegeren who swindled the Nazis. Van Meegeren was a paranoid, drug-addicted, second-rate painter whose Vermeer forgeries made him a secret superstar of the art world. With so much real life drama, you will not be surprised to learn that this book is not the first to tell this story, however it is the first major publication on the topic in over forty years. The story of Van Meegeren provokes crucial questions about how the art world values art. Additionally it provides further context for the themes addressed in The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro and The Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier, which are recommended above.
8. Just Kids by Patty Smith
This honest and raw memoir by Patti Smith’s should interest any up and coming artist. It’s the artist version of rags to riches. Smith landed in New York with absolutely nothing and ended up making a name for herself as a successful poet, songwriter and musician. Personally I found her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe particular interesting and appreciated the insight she provides into his life and career. Smith vividly captures the New York of the 1970s, with all the energy, excitement and danger that made it so alluring to artists. It captures the moment when New York was becoming the cultural centre of the western world.
9. Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
The fiction follows Rebecca Winter, a successful photographer whose career is now descendent. She moves to the middle of nowhere and discovers that she still has more to give to the world of art. This novel tackles a most unpopular character- a woman who is considered ‘past her prime’ with authenticity and serenity. This book lacks the high drama of the other books I've listed but it’s an enjoyable read if you don’t want anything too heavy.
10. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Lacuna follows the life of fictional character Harrison Shepherd from his early years in Mexico, to 1950s in America as a reclusive author. In between, Shepherd works in the household of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo while they entertain house guest Leon Trotsky. This is the most interesting part of the book. The story then moves from the muralists and surrealists of the 1930s to the anti-communist America of the late 40s and 50s. Barbara Kingsolver attempts to explore the often uncomfortable relationship between art and politics; however the two different locals feel disconnected. I would definitely recommend it if you are a fan of Diego Rivera and/or Frida Kahlo.
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