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Ten Great Books with ART at their heart

20th April 2022

Ten Great Books with ART at their heart.

There has recently been a slew of novels that have art their heart. Set all around the world, these novels offer a glimpse into the world of artists and artistic communities, taking the reader on a contemporary journey or one that delves into past lives.

I studied art history and thus I am seem particularly drawn to titles that offer a wider picture of the communities in which painters the art community lived across the centuries.

Ten Great Books with ART at their heartThe Flames by Sophie Haydock (Vienna)

Every painting tells a story, but what if the women on the canvas could speak? This is the story of the charismatic – and controversial – artist, Egon Schiele, and his four muses, set against the vibrant backdrop of Vienna in the 1900s, a time when the city was the epicentre of art, music, and ideas.

ADELE: passionate, fierce, obstinate. The unconventional daughter of a wealthy family.
GERTRUDE: spirited, single-minded, possessive. Egon’s younger sister who yearns for more.
VALLY: determined, independent, proud. Egon’s model, carving her way out of poverty.
EDITH: Adele’s sister. Quiet and conventional. Or was she?

Four women, four flames, all longing to be known. In an electrifying, bohemian city like Vienna, anything seems possible. But when they meet the man whose work is sending shockwaves through the establishment, their lives are set on a collision course. Because just as a flame has the power to mesmerize, it can also destroy everything in its path.

Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill (Cambridge and Dulwich)

Cambridge, 1994. Professor Don Lamb is a revered art historian at the height of his powers, consumed by the book he is writing about the skies of the Venetian master Tiepolo. However, his academic brilliance belies a deep inexperience of life and love.

When an explosive piece of contemporary art is installed on the lawn of his college, it sets in motion Don’s abrupt departure from Cambridge to take up a role at a south London museum. There he befriends Ben, a young artist who draws him into the anarchic 1990s British art scene and the nightlife of Soho.

Over the course of one long, hot summer, Don glimpses a liberating new existence. But his epiphany is also a moment of self-reckoning, as his oldest friendship – and his own unexamined past – are revealed to him in a devastating new light. As Don’s life unravels, he suffers a fall from grace that that shatters his world into pieces.

Ten Great Books with ART at their heartI, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons (Florence and France)

In Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, bursting with genius imagination, towering commissions and needling patrons, as well as discontented muses, friends and rivals, sits the painting of the Mona Lisa. For five hundred tumultuous years, amid a whirlwind of power, money, intrigue, the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo is sought after and stolen.

Over the centuries, few could hear her voice, but now she is ready to tell her own story, in her own words – a tale of rivalry, murder and heartbreak. Weaving through the years, she takes us from the dazzling world of Florentine studios to the French courts at Fontainebleau and Versailles, and into the Twentieth Century.

I, Mona Lisa is a deliciously vivid, compulsive and illuminating story about the lost and forgotten women throughout history.

The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson (North London)

‘It takes the most ferocious intelligence, skill, and a deep reservoir of sadness to write a novel as funny as this. I adored it’ – Meg Mason, author of Sorrow & Bliss

A devastating treat of a novel: funny, furious, dark and delicious’ – Sarah Waters, author of Fingersmith

The longer the marriage, the harder truth becomes . . .

Meet the Hanrahan family, gathering for a momentous weekend as famous artist and notorious egoist Ray Hanrahan prepares for a new exhibition of his art – the first in many decades – and one he is sure will burnish his reputation for good.

His three children will be there: beautiful Leah, always her father’s biggest champion; sensitive Patrick, who has finally decided to strike out on his own; and insecure Jess, the youngest, who has her own momentous decision to make . . .

And what of Lucia, Ray’s steadfast and selfless wife? She is an artist, too, but has always had to put her roles as wife and mother first. What will happen if she decides to change? For Lucia is hiding secrets of her own, and as the weekend unfolds and the exhibition approaches, she must finally make a choice.

The Exhibitionist is the extraordinary fifth novel from Charlotte Mendelson, a dazzling exploration of art, sacrifice, toxic family politics, queer desire, and personal freedom.

The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Cape Cod)

1950: late summer season on Cape Cod. Michael, a ten-year-old boy, is spending the summer with Richie and his glamorous but troubled mother. Left to their own devices, the boys meet a couple living nearby – the artists Jo and Edward Hopper – and an unlikely friendship is forged.

She, volatile, passionate and often irrational, suffers bouts of obsessive sexual jealousy. He, withdrawn and unwell, depressed by his inability to work, becomes besotted by Richie’s frail and beautiful Aunt Katherine who has not long to live – an infatuation he shares with young Michael.

A novel of loneliness and regret, the legacy of World War II and the ever-changing concept of the American Dream.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (USA)

Told as a retrospective through the eyes of 13 year old Theo Decker based in Manhattan, where he lives with his mother. His father – a seemingly alcoholic degenerate – walked out on them the previous year. On a trip to the Met he sees a painting, The Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius, his mother’s favourite painting. There, Theo’s eye is caught by a young red head, accompanied by a much older man… and then a terrorist bomb strikes, killing his mother.

The old man Welty, gives him a ring in the ruins and an enigmatic message and it is as though it all points to the painting, which he takes. These all come to influence his future life. As he is now orphaned he moves into the household of his schoolfriend Theo Barber, where life, apart from his PTSD following the bombing, finds a rhythm. He makes a new friend, Boris who become embroiled in the hidden story of The Goldfinch. Life moves along until Theo’s father turns up out of the blue with his new girlfriend, in debt and caught up in a web of gangster dealings.

