5 Delightful novels based around the art world

Reader's Digest Editors

A painting has an immediate, visceral impact on the viewer. It flows through the eye—as music does the ear—and goes straight to the gut, unhindered by thought. Writing is a more slow-acting magic. Given this dynamic, it seems madness for writers to take on the visual arts, yet again and again we try.

What we are really after, of course, is that reaction in the viewer. The influence that great art has upon our mind and actions. In my first novel, The Icon, and in the just-released The Black Painting, I grapple with the troubling effect of dark, mystical paintings on fragile souls. Here’s a sampling of books that wrestle with similar ideas, and deliver their own telling insights.

The Art Forger by B A Shapiro

One of several books to use the 1990 theft of 13 works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as its starting point, Shapiro’s novel is a deft portrait of rampant ambition fused with an almost perverse integrity of instinct. It’s also an art junkie’s dream. You may love or hate Claire Roth, or judge harshly her choice to forge a stolen Degas (an invented variation of After the Bath) in return for a high-profile show of her own work. But if you’ve ever wondered how masterpieces are made, or faked, you’re in for a treat. Just remember the phenol formaldehyde, and to bake each layer. For no extra charge, you get a lively depiction of the Boston gallery scene, plus a few nice barbs directed at the Whitney Museum and MOMA. What could be better?

For some chewy reportage on art theft in general, and the Gardner heist in particular, check out Matthew Hart’s The Irish Game, or The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Sure, it’s a long—Dickensian, I’m required to say—shaggy tale of grief, guilt, and arbitrary fate, and we could live without the Nevada detour (though meeting Boris is worth the trouble). The genius of Tartt’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner lies in its artificiality. In the way that art echoes life and doubles experience. Theo’s mother adores Fabritius’ painting based solely on reproductions, only to confront the original moments before her demise.

The explosion of the Delft magazine (which killed Fabritius) is viewed by mother and son in another painting, minutes before an actual bomb detonates in the Metropolitan Museum (a sacrilege for which I can’t quite forgive the author). The Goldfinch is saved from destruction in both calamities, which then feel joined. The painting itself serves more as symbol than artwork, desired by various people for unrelated reasons. His mother loved the painting for itself, but Theo keeps it as a talisman, not viewing it, while Boris trades it as a commodity. These tensions are never squared, and the action resolves with the seemingly random chance that characterises much of the tale. Yet this long, winding tour through art and time generously rewards your efforts.

For more on Fabritius and Vermeer, try Anthony Bailey’s excellent A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now. A conventional biography of the artist is impossible given the scant historical record, but Bailey masterfully weaves together contemporary records, materials and techniques, the camera obscura, and the fate of Vermeer’s known works through the centuries.

Headlong by Michael Frayn

The always brilliant Frayn presents us with a tortured confession of artistic obsession. Or, really, less obsession than catastrophic and hilarious self-sabotage. Martin Clay risks his marriage, professional future, and much more, to gain possession of a painting owned by his wealthy but loutish neighbour. Is it the neglected masterpiece he imagines, or merely an excuse to avoid his sabbatical project? Woven into this beguiling tale of folly are discourses on Pieter Bruegel (or is it Brueghel?), symbolism in Dutch landscape painting, and nominalism. Revel in the finicky detail, and trust the author to bring it all home in the end.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Fifteen-year-old aspiring artist Alessandra has the good fortune to be born in Renaissance Florence, where beauty is worshiped, and where painters and sculptors create masterpieces for the ages. She has the misfortune to be born a woman. Her initial interest in the young painter hired by her father is as a teacher, but that interest deepens in time. 

Her family’s disapproval and her marriage to an older man might be finessed, but that fundamentalist killjoy Savonarola really ruins things. All of this could come off as historical romance (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) in other hands, but Dunant’s clear eye and unflinching nerve render Alessandra’s journey as art. Warning: the vivid portrayal of Florence will instill keen longing in those (like me) who have not yet made the pilgrimage.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Another forger, and more Dutch paintings—my apologies. Also, I’m still in the middle of this one, yet so engrossed that I must include it. Sara de Vos is fictional, but she stands in for a rare breed of artist, of whose existence I’m ashamed not to have known—female master painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Much of their work has been lost or misattributed, but in Smith’s puzzle-piece of a novel, a painting by de Vos—made under heart-breaking circumstances—is stolen and replaced by a copy, created by another striving young artist: Ellie Shipley of Sydney, Australia, now living in 1950s New York. In all three timeframes, the novel is rich and convincing in its detail—and we get more tips on forgery techniques! Cold-pressed linseed oil, raw sienna, and lead white. Got it? Now get started.

Extra Credit: The Jonathan Argyll Mysteries of Iain Pears

Yes, An Instance of the Fingerpost or The Dream of Scipio are more ambitious achievements. But the seven mysteries featuring English art historian and dealer Jonathan Argyll and Italian police detective Flavia de Stefano are intelligent entertainment of the highest order. The author’s deep knowledge and obvious love of Rome come through strongly, though the action takes us as far afield as Venice, Paris, and (ugh) Los Angeles. My favorite, Art and Restoration, features not only a damaged Caravaggio, but an icon of the Holy Virgin, plus the expected murder and mayhem. But start at the beginning, with The Raphael Affair. And enjoy! 

The Black Paintings by Neil Olson is out now