7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art

I. The Goldfinch [2013]the goldfinch book cover

In The Goldfinch, one boy comes to terms with his tragic past while clinging to one work of art that still reminds me of his late mother, an exquisite painting of a goldfinch created in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. This is a great book about growing up, friendship, love, loss and hope. Even though The Goldfinch is an international bestseller, I hold Tartt’s two previous books – The Secret History [1992] and The Little Friend [2002] – in an even higher esteem.

II. My Name is Red [1998] my name is red

Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has crafted something magnificent, unputdownable and exquisite with this book. Pamuk’s novel is part murder mystery, part meditation on history and the nature of art. When one of the miniaturists working in the Ottoman Empire is murdered, the suspicion falls on the three remaining, but who is the murderer and will Black, a recently returned miniaturist, help solve the murder? This is a beautifully- written novel with unreliable narrators, red herrings, and unexpected and delightful forays into the very nature of art-making in the Ottoman Empire.

III. The Blazing World [2014] the blazing world book cover

Siri Hustvedt is an intelligent writer whose main character in The Blazing World is one extraordinary woman. At first, Harriet Burden is presented to us as the wife of the late Felix Lord, a well-known artist. Unbeknown to many, however, Burden started her own experiment whereby she presented her installation pieces as artworks completed by three other individuals – three men – Tish, Eldridge and Rune. What will be the consequences of her experiment? The Blazing World is an unusual, deep and intellectually-stimulating novel about stereotyping and challenges facing female artists. It tries to answer such questions as what constitutes art? and do our perception of it changes if we get to know the artist behind the creation?

IV. The Picture of Dorian Gray [1890] the picture of dorian gray

I have to admit that I read this book by Oscar Wilde a long time ago now, but I recall its unbelievable impact. This is story of Dorian Gray, a handsome dandy who makes a sort of a “contract” (if I recall?) whereby a painting of his ages, while he remains perpetually beautiful. Set in London, this book is about the dangers of choosing youth and beauty over goodness and kindness, and it also showcases the society’s blindness to the things that truly matter, its corruption and its moral disintegration. This is an elegant, vivid novel about art and life. 

V. Girl with a Pearl Earring [2001] girl with a pearl earring

Tracy Chevalier’s bestseller takes as its subject matter the painting of c. 1665 by Johannes Vermeer titled Girl with a Pearl Earring. It shows an unknown girl wearing a turban and pearl earrings. The book is rather slow, but full of (hidden) details and passion. It would have been nice to have more substance to this book, but with such a painting as its subject matter, a writer cannot possibly go wrong, can she? The book is also a film of 2003 starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles. 

VI. The Recognitions [1955]the recognitions book cover

This ambitious novel by William Gaddis is now considered to be the “most overlooked important work of the last several literary generations” (Ozick). It more or less tells the story of a minister Wyatt Gwyon who abandons his calling to embark on a career of a painter. In his journey, he finds that he is forced to resort to morally-dubious tasks, including to making forgeries. Both overwhelming and erudite, The Recognitions is now widely acknowledged to be a long-ignored masterpiece.

VII. An Artist of the Floating World [1986] an artist of the floating world

Kazuo Ishiguro has always been an “uneven” author for me, but I worship some of his literary creations above all others – including his incomparable literary achievement that is The Remains of the Day [1989] and his enigmatic The Unconsoled [1995]. In An Artist of the Floating World, we follow a Japanese painter during and after the WWII as he reflect on events and his life. This is a rather personal tale that is also melancholic and haunting. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara & the Sun [2021], about artificial intelligence and love, is due to hit the shelves in March 2021. 

This list was in no particular order, and for the purposes of this list I defined “visual art” as paintings and installation art. Do you have a favourite book that revolves around visual art (maybe including sculpture, architecture, photography & film-making)? What fiction books about artists in general come to your mind?

23 thoughts on “7 Great Novels Revolving Around Visual Art

  1. I love the idea of this post! And it puts two of my favourite things together – books and art 🙂 I’ve only read Wilde and Chevalier from your list. Not heard of The Recognitions, I will have to check it out. We could add to the list, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.