The Goldfinch, Theo’s security and talisman, is in fact no longer in his possession, due to Boris’s actions and Boris devotes himself to finding it again. A massive hunt for the painting ends up in a shooting and Theo is left to ponder over his life to date.

Ten Great Books with ART at their heartGirl With A Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier (Delft)

An international bestseller with over two million copies sold, this is a story of an artist’s desire for beauty and the ultimate corruption of innocence.

17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond.

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (Paris)

THIS sizzling historical fiction is about a woman who modelled for a famous bisexual artist (Tamara de Lempicka) in 1920s Paris and fell madly in love with her. In 1927, the Jewish-Italian Rafaela Fano was travelling with her Grandmother, jumped ship in Marseilles and arrives in Paris, where she falls in love with the city and become de Lempicka’s model.

Stanley and Elsie by Nicola Upon (Burghclere)

The First World War is over, and in a quiet Hampshire village, artist Stanley Spencer is working on the commission of a lifetime, painting an entire chapel in memory of a life lost in the war to end all wars. Combining his own traumatic experiences with moments of everyday redemption, the chapel will become his masterpiece.

When Elsie Munday arrives to take up position as housemaid to the Spencer family, her life quickly becomes entwined with the charming and irascible Stanley, his artist wife Hilda and their tiny daughter Shirin.

As the years pass, Elsie does her best to keep the family together even when love, obsession and temptation seem set to tear them apart…

Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex (Milan)

At the heart of this book is the complex relationship between two of Leonardo’s muses and patrons at the court of Milan: The d’Este sisters, Isabella and Beatrice, who are betrothed to two very different men. Isabella marries the Marquis of Mantua, her childhood sweetheart, and Beatrice marries Ludovico Sforza – twice her age, and living openly with his mistress. The two marriages set the two sisters on a course for supremacy. But when Ludovico’s grand plan to control Europe begins to crumble, immortality through art becomes a luxury, and the two sisters must make choices between loyalty to their family and survival in the treacherous political world. It is during this time that Leonardo paints the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. A beautifully crafted book that brings the glittering world of the Sforzas – decadence, love, sex, glamour at the Court of Milan and Renaissance mores to life.



Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Delft)

An international bestseller with over two million copies sold, this is a story of an artist’s desire for beauty and the ultimate corruption of innocence.

17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond.

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Madrid)

The clue to a murder in the art world of contemporary Madrid lies hidden in a medieval painting of a game of chess.

In a 15th-century Flemish painting two noblemen are pictured playing chess. Yet two years before he could sit for the portrait, one of them was murdered. In 20th-century Madrid, Julia, a picture restorer preparing the painting for auction, uncovers a hidden inscription in Latin that points to the crime: Quis necavit equitem? Who killed the knight? But as she teams up with a brilliant chess theoretician to retrace the moves, she discovers the deadly game is not yet over.

Summer in Provence by Lucy Coleman

When married couple Fern and Aiden have a windfall, their reactions could not be more different. While Fern is content to pay off their mortgage and build a nest egg before starting a family, her husband is set on traveling the world.

Fern’s not much of a back-packer so, before she knows it, the idea of a ‘marriage gap year’ takes shape. And, as Aiden heads off to the wilds of Australia, Fern chooses the more restful Provence for her year out.

Set amidst the glorious French scenery, Château de Vernon offers a retreat from the hustle and bustle of normal life, and Fern agrees to help out in return for painting lessons from the owner – renowned, but rather troubled, painter Nico.

As their year unfolds in very different ways, will the time apart transform their marriage, or will it drive Fern and Aiden even further apart…

The Painter’s Daughters by Emily Howes

1759, Ipswich. Sisters Peggy and Molly Gainsborough are the best of friends and do everything together. They spy on their father as he paints, they rankle their mother as she manages the books, they tear barefoot through the muddy fields that surround their home. But there is another reason they are inseparable: from a young age, Molly has had a tendency to forget who she is, to fall into mental confusion, and Peggy knows instinctively that no one must find out.

When the family move to Bath, the sisters are thrown into the whirl of polite society, where the merits of marriage and codes of behaviour are crystal clear, and secrets much harder to keep. As Peggy goes to greater lengths to protect her sister from the threat of an asylum, she finds herself falling in love, and their precarious situation is soon thrown catastrophically off course. The discovery of a betrayal forces Peggy to question all she has done for Molly – and whether any one person can truly change the fate of another.

L’Origine by Lilianne Milgrom

In 1866, maverick French artist Gustave Courbet painted one of the most iconic images in the history of art: a sexually explicit portrait of a woman’s exposed genitals. Audaciously titled L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), the scandalous painting was kept hidden for a century and a half. Today, it hangs in the world-renowned Orsay Museum in Paris, viewed by millions of visitors a year.

As the first artist authorized by the Orsay Museum to re-create Courbet’s The Origin of the World, author Lilianne Milgrom was thrust into the painting’s intimate orbit, spending six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. The experience inspired her to share her story and the painting’s riveting clandestine history with readers beyond the confines of the art world.

L’Origine is an entertaining and superbly researched work of historical fiction that traces the true story of the painting’s unlikely tale of survival, replete with French revolutionaries, Turkish pashas, and nefarious Nazi captains. But L’Origine is more than a riveting romp through history-it also sheds light on society’s complex relationship with the female body.

Picture you Dead by Peter James (Sussex)


Tell us in the comments below which titles would you add to the list.

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  1. User: Penny

    Posted on: 01/09/2022 at 12:26 pm

    The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham. Loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin.


    1 Comment

    • User: tripfiction

      Posted on: 01/09/2022 at 1:37 pm

      Thank you for this…