Art-themed Fiction kunstlerromane

An Armload of Art-themed Novels

“Künstlerromane” are fictional depictions of the coming-of-age of artists or art prodigies – real or imagined, and their personal and social environments. Some older Künstlerromane that depict the creative process in the fine arts extremely well, include:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), by Tracy Chevalier, about Johannes Vermeer, as subtle and delicate as the painting itself;
  • In the Kingdom of Mists (2002), by Jane Jakeman, about Claude Monet, crossing murder with art;
  • The Fortuny Gown (1995), by Rosalind Laker, about a fashion and fabric designer discovering the unique pleated fabric created by designer Mariano Fortuny
  • The Pornographer of Vienna (2007) by Lewis Crofts, about Egon Schiele – very disturbing stuff, and
  • Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia (2001), about  post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi – well researched and very well retold.

Here are some more recommended novels that have fine art as a main theme or subject:

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan (Ballantine Books, 2013)

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan – Writing novels

Horan’s first historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, Loving Frank, failed to entice me, I suspect because she kept so very closely to the very well publicized lives and affairs of the famous architect. I felt I got no deeper into the psyche of the lead characters than that which I had really read and known.  Loving Frank being a novel, not a biography, I felt Horan could have digressed a bit more, taken a little more poetic licence, done a bit more interpretation.  In Under the Wide and Starry Sky, again, Horan writes about a famous person, writer Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and this time she got the balance between historical fact and fiction right. Again, she tells the story from the point of view of the famous person’s lover – in this instance Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne.

The test of success of a historical novel is whether it stimulates and intrigues you enough that you go and find out more about the subject yourself. In this Horan succeeded, this time. (Read Fanny’s description of their journey The Cruise Of The Janet Nichol Among The South Sea Islands (1914) – it’s quite interesting). Fanny is a fascinating character, and Horan’s description of the tumultuous and passionate relationship between her and Stevenson is very moving. I had no idea that Stevenson wrote such wonderful love poems addressed to her. I had primarily thought of him as a writer of children’s books not a romantic poet. Horan intriguingly depicts Fanny’s frustration at being Stevenson’s editor, muse and promotor, while suppressing her own need to write. Fanny becomes ill, and, as she strays into madness, one expects her to die, but it is Stevenson whose death is a shocker. This one is worth a re-read – a keeper in other words, dfinitely recommended.

The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery – Painting

Avery had some stiff competition with this Künstlerroman. I had laboured through her novel set in Japan, The Teahouse Fire, reviewed here, which had won her the Lesbian Debut Fiction prize at the Lambda Literary Awards, and the Barbara Gittings Literature Award for best gay or lesbian novel in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards. This novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, is less about the art of Tamara de Lempicka, than about the affair between her and her model named Rafaela, the nude of the title. It is distractingly erotic, heavy with lewd, lingering glances, fighting-and-making-up, jealousy, overwrought emotion, etc. I would’ve liked to learn more about the art, the technique, the legacy of De Lempicka. On the other hand, looking at De Lempicka’s “Jazz Age” work now, famously posterized, I would not say they are masterpieces worth analyzing to the nth degree, but perhaps, like lesbian affairs back in the 1920s, they were outrageous and daring at the time.

Little is known about the model called Rafaela Fano, so Avery did a good job of building a shadow into a character. Still, the tone for her interpretation of the events that led to those nude paintings are predestined by De Lempicka’s own description of when she saw Rafaela the first time, which was a straightforward expression of painterly lust. (Kizette Foxhall de Lempicka. Passion by Design: the Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York: Abbeville Press, 1987, p. 80).

The Songwriter, by Beatrice Colin
The Songwriter, by Beatrice Colin (John Murray Publishers, October 1, 2010)

The Songwriter, by Beatrice Colin – Composing music

If you want a read that will grip you to such an extent that you will slurp up every page and forget work and family, then get The Songwriter. Colin knows just how to conjure up the magic of bygone eras, in this case New York in WW I, when Communism was rampant, jazz was new and hot, and love songs made up the sound track of the city. With characters as engaging and haunting as those in her previous novel, The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite, Colin here creates another memorable character – music itself. Her descriptions of the process of creating and interpreting music were a revelation to me. The complex plot has a shocking ending that made me hunt for a tissue, but fortunately holds the promise of a sequel. Colin’s website with discussions of her novels, including her latest, Pyrate’s Boy (2013) is here (rtrvd. 2016-03-06).

The Lady and the Poet, by Maeve Haran (St. Martin’s Griffin; Reprint edition, March 15, 2011)

The Lady and the Poet, by Maeve Haran – Writing poetry

Haran’s novel about Elizabethan poet John Donne and his wife, Ann More, compares well to others in this category. Haran has written an engaging, eloquent imagining of their contentious love affair and their struggle against the class inequalities that typified 16th century England. Donne wrote of his marriage to Ann: “We had not one another at so cheap a rate, as that we should ever be weary of one another,” and the commitment, passion and intellectual compatibility underlying this statement are beautifully portrayed in the novel.

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