Historical Musings #61: Art through the ages

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction.

The winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced on Friday: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to read all of the shortlisted titles (I posted the shortlist back in March) but I hope to catch up with them eventually. The Narrow Land is about the American artists Edward and Jo Hopper and the summer they spent in Cape Cod in 1950, so I thought it would be interesting this month to look at other historical fiction novels which feature famous artists.

Most recently, I have read Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin, which explores the relationship between James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his model and muse, Maud Franklin. I’m currently working through a backlog of books I need to review, so you will be able to read my thoughts on that one eventually!

Thinking of others I’ve read, the first that comes to mind is Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. Set in the Netherlands in the 1660s, it tells the story of a maid in the household of the artist Johannes Vermeer. There’s also The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan, a fictional memoir of the 15th century artist, Hans Memling.

Novels about early female artists are particularly interesting as they have received so little attention throughout history. The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen is a book about the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, who spent many years painting portraits at the Spanish court, while Michelle Diener’s In A Treacherous Court features Susanna Horenbout, a Flemish artist who worked as an illuminator at the court of Henry VIII. And although she’s not the main focus of the novel, Sisters of Treason by Elizabeth Fremantle is written partly from the perspective of Levina Teerlinc, another female artist working during the Tudor period and best known as a painter of miniatures.

I’m sure I must have read other books about artists but these are all I can think of at the moment (I have read plenty of books with fictional artists, but that would be a topic for a separate post), so now it’s your turn. Have you read any fiction about the lives and work of artists – of any nationality and from any time period? I would love some recommendations.

30 thoughts on “Historical Musings #61: Art through the ages

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I’ve added all three of your titles to my wishlist. In return I can suggest two more.
    One is Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux which is set in Rembrandt’s house. He is struggling to cope with the death of his wife and muse – and then a new young servant arrives……

    The other is Sarah de Voss which is a dual time frame narrative about the theft of a painting by a female artist from the Dutch school. Fascinating….I had no idea there were women artists allowed to be members of the painters guild

    • Helen says:

      Rembrandt’s Mirror sounds interesting. The Sara de Vos book has been on my wishlist for a while, so thanks for reminding me about it.

  2. Judy Krueger says:

    I too found The Last Painting of Sara de Vos to be excellent. I think my favorite is The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, about Michelangelo, a book I will never forget!

  3. whatmeread says:

    There is a Renaissance artist in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, but I think she’s fictional. There there’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, and I thought she was a real artist, but apparently not. For real artists, Let Me Tell You about a Man I Knew (horrible title) by Susan Fletcher about Van Gogh and The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland about Artemisia Gentileschi.

  4. Terra says:

    Judy mentioned The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. My husband and I spent ten days in Florence and read that book while there and loved it.

  5. Café Society says:

    Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game is about the Bauhaus School in Weimar Germany. That’s excellent, although perhaps not quite what you’re looking for as it isn’t about one particular artist. The Narrow Land has been on my radar for some time now. I really must get round to it!

  6. Lark says:

    I really love historical fiction books about art and artists. A few of my favorites have been Luncheon at the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland and A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline. I also loved Deborah Davis’ nonfiction book Strapless: John Singer Sargeant and the Fall of Madame X. 😀

  7. volatilemuse says:

    Joanna Moorhead’s ‘The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington’ is excellent. Carrington was a British/Mexican surrealist who died in 2011 so not sure if she is historic enough. Also the Mexican artist Friday Kahlo (1907-1954) and Louise Bourgeois – the lady who parked that extraordinary spider sculpture outside Tate Modern. She died in 2010.

  8. Carmen says:

    Thinking about this post I realized that this is one of the topics I have read about the most, but I’m only going to include art as in painters, sculptors, and filmmakers, not writers because it would be a longer list. Waking Raphael by Leslie Forbes (the painting “La Muta” by Raphael), Marrying Mozart (Mozart) by Stephanie Cowell, The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier, The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra (Leonardo Da Vinci), A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott (about Gone with the Wind filming), Ophelia’s Muse by Rita Cameron (muse-lover Lizzie Siddall and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti), The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr (nonfiction about a recovered Caravaggio painting), Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese (painter Klimt in his “Gold period” and muse Adele Bloch-Bauer), Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D’Art (Van Gogh and other Impressionist painters), The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith (fictional Dutch painter), The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (fictional painter/forger), Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb (about Auguste Rodin and Camile Claudel).

    • Helen says:

      Thank you, Carmen. That’s a great list. You really have read a lot of books about artists! I’ve only heard of a few of those books – the rest are all new to me, so I’ll have to investigate some of them.

  9. Karen K. says:

    Not fiction, but The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor was really interesting, about Gustav Klimt and the fight over the famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. I’ve seen it at the Neue Gallerie in NYC and it is absolutely stunning, worth the price of admission if you ever get the chance to see it. It was adapted into a movie with Helen Mirren which is pretty good, though it leaves out most of the Klimt history.

    The Shell-Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher is about a painting, but it’s more about the heirs, not so much about the artist. Good book though.

    • Helen says:

      The Lady in Gold does sound interesting, especially as I know very little about Klimt. Thanks for the suggestion! The Shell-Seekers sounds good too.

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