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  2. Ohhh — what a great topic & right up my alley, so to speak (wish I’d thought of it myself!). I’ve spent a fun hour or so thinking of titles; there are so many great books on this topic it’s hard to choose just a few. Perhaps my favorite is María Gainza’s Optic Nerve. Originally published in Spanish (thankfully for me, now widely available in an English translation), it’s — well, hard to categorize. I suppose you could call it auto-fiction, as María, a young art critic in Buenos Aires, links glimpses into her life and family history with her observations about the great paintings she loves and observes in her hometown museum. Blending art history, fiction & real life (the author is very cagey about the extent to which her work is autobiographical) and beautifully written, it’s one of the best things I’ve read this year. Perhaps I’m overselling it, but it WAS a New York Times Notable Book of the Year!

    Not on the same level, but still a very entertaining and well done novel is Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Sara is that rare bird, a female artist of the Dutch Golden Age (yes, there were a very few); the novel centers on the connection between her one surviving work, a 17th century landscape, its owner in 1950s New York and a famous art historian who as a young student painted a forgery of it. Wonderful!

    Katherine Weber’s The Music Lesson, a thriller focusing on a fictional Vermeer stolen by the IRA, is o.k., especially if you’re really taken by Vermeer (isn’t it amazing, how many novels his work has inspired?). This reminds me of an engrossing non-fiction account of the sensational art theft from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which netted one Vermeer, three Rembrandts and five Degas for the thieves. The works have tragically never been recovered despite lots of effort and reward money (the Gardner still marks their absences on its walls). You can read all about it in Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft. Oh, to have seen that Vermeer when it was still available, not to mention Rembrandt’s only seascape!

    An oldie but still a goodie if you’re in the mood for early 20th century novels is Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, the story of stuffy English stockbroker Charles Strickland who abandons wife & kiddies to pursue his desire to be a artist. Obviously based on the life of Paul Gauguin, I read it years ago and still retain fond memories (it’s on my re-read list).

    If you want art flavored mystery-thrillers for one of those escapist afternoons, you might try Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss. Cass Neary, a burned-out rock photographer on her way, down is sent to interview a famous, reclusive photographer who lives on an island off the coast of Maine. There are murders to be solved & lots of atmosphere; one critic described the work as Patricia Highsmith meets Patti Smith. I think Hand did subsequent novels involving the same character. I’ve only read the first, which I enjoyed. Hmmmm —- maybe a re-read this afternoon?

    Susan Vreeland is a popular author who’s done a number of art themed novels, such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Vermeer (again!); Luncheon of the Boating Party (Renoir) and The Passion of Artemisia (famous 16th century Italian female painter). I haven’t read any, but they seem quite popular.

    Regarding your list, I’ve read about half; i.e., Tartt, Hustvedt, Wilde & Ishiguro (one of my favorite writers BTW). Although I really enjoyed all four, my favorite is Tartt’s Goldfinch, which was one of my memorable reads for the year it was published (like you, I love all Tartt’s novels, although we differ a bit on The Little Friend, which is my least favorite). For some reason I’ve avoided Girl with a Pearl Earring; I have Red on my TBR list & was completely unaware of the Gaddis novel, which I’m on my way to check out!

    Thanks for a great post — it was a lot of fun and very thought provoking.

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    1. Thank you very much for this wonderful comment and all the amazing recommendations! Optic Nerve sounds great, and I didn’t even know about this book! I love reading in Spanish, so it could be just a perfect book for me. The Music Lesson and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos also sound very interesting. I had The Gardner Heist on my TBR and I have no idea why it is not there now, time to re-add it, many thanks again! I will also check out Susan Vreeland and Elizabeth Hand books. As for My Name is Red, I am sure you will love it, especially since you love art and the history of art (there is a lot of there!).

