A little over a year ago I discovered I really enjoy books about art – for whatever reason. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know a single thing about the art world, yet for some reason, art in literature holds a special place in my heart. Be it a painter as a central character or a painting itself, if a book revolves around art, I’m so there.
I wanted to talk (thinly veiled gushing and flailing) about this particular sub-genre after having been less-than-impressed by a book I recently reviewed, Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You. American-born Mary Cassatt, Degas, Renoir, Monet, the Paris Salon, and more all make up this novel. Unfortunately, the slow pace and lackluster romance made this one a disappointing read. Because I love a good art novel, and because I was worried this negative review would put off readers from the genre altogether, I wanted to compile a list of other novels that I had enjoyed far more.
The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes 5/5 stars (no surprises there!)
With this novel, it’s a painting that plays a key role, rather than a painter. Told in dual narratives (my favorite!), this novel bridges WWI-era France with modern day London and two families connected through a single painting in a story that could be ripped from a headline. I ran the gamut with emotions – I laughed, I ugly-cried, I was hopeful and heartbroken. I will never tire of singing Jojo’s praises, and this novel was a perfect introduction to her work.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro 4.5/5
This was the novel that started my art obsession. Taking the real life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist (read more about in it my History 101 post!) as the novel’s backbone, Shapiro weaves a flawless tale of betrayal, conspiracies, and not-entirely-legal activities. Claire was a promising artist before being blacklisted by the community. Since then she’s made a paltry living by painting reproductions for a website. One day an art dealer shows up at her door with a tempting proposition: paint a reproduction of a Degas piece, one that was stolen years earlier, and pass it off as the real deal. The Art Forger showed just how accessible the intimidating world of art can be. Even better: Shapiro isn’t an artist! She put a phenomenal amount of research into this book and a total newbie (like me!) could follow along with ease.
The House Girl by Tara Conklin 5/5 stars
Again, a novel focused on a painting and, again, the subsequent legal battle. Have you ever read a book that you felt was written for you? The House Girl was that book for me. Dual narratives, art, the Civil War. It all came together beautifully – and it’s a debut novel! In the 1850s, a slave’s artwork was attributed to her mistress. Over 200 years later, a massive lawsuit has been filed for reparations for descendants of slaves. A young lawyer is presented with the task of finding the ‘face,’ the perfect plaintiff to represent millions. As she digs deeper into the case, she uncovers details about Josephine’s paintings and life – and the fateful night she decided to run away.
Starry Nights by Daisy Whitney 3/3 stars
As the sole Young Adult novel, Starry Nights has a lot to live up to. While the other four novels are firmly rooted in reality, this one has a bit more magic. Julien’s, a tour guide at the Musée d’Orsay, world is turned upside-down when he discovers the paintings have come alive. First it’s small: a still life of some fruit begins giving off scents, but then Degas’s dancers begin dancing and a lost Renior comes to life. The girl, Clio, had been trapped in the painting for over a century before Julien set her free. This one is definitely far more light-hearted than the others, but still an excellent starting point!
Sadly I haven’t read ALL the art books, so I can’t vouch for all of these, but these novels all deal with art or the art world in some form!
Alena by Rachel Pastan
A retelling of du Maurier’s Rebecca is a pretty ambitious undertaking, but this one sounds so good!!
Heist Society by Ally Carter
YA + criminal masterminds! I’ve heard fantastic things about this series.
Headhunters by Jo Nesbø
Okay, so I haven’t read this novel, but the movie is on Netflix and y’all know how I love my Netflix! It’s funny and dark and so fantastic. Also: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is in it and that Jaime Lannister is one seriously beautiful man!
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Don’t let the 700+ pages intimidate you: Tartt is a master at what she does! The Goldfinch dips into the seedy art underworld.
The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones
This novel has it all: synesthesia (associating color with a sound/smell/other sense), Nazis, stolen art, and – my favorite – dual narratives.
Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art by Christopher Moore
First thing’s first: Moore is not everyone’s cup of tea. That said, he’s certainly mine & I think he’s simply fabulous. He can do no wrong in my eyes, whether he’s writing about Jesus’s childhood or parodying Shakespeare, Moore is always hilarious. In Sacré Bleu he explores van Gogh’s suicide.
Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell
Monet was a central figure in I Always Loved You, but this novel tells his own story along with his muse – and wife – Camille.
The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
I’ll be eagerly awaiting a copy of this one at my library in a few more weeks! This novel follows the life of artist Harriet Burden, a female who would present her art under the guise of males. After revealing her true identity, a scandal erupts, leaving death in its wake.
Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick
Even if you aren’t a fan of art, you’ve heard the story of van Gogh’s ear, how he cut it off and mailed it to a prostitute he loved. Sunflowers tells the tale of that prostitute, Rachel, and the relationship she had with the artist.
Signora Da Vinci by Robin Maxwell
Because not every painter is French! Signora Da Vinci is the story of Leonardo’s mother. I don’t know about you, but 15th Century Italy is a time period I’d certainly love to read more about!
Artemisia by Alexandra Lapierre
After stumbling upon this book, I think I definitely need to read more about this woman! Not only was Artemisia Gentileschi an incredibly accomplished artist – considered among the best of the Baroque painters – but she was a force to be reckoned with. After being raped when she was 17, she fought for justice, resulting in very public trial. Sadly, the verdict no longer exists, though many documents from the case have survived.
The Miracles of Prato by Laurie Lico Albanese
If anything can compare to Filippo Lippi’s art, it’s his womanizing. Although he was a monk, Lippi had no desire to resist temptation, and soon Lucrezia Buti goes from a muse to something far more intimate.
The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
Sofonisba Anguissola, a renowned female painter of the Renaissance. A time when women weren’t allowed to paint nude figures. When a scandal casts her out of Rome, she finds a position in the Spanish court as a lady-in-waiting and paint instructor for the Queen. I’m particularly curious about this one since Cullen also wrote Mrs. Poe, a novel I’ve been itching to get my hands on!
The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal
Rembrandt was only 26 when he painted his first masterpiece, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. 26. He was my age. If that’s not a depressing thought, I don’t know what is! I’m very excited for this novel – not only does it take place during two time periods (modern day and Amsterdam, 1632), but it also encompasses a single day. A few weeks ago I reviewed Tiffany Schmidt’s Bright Before Sunrise and have since been intrigued by the idea of stories set in one day.
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
You didn’t think I’d leave out Middle Grade, did you? :) Come on now. After spilling a bottle of rubbing alcohol on her grandfather’s painting, Theodora reveals a lost Renaissance masterpiece underneath! It’s up to Theodora to uncover the mystery of how this painting came to be in her grandfather’s hands.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Another book I need STAT! This one follows two sisters. One, the girl Degas introduced to the world as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. The other falling down the ranks of society.
I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis
Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, better known as Mona Lisa, is the focus of this novel. Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, and the Medici family are all featured as well as Savonarola, the priest who declared war on art of all forms and took to burning paintings and books.
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
By far, the most well-known novel on this list! The fictitious Griet is initially hired by Vermeer to be an assistant and is soon asked to model for one of his paintings. The rest is, well, history.
The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey
Vienna, 1886. Gustav Klimt is hired as an art teacher for a 12-year-old girl and it is through her eyes (years later as an adult) that the story is told. Who was Emilie Flöge? What kind of relationship did they have that would have her name on his dying lips?