Five Novels I’ve Read About Art

I seem to have read quite a few novels that either revolve around the art world or have art as a significant theme. Perhaps there’s been a trend over the past few years or perhaps it’s because Cover imageart interests me so much, regularly flexing my National Art Pass at exhibitions back before the pandemic. Whichever, it seems to lend itself to enjoyable fiction. Here, then, are five novels about art that I’ve particularly liked, most with a thread of suspense running through them. All but one have links to reviews on this blog.

Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a tightly plotted, inventive novel through which run three timelines: the titular Sara’s seventeenth-century narrative, the theft of her painting in the 1950s and the preparations for an exhibition in Sydney in 2000. In 1957, a beautifully executed copy is substituted for the only extant de Vos painting which has been in the de Groot family for centuries. Marty de Groot’s investigations take a somewhat unorthodox route leading him to Ellie Shipley, a PhD student turned conservator who – decades later – will become the acknowledged expert on de Vos, her career celebrated in an exhibition which will have de Groot’s painting as its centrepiece. Still in a private collection, the work is to be delivered by its owner. Then a collector in Leiden offers the same piece to the gallery’s director. Smith deftly weaves the story of the painting and its creator through Ellie and Marty’s narratives, linking all three satisfyingly together in this entertaining literary page-turner

Michael Frayn’s Headlong also has a slight whiff of the thriller about it as Martin Clay‘s mind first wanders from the project he should be completing, then canters off down a track heading for either disaster or fame, fortune and his name enshrined in the annals of art history. Invited to dine with the Churts, the local, somewhat fraying, landed gentry, Martin and Kate find their opinions solicited on several paintings. Martin convinces himself that he’s found a missing work by Pieter Bruegel, a discovery he keeps not only from his hosts but also from his wife. Casting aside his original plans and shrugging off any troubling little ethical concerns, Martin immerses himself in researching Bruegel in the London Library, hatching precarious schemes to get his hands on the supposed missing masterpiece and taxing the patience of the long-suffering Kate. With a cast of entertaining characters, Headlong combines erudition with high farce and a page-turning paceCover image

Based on the case of Otto Wacker, Clare Clark’s In the Full Light of the Sun carries on the page-turning theme with an exploration of the machinations of the self-regarding art world taken in by an audacious fraud against the background of the failed Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Julius Köhler-Schultz, pillar of the art establishment, meets Matthias Rachmann, a young dealer apparently respectful of his expertise. Julius is the author of a bestselling van Gogh biography whose dearest possession is a painting by the artist taken by his wife when she left him. When a young talented artist, once the object of Julius’ attention, attends the opening of Matthias’ new gallery which proudly boasts a cache of lost van Goghs, she meets an aspiring journalist who scents a scandal and roots it out

There’s a pleasing thread of tension running through Gail Jones’ The Death of Noah Glass which follows the eponymous art historian’s children, each trying to cope with their estranged father’s death and the suggestion that he may have been involved in something nefarious. Martin and Evie have little in common besides their father. After their mother died, Noah had taken his children to live close to her family. They became the centre of his life, yet they never knew it. Evie moves into Noah’s flat after his death ostensibly to clear it but hoping to find the essence of him there. Martin takes off for Sicily where Noah had spent three months shortly before his death, ostensibly to investigate the implication of Noah’s involvement in an art theft but desperate to try to understand the man he feels he hardly knew. A beautifully wrought, erudite novel which encompasses themes of art, love, grief and family.

The Death of Noah Glass reminded a little of Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved, one of my favourite contemporary novels. It’s written from the point of view of art historian Leo Hertzberg looking back on his long friendship with Bill Weschler whose work he first discovered in a New York gallery when Bill was a complete unknown. So impressed is Leo with Bill’s work that he tracks him down and their lives become entangled. Hustvedt’s novel is the story of their intense relationship, of the women they live with, their work and their sons both born in the same year but whose lives take very different turns. Hustvedt’s writing has an extraordinary depth. Her descriptions of Bill’s work are wonderfully vivid. She brings to it an art historian’s training coupled with superb descriptive skills. If you haven’t yet read it yet, please do. It’s a sublime piece of fiction

Any novels about art you’d like to recommend?

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51 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read About Art”

  1. Having worked for some time as a volunteer guide at the Barbara Institute of fine arts in Birmingham I love novels to do with the art world. Two of those you mention here, the Clark and the Hustvedt are among my favourites and I’ve read the Frayn as well. The other two I will certainly be chasing down. What about Naomi Wood’s The Hiding Game? I very much enjoyed that one too.

  2. Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher. It’s about Van Gogh and the wife of the director of the asylum where Van Gogh is a resident. Simply beautiful.

  3. Oh yes, novels about art are one of my favourite subjects: Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnett’s Angel, Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story and Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing are just a few that spring to mind.

  4. I love books about art and artists too – I have What I Loved so must get to it in the autumn. I have Tuesdays in 1980 lined up for the summer and recently really enjoyed Fake Like Me.

  5. What I Loved is kind of the ultimate art novel, I reckon. I’m tempted to do a reread but worried it won’t live up to my memory of it (which was a completely wonderful, absorbing book).

