Get lost in the art: 10 great art novels to read now
From those you might have forgotten about to the ones that have mysteriously passed you by — our pick of escapist art-filled fiction to help get you through the coming weeks and months
In October 2019 the veteran Irish novelist John Banville received a phone call telling him he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although it turned out to be a hoax, many book-world observers would not have been surprised had the 2005 Booker Prize-winner, described as ‘the heir to Proust and Nabokov’, been awarded the ultimate literary prize.
Banville’s seventh novel, The Book of Evidence, was published in 1989. It tells the story of Frederick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgomery, who becomes so besotted with a painting (Portrait of a Woman with Gloves) owned by a wealthy friend that he decides to steal it — and casually murders, with a hammer, the chambermaid who catches him in the act. The novel launched the ‘The Frames Trilogy’, which was completed by Ghosts (1993) and Athena (1995).
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The release last year of a cinematic adaptation of Donna Tartt’s epic novel, starring Ansel Elgort and Nicole Kidman, was always likely to compare unfavourably with a literary work of such grand ambition, intensity and depth. Tartt’s tour de force takes us from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam in the company of Theodore Decker, whose great succour through a life of haunted by tragedy and unrequited love is a painting, The Goldfinch, by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Farbritius.
There are echoes of Dickens not only in The Goldfinch’s sheer size and narrative power, but also in the creation of unforgettable characters and milieux: the patrician Barbour family and their sleek Park Avenue apartment; the avuncular James Hobart, and his den of antiques in various states of repair; and the decadent Russian teen, Boris Pavlikovsky, with whom Theo gets wasted in Nevada’s half-built desert suburbs. In between it all, Tartt discourses on the raptures and consolations of art with searing insight and clarity.
The second book in Robertson Davies’s beguiling ‘Cornish Trilogy’ — following on from The Rebel Angels (1981) and succeeded by The Lyre of Orpheus (1988) — traces the life of Francis Cornish from birth to old age, when he has attained international renown as an art connoisseur and collector. At the core of the novel are Francis’s years studying the restoration of old paintings in Germany, in the years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Recruited by British Intelligence, Francis becomes embroiled in a scheme to defraud the Nazis of Old Masters.
Witty, worldly, wise and thoroughly entertaining, What’s Bred in the Bone was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review described it as ‘blending realism with the conjuring illusions of art… fusing comedy of manners with Gothic melodrama.’
Tracey Chevalier’s 1999 bestseller — over 5 million copies sold to date — made Johannes Vermeer’s haunting portrait one of the most immediately recognisable Old Master images in the world. Chevalier herself described the young subject as seeming ‘innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss.’
In Chevalier’s fiction she is Griet, a 16-year-old maid in Vermeer’s household in 17th-century Delft. As Griet develops a fascination with the artist’s work, so her employer realises that she has an eye for art, and a clandestine bond develops between them. Chevalier’s novel has been translated into 39 languages, and was adapted into a film in 2003 starring Scarlett Johansson. The painting hangs in The Maurtishuis in The Hague.
If you really want to get inside an artist’s head, Patrick White’s The Vivisector might be the novel for you. It has been suggested that the chronicle of painter Hurtle Duffield’s tempestuous life was based on either the Sydney painter John Passmore or White’s friend, Sidney Nolan. White denied this, and in reality the cantankerous, obsessive, self-absorbed Duffield might be likened to just about any volatile, monomaniacal 20th-century artist you can think of, from Amadeo Modigliani to Jackson Pollack to Lucian Freud, and countless others.
White was an art collector and patron who counted Roy De Maistre and Francis Bacon among his friends. Three years after The Vivisector was published in 1970, the author not only became Australian of the Year — ‘they had run through all the swimmers, tennis players, yachtsmen’, he said — but was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his ‘epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature’.
In the summer of 1842, having embarked on a journey to the Middle East in order to produce topographical records, the 24-year-old British artist Richard Dadd began to behave in erratic fashion. In a letter from that year he wrote, ‘Often I have lain down at night with my imagination so full of wild vagaries that I have really and truly doubted my own sanity.’
This is the starting point for Australian novelist and art critic Jennifer Higgie’s reimagining of the life and career of Dadd, who, within a year, would murder his father, and spend the rest of his life in Bethlem Royal Hospital in London — commonly known as Bedlam. Dadd continued to paint: his masterpiece, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, created over 11 years from 1855-64, now hangs in Tate’s collection. According to The Times Literary Supplement, Higgie’s novel ‘evokes the inextricable beauty and terror of Dadd’s sensory journey, while raising some of the philosophical questions it poses about art, language and other minds.’
The great Elmore Leonard is alleged to have said, ‘No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford.’ Before turning to pulp fiction Willeford, a much-decorated war hero, worked as a professional boxer, actor and horse trainer, as well as studying art in the south of France and in Peru. The Burnt Orange Heresy, published in 1971 and regarded by many as his finest work, has only just now been adapted into a film starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger, which few of us have had the opportunity to view in cinemas (it was released on 6 March in the US).
A wealthy art collector (Jagger) hires freelance art critic James Figueras — a wisecracking, untrustworthy womanizer — to acquire a work by a mysterious French avant-garde painter. Cue skulduggery, compromised morals, and much sardonic discussion of art, artists, art movements, patrons and critics.
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Curator Alicia Foster’s first novel homes in on a little publicised aspect of the Second World War — the role played by British female propaganda artists. Her protagonists are the real-life war artist Laura Knight, and three fictional characters, Faith, Cecily and Vivienne, overcoming fear and prejudice, tormented by love and duty and hunger, as they strive to depict life in wartime Britain.
In fact these latter three were based on the artists Isabel Rawsthorne, Grace Golden and Evelyn Dunbar, and several of their actual works, described in the novel, can be seen in public collections. ‘In some ways I had to un-think aspects of my art-historical training to make the works feel alive and as if they were just being made,’ Foster has explained. ‘To think of them on the easel with the paint still wet rather than in the gold frame on the gallery wall.’
Better known to some as a multi-award-winning playwright, for works such as Noises Off and Copenhagen, Michael Frayn is also a brilliant translator (Of Chekhov in particular) and the author of much-loved novels including Spies and Towards the End of the Morning (Against Entropy in the US). His ninth novel, Headlong, was published in 1999, and tells of a young lecturer striving to establish the identity of a canvas he believes might be the missing sixth picture in Pieter Breughel the Elder’s series, ‘The Months’.
What unfolds is typically ingenious Fraynian farce as, in order to get to the truth of the matter, Martin endeavours to extricate the painting from its owners. The New York Times acclaimed Headlong as ‘a novel that turns out to be as entertaining as it is intelligent, as stimulating as it is funny’.
As a former chair of the National Gallery in London, a maker of documentaries about Picasso, Auerbach and Sickert — not to mention being a scion of the famously art-loving family of bankers — it’s fair to say that Hannah Rothschild knows a thing or two about the world of art and money. She’s also a dab hand at creating fast-paced, absurdist narrative, larger-than life characters and sparkling dialogue.
Her debut novel focuses on a fictional missing painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau, and its cast of characters includes oligarchs, rappers, hedge-fund tycoons and a lonely young chef, Annie, who acquires the painting in a second-hand store. ‘I don’t know why everyone doesn’t set their novel in the art world,’ Ms. Rothschild told The New York Times. ‘It’s got everything: extremes of wealth, goodies, baddies, the intangibility of beauty and desire, history, scholarship, mastery, you name it.’