Splendid Books and Splendid Art
January 2017

Novels and art—“these are a few of my favorite things.” In the words of Aristotle, they both “represent not only the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” or, as Picasso notes, they “wash the dust of daily life off our souls.”

So naturally, one of my favorite genres is that of novels about art.  Here are some of my favorites.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. A beautifully-told tale of Johannes Vermeer’s painting of, and relationship with, a girl in a Turkish headscarf and an oversized pearl earring. Centers on the life of Griet, the artist’s fictional servant, assistant, and model.  The book and the painting are a perfect pair: contained, transcendent, and enigmatic. (The book: A. The painting itself: also an A.)

girl-with-pearlGirl with a Pearl Earring

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This is a sprawling novel of many places and many characters.  The coming-of-age plot through the underworld of the art world follows the life of a boy who almost accidentally steals a painting from the Metropolitan Museum.  An appropriately sprawling painting to match the tone and plot of this book might be a monumental Rubens, like the one shown at right below. However, the book is about a very small and unassuming painting of a chained pet goldfinch by the artist Carl Fabritius, which is actually housed in The Hague. (The book: A. The painting: B.)

goldfinchThe Goldfinch
sprawling-rubensExample of a sprawling Rubens

The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor. A social history of Gustav Klimt’s portrait, originally titled the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, after the rich Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it. This glorious picture was confiscated and renamed by the Nazis and restored to the heirs after a decade of litigation. The book seemed a bit padded and slow moving to me, but the portrait itself is great. (Book: B. Painting: A.)

lady-in-goldPortrait of Adele Block-Bauer

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. A fictionalized story behind the making of the “The Lady and the Unicorn”: a series of medieval tapestries designed in Paris and woven in Flanders (Belgium) in the mille-fleurs (thousand flowers) style. Alas, I found the book somewhat boring and improbable, but the tapestries are magnificent! (Book: B-. Tapestries: A.)

lady-uunicornLa Dame à la licorne

Headlong by Michael Frayne. A hilarious farce about the high jinx that ensue after the discovery of a supposedly long-lost painting by Pieter Bruegel. Interwoven into the comedy is some very interesting scholarship about the painter and his times. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize. (Book: A. Painting: Doesn’t exist, alas.)

supposed-bruegelThe purported Bruegel (from book cover)
real-bruegelExample of a real Bruegel

Reply to this email and let me know some of your favorite, or least favorite, books about art.  Or visit my website www.delightfulreads.com to find a few more of my favorite things.