I have collated a list of 12 novels about art or artists to help art lovers during isolation. I have only included novels that I have read although I’m sure there are many more out there. They are in no particular order - I have loved them all in different ways! Happy reading everyone!
Links to all the books are included below too.
(Full disclosure: I have an Amazon Affiliate account so I will receive a very small commission if you choose to buy one after following the link - and I would be very grateful if you do so!).
This beautifully written novel is a joy to read. The story follows Theo, a 13 year old boy who is visiting the Metropolitan Museum with his Mum when a bomb explodes. He loses his mother in the explosion but amongst the wreckage, he follows the dying wish of an old man caught in the blast and takes a painting: The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.
The young Theo keeps the secret of the painting to himself. The secret becomes a defining part of who he will grow into as a man, racked with guilt.
His fear that he may be followed by the police and arrested grows throughout the novel. We follow him as he enters his teens and then adulthood with the painting as his secret - both a burden and something to be cherished. It is a beautiful thing but also his only real connection to his mother.
Over time, we see a series of complex events from friendships, love and rebellion, to the sale of fake antiques and drug-dealing. The climax takes us on adventures across the world and back again. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away but it is a thrilling ride!
The novel manages to combine elements of the most beautiful, quiet, character study and also changes gear into a rip-roaring adventure.
This is a beautiful novel about miniaturists in the Ottoman Empire in the late 16th Century. The story follows several miniaturist artists after the Sultan secretly commissions a book celebrating his life to be painted in the European style using perspective. The commission is secret because painting using perspective (as used in the European Renaissance) was forbidden in Islam at the time. When one of the miniaturists is murdered, there follows a story of love, jealousy, rivalry and religious terror.
The book looks, both literally and figuratively, at the different perspectives in life and art. It is a murder mystery - though not fast-paced; an insight into the rich cultural heritage of the Ottoman Empire; and a historical novel. I first read this novel in 2012 and loved it. It is a book to take your time with and revel in the richness of the art and culture. The pace is slow but worth it.
My Name is Red was first published in 1998 and Pamuk went on to receive the Nobel prize for Literature in 2006. It has been translated from the original Turkish.
This literary classic follows the Ramsey family when they visit their summer house on the Isle of Skye over a period of years from 1920 to 1920. Mr and Mrs Ramsey and their children are joined by various visitors who contribute to the story, which is told as a series of thoughts and actions. The point of view switches from character to character as we get an insight into the different perspectives of each guest.
One of the most memorable guests for me was Lily Briscoe, an artist who tries - and struggles - to paint Mrs Ramsey and her son, James. We follow Lily’s uncertainty about her own ability in capturing the image on canvas. Her worries are fuelled by another guest, Charles Tansey, who suggests that women can neither paint nor write. The painting takes the ten year duration of the novel to complete. It seems to illustrate the difficulty of capturing other people and perspectives, the importance of looking, relationships, and how a portrait might tell us more about ourself in the end. This is not necessarily an easy read but it is relatively short and enjoyable and might be something different to try.
Girl with a Pearl Earring imagines the story behind the creation of Vermeer’s painting of the same name. The story follows Griet, a 16 year old who must leave home to find work after her father is blinded in an accident. Her father was a tile maker and member of the Artists guild and so Griet was found a position as a maid for the artist Johannes Vermeer. We get an insight into the class structures of the day and the tensions between the minority Catholic Vermeer family and the Protestant Griet.
Vermeer soon spots that Griet has a good eye for art and colour and so she becomes his studio assistant, mixing paints, running errands and eventually sitting for his paintings.
The story takes us through the imagined scenario of why the painting was made, who it was made for and how it led to the eventual dismissal of Griet from the household.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is a lovely comfort read. It’s not too demanding but it will transport you into an imagined world that has been beautifully drawn.
The book is written in two parts, one set in the 1460s following a Renaissance fresco artist called Francesco and the other following George, a 16 year old girl living in Cambridge in the late 20th Century. Depending on which copy you get, the story may begin with either narrative.
George struggles to cope with the death of her mother and recalls a trip to Italy with her mother to see the frescoes at Ferrara. She becomes obsessed with a painting by Francesco and travels frequently to London to see it. It is another story in which a painting connects a child to their lost mother.
In the Italian narrative we follow the spirit of Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Fresco artist, as the artist reflects on their life and the art that was produced. Francesco produced half of the series of frescoes in Ferrara, Italy, that George and her mother visit in the other narrative. The Francesco half of the book is poetic and metaphorical, told as fragments of memory by a spirit form. The prose following George’s story is more down-to-earth and easier to follow but still has interesting ideas and form.
My copy began with Francesco’s story and I can’t imagine what it would be like to read it the other way round. I loved this book and the way things were revealed. It’s strange to imagine half of the other readers discovered things in a different order.
I read this when I was at Art School and loved the idiosyncratic rhythm of the prose. It made me want to speak in the rhythm and ‘tune’ of Oscar Wilde for weeks afterwards (sadly I lacked the wit to carry it off adequately).
Many will be familiar with the outline of the story but it is still worth reading first hand. Dorian Gray is painted in a full length portrait by the artist Basil Hallward. Dorian understands that his beauty will fade so he wishes that age and decay will happen to the portrait and he will remain young and beautiful. His wish is granted and he remains young and beautiful while the portrait changes over time.