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      1. I hope Optic Nerve doesn’t disappoint (not everyone was as wowed by it as I). It helps to realize going in that it is NOT a conventional novel in its intertwining of fact & fiction and lack of a central plot. It actually reminded me very much of a set of interlocked short stories featuring the same protagonist, who may or may not be the actual author (although I wouldn’t recommend this I believe you could read the chapters in pretty much any order you chose). It adds to the richness (and fun) of the novel if you also think about why the author chose to link/discuss a particular painting in connection to whatever episode of her life she’s narrating at that point (for example, in a chapter involving her relationship with her mother, she discusses their mutual love of the French painter Hubert Robert a/k/a “Robert of the Ruins” known for his painting of ruined antiquities. Go figure that one!) Anyway, sorry for nattering on, but I loved this novel (and really should have reviewed it on my blog!)

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        1. Thanks for this intro. I love unusual books and unusually-structured books, so I think Optic Nerve will be a good read for me. And, don’t worry about “chattering on”, I really appreciate long comments and discussions 🙂

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    1. Excellent suggestions! And, yes, I especially can also recall many films with this theme, such as Seraphine, Frida, The Square, Mr. Turner, Big Eyes, The Best Offer, etc. A fascinating topic.

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  3. I love novels about visual art! My favourite Tartt is The Little Friend, but I thought The Goldfinch was brilliant as well. Similarly, The Artist of the Floating World isn’t my favourite Ishiguro, but it’s still a great book. I don’t normally rate Tracy Chevalier as a writer but I think she achieved something quite special with Girl With A Pearl Earring. Coincidentally, I was just thinking the other day about how she wrote the novel under tight time constraint because she was pregnant and wanted to get it done before the baby arrived, and how IMO this really worked out for her – it’s much more controlled than her other books.

    This is about photography rather than painting, but I’d strongly recommend Self-Portrait With Boy by Rachel Lyon.

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    1. I am very glad to know that your favourite is The Little Friend! It is not a favourite of many, but it is a favourite of mine too (or it and The Secret History are levelled with me).

      It is also interesting what you say about Chevalier’s writing process. Incidentally too I recall her literary agent Jonny Geller talking about her inspiration, how she got to write Girl with a Pearl Earring and how he “helped” to discover that story 🙂 on TED Talk, Oxford. Apparently, she came to him with a very “problematic second book” and he asked her if she had any other stories, and she told him she always wondered what was the story behind that painting by Vermeer that hangs as a poster copy at her home. It is interesting now to know that she set herself a less than nine months period to get it done as a result of her pregnancy.

      And thanks a lot, I have Self-Portrait With Boy on my TBR and am very much looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Thank you, and for the amazing suggestions! I have just added Tuesday Nights in 1980 on my TBR – it really sounds like a book I will enjoy, and The Narrow Land is very curious since I had no idea Edward Hopper could be made into a real character in the story with one of his paintings featuring as a cover. Really interesting. Fake Like Me also sounds like an exciting mystery-thriller featuring paintings.

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  4. What a great idea! I have read some of these and I’ll be sure to add Kazuo Ishiguro to my list. Another book that is waiting for me is Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece, presumably based on Zola’s relationship with Cezanne.

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    1. Thank you! Zola’s The Masterpiece is also on my TBR! I expect much from it. Zola’s relationship with Cezanne is a fascinating topic. Actually, I also know there is a film Cezanne et Moi (2016) that explores the same complex relationship.

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  5. I like visual art and will look into the books on your list, I haven’t read yet. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a recent read and keep meaning to write a review. I thought it was very well written. To me The Goldfinch was miles behind The Secret History, but a good example of visual art in a novel. I wanted to give you some recommendations as well, but at the moment my mind is completely blank. The Doll Factory is on my list of potential reads, though.

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    1. I completely see how The Goldfinch is “miles behind” The Secret History for you. I also thought The Goldfinch was overwritten and too long, but then it is Donna Tartt and her beautiful language, so no real serious complaints. And thanks! The Doll Factory is an interesting suggestion, and it is on my TBR too!

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    1. I think international literature is immensely important and broadens horizons like nothing else! I am very glad you enjoy the posts and thank you very much for your support and kind words! 🙂

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