Ten great fiction books about artists

I am an avid reader and I particularly love to read novels about living the artistic life and the creative process.

LINDA COTE-Top 10 art readsHere is a list of my top 10 fictional books about artists. Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, it encompasses books I really love.

If you are so inclined, please leave a comment at the end of the blog and recommend your favorite fictional book about art or artists.

“The Ghost Brush” by Katherine Govier

Published as “The Printmaker’s Daughter” in the US, the first book on my list is about – of course – printmaking. It is the story of Oei, the daughter of the famous Japanese printmaker Hokusai (who created the stunning woodblock print “The Great Wave”). I recently re-blogged a review of this book by author Janie Chang and you can read this more detailed review here.

“Creation” by Katherine Govier

My next book is another novel by Canadian writer Katherine Govier – can you tell I am a fan? This book features John James Audubon in his quest to paint and draw as many bird species as he could find in the North American wilderness. This sumptuous book takes place during the summer of 1833 when Audubon joined a party of young gentlemen sailing the treacherous passage between Newfoundland and Labrador to find remote nesting grounds unseen by other ornithologists. It’s a must-read for artists and bird-lovers alike.

Katherine Govier often writes novels about the creative process. For more on her works, visit her website.

“The Forest Lover” by Susan Vreeland

The title refers to one of Canada’s beloved painters, Emily Carr (1871 – 1945). Carr was a powerful woman artist that left an indelible mark on the Canadian art scene with her fiercely independent approach to life and art. The book shares, among other things, Carr’s fascination with British Columbia’s First Nations people on the cusp of industrialization. It’s a story of life, loss, the creative process and what it means to follow your own heart. You can read more about Emily Carr on my blog here.

“Canoe Lake” by Roy MacGregor

Originally published as “Shorelines”, this is the story of a woman who travels to a small Ontario town to find the mother she never knew, but ends up uncovering a mysterious narrative about three people in the town’s past: a beautiful woman, a shy boy and a painter named Tom who changed their lives. This is a riveting fictional story that weaves and dances around the life and death of Tom Thomson, one of Canada’s most famous painters and a key influencer of Canada’s “Group of Seven”. Thomson mysteriously drowned  in 1917 during a canoeing trip in Ontario’s Algonquin Park.

“Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Susan Vreeland

This novel is about Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous 1880-81 painting by the same name. The book is narrated by Renoir and seven of the painting’s models as they spend several Sundays drinking and socializing while posing for the painter. This historical novel is created with loving attention to detail, and illuminates what it may have been like to be alive in the Impressionist era.

“Lust for Life” by Irving Stone

This is a sweeping novel about Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, touching on the principal events of the artist’s life and ending with his death at age 37 in Auvers-sur-Oise (France) in 1890. The novel transports you into the last half of the nineteenth century, and Van Gogh — one of my favorite artists — is vividly brought to life in this rich biographical novel.

“The Lyre of Orpheus” by Robertson Davies

Robert Davies is one of my favorite Canadian authors. Although this book is the third volume in Davie’s “Cornish Trilogy” it can be read on its own. The story is about an unfinished opera by E.T.A. Hoffman that is to be completed by a music student as part of a bequest from a charitable foundation. Robertson Davies’ eccentric characters always delight, and the story line is rich with conversations about art, music, theater and myth.

“The Underpainter” by Jane Urquhart

This book won the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Literature in 1997. The story is about 75-year-old painter Austin Fraser as he creates a new series of paintings, and is set between upstate New York and the northern Canadian shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Superior. It’s a sad but beautiful novel about the power of landscape and geography, and a man who devotes his life to art but is unable to connect to those around him.

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier

This book is recommended on many book lists about art and artists, and is definitely worth reading. It is set in the mid-17th century, and fictionalizes the story behind Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s painting of the same name. Very little is known about Vermeer or the girl in the painting, and this book masterfully creates a story about who that beautiful girl might be. It’s a lovely account of a painting master who works from the second floor of his home, while the busy life of his Dutch family (his wife had 15 children!) unfolds around him.

 “An Object of Beauty” by Steve Martin

This is the story of Lacey Yeager, who is groomed at Sotheby’s and climbs the social ladder in the modern art scene of New York. Steve Martin (yes, the comedian Steve Martin, who is also an accomplished writer) offers a wonderful novel about wealth, prestige and greed. The book is also enhanced by reproductions of famous paintings, and is an intriguing look inside Manhattan’s art world.

Although there are many lists on books about art or artists, here is a link to “Good Reads” 200+ books in this subject area.

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16 responses to “Ten great fiction books about artists

  1. I must admit ignorance of most of these titles (we’ll have all heard of the Girl with the Pearl Earring, I’m sure 🙂 ) I’ll definitely have to look out the first one – I’ve always been drawn to anything Japanese (I studied the language for 8 years and especially loved the calligraphy of Japan – my visual side was coming out even then). Thanks for a great list.

    • Hi Elaine, Glad you liked the list. Yes, definitely check out The Ghost Brush. It’s a wonderful look at art in Japan during Hokusai’s time, and his daughter Oei is a remarkable character. Govier spins a great tale, but you learn so much about the period as well!

  2. Watermark by Vanitha Sankaran is a story about the daughter of a papermaker during the Middle Ages. If you are interested in papermaking, the origins and importance of paper, and book binding, you may enjoy this book. It is mostly about life and politics in the Middle Ages.

    • Thank you so much, Susan! Added Watermark to my list of “must reads”. I love anything about paper and book binding, so look forward to checking this out. I appreciate you posting (and reading the blog).

  3. Hi Linda, thanks for sharing this, I have only read “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier, which I enjoyed. I will definitely look up some of those others . I hope you don’t mind if i recommend a wonderful biography of an 18th century female artist who started creating amazing botanical collages from cut paper at the age of 72! She created an amazing 985 pieces before her death. The Paper Garden Mrs Delany (begins her life work) at 72 by Molly Peacock. An inspirational read. A bit like your blog Linda! 🙂

    • Hi Catherine, thank you for this recommendation. And, that is so funny! I picked up this gorgeous book (Paper Garden) at our local second hand book store, but haven’t yet read it. Now, with your recommendation, I will definitely move it up the pile. I love the idea of starting new art projects at 72! Thanks again. And, grateful for your last comment 🙂

  4. The mention of Paper Garden is very timely. I just learned of this book through another blog that I follow. I saw an exhibit a few years ago at the Yale Center for British Art entitled “Mrs. Delaney and her Circle” and many of her cut paper botanicals were on exhibit. Amazing! I have this book in my cart on Amazon! Molly Peacock’s video about the book is inspiring. Have you seen that?

  5. Pingback: Dead artists who tweet | Musings From The Studio·

  6. Hi Linda, I love this list, and there are a few I haven’t read, so I’ll have to add them to my ever growing to read list. But I wondered if you had ever heard of the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon and ever seen hare autobiography called Leben oder Theater: Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theater?: A Song-play). The book has hundreds of images painted by the artist about her life, painted while she was hiding from the Nazis. In October 1943 she was captured and deported to Auschwitz, where she and her unborn child were gassed to death soon after her arrival. I strongly recommend you hunt it out, it is beautiful. Great blog by the way. Ali

  7. Great list Linda! Before I even looked at your list, I mused over my fondness for Lust For Life, and was tickled it made your list. I must read The Ghost Brush as I have a passion for all things Japanese!

    Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, and a happy, healthy, and bountifully creative “All Year”!

    • Thanks for reading, Linda! Happy to provide a new one for you to read. I think I may have to re-read Lust For Life, as well! You have a fantastic holiday season, too, and may your 2015 be filled with happiness!

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