Art has been an integral component of the human existence, all the way back to the days when our ancestors formed crude paintings on cave walls. It has given a method of expression to countless people across the ages, and moved the hearts and imaginations of so many more.
As a matter of fact, I think it’s safe to say art has played an important role in shaping the world into what it is today, for better or worse. Consequently, I think it’s unsurprising to see just how many books are either dedicated to or revolve around artistic works in one way or another (without mentioning the fact books themselves can very well be art).
Whether they explore the relation between artist and creation or simply use a painting as their focal point, I have always found novels centred on art to have something interesting to offer, at the very least providing a window into the author’s relation to it, and at most giving the kind of story which pushes us to re-evaluate our own connection to art in our lives.
While the good ones, I believe, appear more rarely than in other genres, here you’ll find my assortment of history books revolving around art and literature in one way or another, the ones I believe are worth your valuable time and investment.
“The Girl in the Painting” by Tea Cooper – A Past Hidden in Brushstrokes
Tea Cooper has been perfecting her craft as an author of historical fiction novels for over ten years now, and with The Girl in the Painting we see it all come together in brilliant fashion. The story follows a woman, Elizabeth Quinn, and her adopted daughter, Jane Piper, as they embark on a quest to discover long-hidden truths after the former of the two experiences a traumatic episode at a local exhibition.
“Sacre Bleu” by Christopher Moore – An Unconvincing Suicide
Christopher Moore has taken us on long journeys through the strange and surreal realms of his particular brand of comedy, and in Sacre Bleu he gives the plot a historical twist. The story follows Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who find themselves fascinated by the strange demise of their friend, Vincent van Gogh. They embark on a wild investigation promising to take them into the irreverent heart of 19th-century Paris and its unforgettable art scene.
“Lust for Life” by Irving Stone – The Price of Being Special
Irving Stone has without a doubt earned his place as a pillar of American literature through a number of genre and era-defining works, and Lust for Life, published all the way back in 1934, is one of them.
Best-described as a semi-fictional biographical novel, it follows the unusual life of the artist Vincent Van Gogh, who experienced both the greatest highs and the lowest depths of human existence.
“Renoir’s Dancer” by Catherine Hewitt – A Life of Fame and Secrecy
Catherine Hewitt belongs to a special class of authors, one which has taken it upon itself to uncover the history we forgot over time: the biographers. In her second published book, titled Renoir’s Dancer, she takes us on a journey through the life of Suzanne Valadon. Born as an illegitimate daughter to a linen maid in the 19th century, she carved her own path through history, becoming a world-famous painting model, and later a celebrated painter in her own right.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone – The Grasp for Heaven
Irving Stone had a knack like none other for writing poignant biographical novels which still remained true to their sources, with The Agony and the Ecstasy arguably being his most famous and defining work. Fictionalizing the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the all-time famous artist responsible for many immortal creations, the novel takes us on a grandiose and perilous journey through the Renaissance as the artist tries to find his way in life against all odds.
“The Collector’s Apprentice” by B. A. Shapiro – An Ode to Obsession
B. A. Shapiro has a talent for taking us on immersive trips throughout history, and with The Collector’s Apprentice she takes us to the unusual period between the two World Wars, more precisely, the summer of 1922. We are introduced to nineteen-year-old Paulien Mertens, a woman accused for her fiance’s theft of millions, now living in Paris under an assumed identity. She knows she cannot spend her life in hiding, and thus sets out to prove her innocence, recover her father’s art collection, and get revenge on the man responsible for her predicament.
“The Labyrinth of the Spirits” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Footsteps of Corruption
Carlos Ruiz Zafon has enchanted his readers in every way imaginable with each entry in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books universe, intimately exploring the dark and Gothic streets of Barcelona and the curiosities they hold in store. With The Labyrinth of the Spirits, Zafon brings the series to a close with a story following a young inspector trying to unravel the disappearance of Spain’s Minister of Culture. Little does she know, it’s only the tip of the conspiracy iceberg… and her road to the truth is littered with the dead.
“A Piece of the World” by Christina Baker Kline – The Muse Behind the Painting
Christina Baker Kline likes to remind us that paintings aren’t merely drawings hanging up in museums, but actual cultural artifacts that have shaped the world in their own ways, often small, but at other times quite significant. Christina’s World is an iconic painting at the turn of the century, and in her historical fiction novel titled A Piece of the World, Baker Kline tells the story behind the muse which inspired the masterpiece, a simple farm girl named Christina Olson, destined to far greater fame than she could have ever anticipated.
“The Vanishing Velazquez” by Laura Cumming – Chasing a Real Legend
Laura Cumming takes us into the secretive and poorly-known world of rare art collection on the hunt for a famous painting of Britain’s King Charles I, performed in the Spanish court by Velazquez, its official painter. The painting was thought to have been lost to time and destruction, earning somewhat of a mythical and legendary status, with enough theories and hypotheses to fill entire tomes. However, in the 19th century a man by the name of John Snare happened upon a curious painting at a small liquidation auction, and that marked the end of his normal life…