Great books are, of course, works of art in their own right. But we love when books take on the visual arts as their subject. B. A. Shapiro is on the same page: Her most recent novel, The Collector’s Apprentice, takes readers to Paris in the 1920s where a young woman finds herself swept up in the art world with some famous historical figures. Here, Shapiro dishes on her favorite books—both factual and fictional—about the art world.
I wish I had written this book. I wish I had thought to write such a book. The Girl Reading is so original in its concept, so brilliant in its implementation. The components are simple: Seven different portraits—paintings and photographs—of girls reading. Seven different artists. Seven different girls. Seven different stories that all go to the heart of what it means to be female—as a model, an artist, a lover, a muse, a daughter, a sister, a mother. This book touches on all of the various roles played by women, including the roles we’ve played in producing art, fleshed out across the centuries with nuance and thoughtfulness.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch is a masterpiece, one I couldn’t put down and then had to immediately read again. It’s a labyrinthine tale populated by some of the most amazing and well-developed characters I’ve ever encountered, a romp across America and its class system, and a tale of an orphaned boy growing into a man. At its center is a painting that radiates outward, drawing the pieces and people together, spitting them out. This book features a brilliant melding of commercial and literary fiction—one of the most difficult tasks a novelist can attempt—and Donna Tartt succeeded magnificently.
After I read this book, I decided I had to write a historical novel with art at its core. Girl With a Pearl Earring was so vivid and evocative of the 1600s, of the life and times of both extraordinary and ordinary people, that I was completely captivated. I, too, wanted to intertwine the stories of famous artists and fictional characters, to create stories about what might have happened—and perhaps what did. The Collector’s Apprentice, The Muralist and The Art Forger would not exist if not for Tracy Chevalier and this gem.
Post-Impressionism by Thomas Parsons and Iain Gale
Before the advent of Post-Impressionism in the late 1800s, painters generally recreated what they saw before them, but this new breed of artist was more interested in translating how what they saw made them feel. By creating red skies, purple faces, orange trees and flattening perspective, these men and women strove to generate emotion in the viewer. Post-Impressionism is the finest book I’ve ever read about this school. Drawing on Post-Impressionism’s predecessors as well as its successors, Thomas Parsons and Iain Gale place it within its historical context while revealing—in both prose and pictures—the ties that bind art and artists across centuries.
The Barnes Foundation: Masterworks by Judith F. Dolkart and Martha Lucy
The Barnes Foundation is my favorite art museum—although Albert Barnes would never use this word, preferring “foundation” or “school”—and Masterworks has fantastic color photos of the artworks, as well as thoughtful and well-written descriptions of Barnes’s amazing collection, including my beloved Post-Impressionists: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaïm Soutine, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Georges Seurat, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin, to name a few. The stories surrounding the Foundation, Barnes and his assistant, Violette de Mazia, inspired me to write The Collector’s Apprentice, and Masterworks was crucial to its execution.
When Art Worked by Roger G. Kennedy
As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program to create jobs for Americans during the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid artists a living wage to create art. When Art Worked contains fabulous photographs and descriptions of the remarkable pieces these artists produced: murals, paintings, graphics, and sculptures. When Art Worked was an invaluable research tool when I was writing The Muralist, a novel that explores the roots of Abstract Expressionism and artists such as Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko, all of whom worked for the WPA.
The Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner by Rollin Van N. Hadley
Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy, flamboyant, brilliant woman and early feminist. At the turn of the nineteenth century, she was the first great art collector in the United States, man or woman. On her deathbed she ordered all her letters burned, and demanded that anyone to whom she had written do the same. Only Bernard Berenson, an art critic and her broker, didn’t do as she wished. The Letters contains a portion of their correspondence, mostly concerning the creation of her collection—which became the Gardner Museum in Boston—and was a key source for my novel, The Art Forger.
B.A. Shapiro is the New York Times bestselling author of The Muralist, The Art Forger, The Safe Room, Blind Spot, See No Evil, Blameless, and Shattered Echoes. She has also written four screenplays and the non-fiction book, The Big Squeeze. The Art Forger has been on many bestseller lists—including the New York Times, Boston Globe, LA Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Amazon, and Kindle—and has won many awards including The 2013 New England Book Award for Fiction. She lives in Boston and is working on her eighth novel.