As the novel progresses, we see that it is not so much time that leaves an ugly mark, but the cruel and ignorant actions that Dorian takes. His life takes a hedonistic and decadent turn. Each time he is cruel, offensive or even murderous, the portrait becomes more hideous. In the end the portrait is so monstrous it is barely recognisable. There is only one way to make amends for all the wrongs he has done...Buy The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
It’s hard to believe this was Jessie Burton’s debut novel. It’s a beautifully written tale set in 17th Century Holland that has become an international bestseller.
The 18-year-old protagonist Petronella Oortman moves from her small village to Amsterdam after she marries a wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. She is naive and her new house is full of secrets. Johannes’ sister Marin is a force to be reckoned with and the servants, Cornelia and Otto seem to know more than Nella about what is really happening in the house.
Nella is hopeful of a happy life but her new husband is indifferent to her and her new sister-in-law is domineering and condescending. Her character is written with an eye to a 21st century woman’s sensibility and we empathise with her as she has to find a way to exist within the strict Calvinist culture of the time.
As a wedding present, Johannes had given Nella a dolls house replica of their home. The dolls House seems like an odd gift to give a new wife but nevertheless Nella engages a miniaturist to furnish it. The model seems to show us how little control she has over the workings of the real house. Soon the Miniaturist begins sending items well beyond her brief as the book takes a mysterious and spooky turn. The Miniaturist doesn’t just send the items of furniture that have been commissioned, but dolls and objects that seem to predict the future.
Who is the Miniaturist? How does she know what will happen in the future? And what are the secrets that her work seeks to reveal?
There are some holes in the plot and, if I’m honest, I would love to have known more about the Miniaturist rather than learning the secrets of the house, but it’s a hugely enjoyable read.
Life Class follows a group of art students at the Slade in 1914 just as the first world war breaks out.
Elinor, Neville and Paul are the three students studying under Henry Tonks at the Slade. Their developing love triangle and navigation of the art landscape of the time is suddenly interrupted by the war, which shows them horrors they could never have imagined before.
Paul becomes a medic on the front line and Neville drives ambulances in a nearby town. Elinor’s unwillingness to engage with the brutality of war shows the dichotomy between being consumed by the forces of destruction or trying to focus on ideas and positivity.
The scenes describing the war are beautifully written but horrific. Ideas about making art might seem insignificant against such a backdrop but the discussion is beautifully balanced and we see how art describes life, thoughts and ideas - and how it became a useful asset in facial reconstruction for people with life changing injuries.Buy Life Class by Pat Barker
This book is extra special to me as it is set in my home county of Suffolk. It focuses on Thomas Maggs, the son of the local publican in the coastal village of Walberswick. Thomas longs for adventure and is fascinated when a mysterious visitor arrives in the village. The visitor turns out to be none other than the artist Charles Rennie Macintosh, or ‘Mac’ as he is known to the locals. Mac and Thomas become friends, but as war with Germany is declared and soldiers begin to appear in the village on their way to Belgium, people begin to get suspicious of the stranger and his eccentric ways.
This is a beautiful, gentle story or friendship, art and suspicion of those who are different to us. It articulates how huge events around us impact the minutiae of our lives and the fact that things will never quite be the same again.
This slim volume explores the life of a retired artist in post WW2 Japan. It’s a lovely, poetically written tale from the point of view of a very unreliable narrator. The retired artist is reluctant to tell the absolute truth about his life and his words are sketchy and doubtful when he reminisces about events of the past. All becomes clear when we learn that after working as an Ukiyo-E artist painting Geishas, he left to become a patriotic artist promoting the work of the Government in the lead up to the war.
The book is set after the war has ended, when those who supported the Government are no longer in favour. American occupation bears down on society and antipathy and misunderstanding between generations is strong.
The main character is not particularly likeable but the way it is written is poetic and somehow reminiscent of a Japanese style of painting. Or perhaps that’s just my visual eye over-complicating things!
The book is set in the art world in SoHo, Manhattan, and the narrator of this story is an elderly art historian called Leo Hertzberg who is looking back on his life. This novel follows a cast of characters who are used to analysing things and the way we see them. It is unashamedly intellectual and explores relationships in and out of the art world. The main narrative explores the lives of two families: Leo's own family and the family of his artist friend, Bill Wechsler. It is a story of their loves and marriages, the death of a child, the mental condition of another child and, above all, the way that culture shapes who we are and how we see things.
The book begins quite slowly but speeds up following the death of one of the families’ sons (trying not to give too much away here!).
It is a book that gives you more, the more you put in. An intellectual and thought-provoking novel that explores emotions, psychology and human existence.
The Muse is set in two different places and time periods. In London,1967, we meet Odelle, who has been trying to find her place in London after arriving from Trinidad a few years earlier. She finds work in a gallery and is introduced to a masterpiece with a mysterious past.
The other part of the story follows the creation of the artwork in Spain in 1936. Olive Schloss, the daughter of an art dealer, meets artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa. Isaac and Teresa insinuate their way into the Schloss family and things take a dramatic turn.
The novel is rich and colourful with the warmth of the Spanish countryside set against the harsh reality of the Spanish civil war. This is in contrast to the buzz of 1960s London and the difficulties is poses for the young Odelle.Buy The Muse, by Jessie Burton
If you have any recommendations of your own - please do send them to me. I love reading books about art and artists and would love to hear about your favourites.