    Other books with an art theme that I’ve read (and really enjoyed) in recent years – Lifelines by Heidi Diehl; Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret & Extraordinary Lives by Helen O’Neill; and the books on this list: https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com/2017/08/29/art-lit/

  6. I read What I loved a long time ago, I fear I can’t remember anything about it now. Books about art? The Goldfinch springs to mind and Girl with a Pearl Earring, Miss Garnet’s Angel are the ones that spring to mind.

  7. Fake Like Me has already been mentioned but a few others I’ve read that come to mind are The Renaissance Club by Rachel Dacus (if you don’t mind a bit of time travel thrown in), The Optickal Illusion by Rachel Halliburton and A Light of Her Own by Carrie Callaghan.

  8. I’m not surprised to see Siri Hustvedt on your list, particularly as I know you are a fan! She’s written another novel about art too (the name of which escapes me right now), but I do recall it being longlisted for a literary prize or two at the time. Clearly a topic of great interest to her.

    As for other recommendations, Philippe Beaussant’s Rendezvous in Venice immediately springs to mind. One of the book’s themes centres on the stories we build around the figures we see in paintings, how we imagine the fabric of their lives etc. etc. You may well have read it at some point? If not, there’s a review over at mine if it’s of interest.

    1. I think that would be The Blazing World. I think she was an art historian for quite some time before she turned her hand to fiction. The Beaussant sounds so interesting. I haven’t read it but it’s certainly one for my list. Thanks, Jacqui

  9. I keep meaning to read the Hustvedt since I know how highly you rate her. I was looking for something around the 350-400 page mark to ease me out of novellas so maybe now is the time!

  10. The Dominic Smith is in my bedside 20/85 books of summer – I will try to include it. I love novels about art too. Was surprised not to see The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman there – didn’t you read that one? If not, do – it’s fab!

  11. I wonder what it is about books about art? They’re almost as good as books about books! I have been meaning to read What I Loved for a long time. The Blazing World was also about art, but I hear What I Loved is better.
    My favourite lately is Late Breaking by K.D. Miller. It’s not about art, but, instead, her short stories are inspired by Alex Colville’s paintings.

    1. Interesting also that many of the books about art have a thread of suspense running through them – theft and forgery are pretty true to life, I imagine.

      What I Loved is much more accessible than the dazzling The Blazing World and includes two wives for you! Thanks for the Miller recommendation.

  12. Like everyone else here, I love a good novel about art and have enjoyed being reminded about the titles on your list. I read Headlong years ago – highly entertaining and memorable. Perhaps time for a re-read and will definitely check out the others too, plus the recommendations by other commentators. What a great list you have prompted!

    I can enthusiastically endorse the Susan Fletcher – utterly brilliant and had me weeping on the train as I finished it. The Vickers is lovely too. And I was gripped by the audio version of The Goldfinch. I recently enjoyed The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – it’s about Edward Hopper and has been longlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize. I also remember enjoying The Blue Horse by Philip Miller, who used to be the arts correspondent for The Scotsman.

    1. Thanks, Liz. Another ringing endorsemrnt of the Fletcher! I’ll add that and The Blue Horse to my list. I loved The Narrow Land. So interesting the way that Dwyer Hickey approached it from Hopper’s wife’s perspective, airing her own artistic frustrations. She’s a great but undersung writer.

      1. I hadn’t come across her before TNL but I see she has written loads of books. Are there any particular titles you would recommend?

          1. Thanks so much Susan! I can’t seem to comment directly on your review of The Lives of Women but it sounds great – will track it down.

          2. Hmm… possibly one of the many glitches appearing after changing servers. Ho, hum. Hope you enjoy The Lives of Women when you get to it, Liz.

  13. One of the first, if not THE first, novel about art and artists, the Goncourt brothers’ 1859 MANETTE SALOMON, available in English translation by Tina Kover.

    1. It has, indeed. I visited it on a well-below freezing December day. I wish we’d fitted Dessau in when we went to Dresden on our railway trip a few years ago.

  14. I think you were the person who put me onto The Last Painting of Sara de Vos – a novel I loved.
    Two other titles with an art theme – Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition and Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux which focuses on the final years of his life when he is struggling to cope with the death of his wife/muse.

  15. I have The Last Painting of Sara de Vos to read and from your post and what others have said in the comments, I almost wish it was on my 20 Books of Summer. Anyway, I’m not going to repeat the many great suggestions here (I hope) but will add three suggestions of my own.

    They are: Ali Smith’s How to be Both which I loved; it’s split in two and the order you read it in depends upon which version you happened to buy. I’m so glad I read it in the order I did, though, because I don’t think I would have enjoyed it so much, had it been reversed.

    I also loved Appetite by Philip Kazan – food as art in Renaissance Florence, and a book set in Florence is like catnip to me.

    The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood is one of the best books I’ve read on art and creativity, and the depiction of an artists’ colony is one that simply blew me away with its brilliance.

    1. It’s a quick page-turning read, Kath. Perhaps a substitute if one of your twenty doesn’t work out?

      Thanks for the recommendations. I’m particularly taken by the sound of the Kazan. On the list it goes!

      1. You know me too well. I may have sneaked it on to the reserves bench.

        The Kazan is so good you can taste the food. Hope you enjoy the feast.

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