Books to Love: To A Fine Art
Here’s something you might not know about me. I have a degree in Fine Art with a minor in Art History. My father’s blood certainly flows through my veins as he passed this love of art down to me. And as April was his birth month, I’ve decided to pay homage to his passion (and his gifting) by dedicating several posts this month to the topic of art.
Never fear. I will not be writing any theses or making you sit through my opinion on Clement Greenberg’s supercilious essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.”
Rather, I will do as I usually do. Today, if the title hasn’t given it away already, I will share with you, dear readers, a few of my favorite books that have an artistic element to them.
Let me preface, this assortment consists of books that have left a lasting impression on me. They each embody an artistic feel, whether because of their inclusion of an artist, their embracing of an art movement, or just a general infusion of the artistic throughout.
I’m certain you all have heard the expression: Truth is stranger than fiction. Well, when it comes to That Summer by Lauren Willig, that idiom is indeed true. When Lauren Willig was batting around ideas for this novel, she started with What if someone inherited an old home in England? And, what if, while going through the items in the house, they discovered a Pre-Raphaelite painting in the false back of a wardrobe? (You know those wardrobes in England. You never know what you’re going to find at the back of them.)
Armed with those two questions, Lauren set off and constructed a novel which switched between two times- 2009 and 1849- where the modern day heroine slowly unravels a mystery that has laid dormant and unsolved for nearly 150 years.
What about the truth being stranger than fiction, you might ask? Well, dear readers, That Summer’s publication happened to coincide with a press release out of England about a person who had inherited an old home and discovered a Pre-Raphaelite painting hidden behind one of the larger pieces of furniture in the house. How’s that for serendipity?
If you like Lauren Willig’s writing and want another novel with an artistic bent, I highly recommend The Forgotten Room, a collaborative efforts of Beatriz Williams (see post here), Lauren Willig (see posts here and here), and Karen White, which weaves together the lives of three women from different eras who are connected by circumstances and blood and a particularly intriguing painting.
And, if you enjoy novels that unravel their tales over multiple generations, then Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden is another one you should check out. It incorporates art in the form of illustrations along with fairy tales. In fact, similar to A.S. Byatt’s Possession (see post here), Kate Morton actually includes several of the fairy tales. It is through these tales and the illustrations that accompany them that are the clues that unlock the mystery in this novel.
A Fatal Waltz
A Fatal Waltz is the third novel in the Lady Emily series by Tasha Alexander (see post here). This is my favorite book in the series so far. I bought it the day it came out and finished it in one sitting. I could not put it down. The reason is a combination of several things. Firstly, the interplay between Emily and Colin; discovering all about Colin’s past and seeing how it was effecting the here and now filled their relationship with palpable tension. All the characters I have come to know and love returned in this novel, but this time, it was not in England, but in Vienna. Ah, Vienna. Schönbrunn Palace, the Hofburg, the Belvedere. The waltzes, the horses, the Danube. (How did the Gershwins sing it? When I want a melody Lilting through the house Then I want a melody By Strauss…) With its philosophical and artistic legacy, Austria’s capital is the perfect place to set a spy thriller. Oh, and what a thriller it was. Murders and intrigue and… is that sophisticated beauty across the room Colin’s former lover? My oh my. What’s a girl like Emily to do? Well, if you answered, go out to the Viennese cafes and befriend the local artists, then you are right. And, what local artist would Emily happen to befriend but none other than Gustav Klimt, the famous Art Nouveau artist who painted The Kiss. He also made the bold statement, All Art is Erotic. With the relational tension in Colin and Emily’s newfound happiness, the undercurrent of art that Tasha includes in this book augments the emotions churning between the two principals. Though Klimt appears in the novel briefly, the parts were he is positively sparkle, which is appropriate for a man who utilized gold gilding in his work with marvelous aplomb. I’m including A Fatal Waltz in this list for more than just Klimt, however. While you gain insight into Gustav’s work, Tasha has such a strong grasp on the richness of the culture of Vienna. For any art lover, this book is an ideal idyll.
History and literature are riddled with expressions that capture the upheaval which ensues from one moment in time. The shot heard round the world refers to the first shot of the American Revolution at Concord, Massachusetts. The face that launched a thousand ships is talking about Helen of Troy and the decade long war which her absconding with Paris caused between the Greeks and the Trojans. Well, if art were to have such a phrase, it would have to be The strap that destroyed the Parisian Salon, and it would be referring to John Singer Sergeant’s painting of Amélie Gautreau known as Madame X.
Before reading this book, I was simply an admirer of Sargeant’s work, particularly Madame X. Having grown up in New York City, I had ample opportunities to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And just as Rudolph Guilliani visited George Washington Crossing the Delaware each morning during his mayoral years, no visit to the Met was complete until I went into the American Wing, climbed the steps, and visited this masterpiece.
However, it wasn’t until I read Strapless that I realized the infamous scandal surrounding this painting. While Madame X forever immortalized Sargeant, firmly setting him in the annals of art history, it resulted in the complete social ostracization of Amélie Gautreau. Once the model mondaine (woman of the world), the pinnacle of Parisian society, the quintessential sophisticate of her time, Amélie suffered sorely from her ill received portrait. The fact that this painting is what caused the scandal at the 1884 Paris Salon when the exhibit was chock full of nudes of every size and shape is astounding by today’s standards, particularly as Amélie was fully dressed with only a single jeweled strap slipping down her shoulder. However, Deborah Davis exquisitely unpacks the cultural context of Paris in the late 1880s and why Madame X was so poorly received there. I had originally thought it was historical fiction, as I tend to enjoy the manner in which those novels (well-researched ones) are put together. However, Strapless is written so well, I flew through it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
A Heritage of Shadows
I put this book under honorable mention because I don’t remember a great deal about it. However, I do know that a painting plays a pivotal part in the final outcome. Who I do remember with stark clarity is the character of Toby Kent, a British expat living in Paris. Former British Legion and then seaman, Toby Kent now finds himself in Paris in order to paint. He is a gentle man with a streak of honesty a mile wide and a real appreciation and adherence to honor and integrity. He befriends Hannah McLeod, the novel’s heroine, and is loyal to her even when times get dark and forbidding. In fact, from what I recall, he comes to her aid on several occasions when his help is quite useful. He paints a portrait of Hannah (The Butterfly Girl) which is very significant to the story, if only I could remember why. However, I do remember loving this novel so much, I declared it my favorite one by Madeleine Brent. For more books by Brent, with more comprehensive descriptions of their plot lines, see posts here and here.
Now, I know there are multitudinous books out there which deal with the art world. Biographies of artists. Analyses of art movements. Historical fiction about artists, architects, painter, etc. Which ones are your particular favorites? Please share. I’m always in the market for new suggestions, especially ones about the art world.