The Art of Putting Artists in Literature

This is an edited/updated version of a Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2013:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how worthy are thousands of words about literary characters who draw pictures?

Yes, some fiction features protagonists who are painters, cartoonists, or other kinds of artists. It can be a tricky proposition for authors, because the works artist characters create can only be described, not seen — unless the book is illustrated, or a graphic novel.

But there are advantages to having artists in literary roles. Those characters are of course creative, and they can also be quirky, bohemian, groundbreaking, pretentious, frustrated, low on money, etc. — traits and situations that all have strong dramatic potential.

The idea for this post occurred to me when I read Don DeLillo’s Underworld, an ambitious novel covering the second half of the 20th century whose large cast of characters includes artist Klara Sax. Parenthood and other things make it hard for Klara to reach her full artistic potential until she becomes famous in her 70s for decorating former warplanes. Underworld also features an African-American artist named Acey who has some success navigating the “white” art world.

Then there’s Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which focuses on middle-aged feminist painter Elaine Risley looking back at her life when she returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work.

Also worth mentioning is Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, whose protagonist Tod Hackett is frustrated because he considers himself to be a “serious artist” but works in Hollywood painting movie backgrounds and designing costumes. (Which can of course be serious art, too.)

Back in the 19th century, one of the quintessential artist novels was Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece. It stars Claude Lantier, whose attempt to be a nontraditional painter partly explains why popular success eludes him. So he ends up as one of those obsessed “tortured” artists seemingly losing his mind. Does he recover with the help of — sexist stereotype alert — his ever-patient wife Christine?

Lantier was said to be partly based on Zola’s pal-from-childhood Paul Cezanne, though Cezanne was a much more successful painter and much more “together” person than Lantier. Whatever the similarities or differences, The Masterpiece ended that long Zola-Cezanne friendship.

Another novel featuring artists loosely based on real-life people is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, whose cartoonist protagonists Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay were inspired by the lives of “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

In Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, a painting by the fictional artist father of protagonist Penelope Keeling figures prominently. The painting is called…”The Shell Seekers.”

Another novel with the title of a painting — a real one in this case — is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The painting’s 17th-century creator, Carel Fabritius, is not a character in the novel but his bird picture is central to the book.

There ARE novels that include real artists as actual characters under their actual names. One is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which contains extended scenes with painter Frida Kahlo (pictured above) and her painter husband Diego Rivera.

Michael Gruber’s The Forgery of Venus features a fictional modern-day painter named Chaz Wilmot who seemingly inhabits the body of real 17th-century master Diego Velazquez.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue is more about a (fictional) Vermeer painting than about Vermeer himself, but the painting is practically a character as readers follow it back in time to its inception.

And there’s Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which co-stars paper-sculpting artist Clare Abshire.

There are also many novels featuring characters who aren’t artists per se, but draw and paint on the side. Those books include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose title character has some artistic talent; and Pete Hamill’s Forever, whose VERY long-lived protagonist Cormac O’Connor spots a sketch in 2001 that he himself drew during New York City’s Great Fire of 1835!

What are your favorite novels with artist characters in lead or supporting roles?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — featuring a Martin Luther King theme — is here.

139 thoughts on “The Art of Putting Artists in Literature

  1. Hi Dave,

    My first thought was The Picture of Dorian Gray which I read some time ago, but that art is pretty unforgettable.

    I wouldn’t have thought of Jane Eyre but since you mentioned it, I’m happy to say I’ve just started a re-read. I was hoping that this time around Jane might have a better time of it, but it’s just as bleak as I remember. Thank goodness for Helen Burns. I look forward to her providing Jane a life time of love and comfort and friendship.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a terrific mention!

      Wonderful that you’re rereading “Jane Eyre”! I think I’ve read it five times, though not for a number of years. Would love to read it again at some point. Jane DOES go through a lot (ha — somehow that doesn’t change with a reread 🙂 😦 ). Her friendship with Helen was indeed a solace — for a relatively short amount of time, at least.

      Like

      • Unfortunately Helen didn’t comfort Jane any longer this time than she did during my first reading. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I find it amusing to think a book could change in between readings, or why I like to pretend I don’t know what’s going to happen even though I’ve read it before. Having said that, I’m getting even more out of Jane Eyre than I did last time, so I guess something has changed. What a wonderful novel.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Susan, the concept of a novel that changes between readings would make quite the subject for…a novel. 🙂

          Glad you’re enjoying “Jane Eyre” — and getting more out of it from a rereading. Makes me very happy to hear that. 🙂

          Like

  2. And of course I know I must have mentioned it before. The title of the novel The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather is taken from a painting that hangs in the Chicago Institute of Art to this day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The only one I can think of is The Moulin Rouge by Pierre La Mure.

    LOL!
    “but works in Hollywood painting movie backgrounds and designing costumes. (Which can of course be serious art, too.)” Love that!

    Liked by 2 people

          • ❦❦
            I’m feeling pretty good about the Art Gowns I build. The next one will be dedicated to Shey.
            Her book should be finished, and I can use it to promote. The thing is that I am using almost all fabrics that were destined for landfill.
            I’m making gowns out of garbage, trash into treasure… I’m taking old clothes apart, saving more and more obscure trash that can work.
            People have been sending me boxes of old musty fabrics… pillow cases, old curtains… and every once in a while I get a gem end.
            NO new silks, etc… nothing new, and all are sewn 100% by hand.

            Pardon, I can tend to ramble on!

            I need a buzz line… trash to treasure is overused… I dreamt of the perfect slogan, then couldn’t remember it when I woke up.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Using materials otherwise destined for a landfill — absolutely wonderful, Resa. Garbage goes glam. 🙂 And working with exemplary people like Shehanne — also wonderful. All hand-sewn? Impressive! You obviously are a very busy person!

              Liked by 2 people

  4. In the novel “Anna Karenina” a Russian expatriate painter in Italy who paints a brilliant portrait of Anna is a minor character. This portrait appears in the only scene where the two protagonists Levin and Anna meet in the novel. Levin first was captivated by Anna’s portrait at her residence before he sees her in person.

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  5. Wonderful post Dave, it reminds me of O.Henry’s ‘ The Last Leaf’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘ The Happy Prince’ both these short stories I taught numerous times to the students. Also the ‘ Oval Portrait’ by Poe. It also reminded me of Saul Bellow’s ‘Herzog’ although the protagonist is not an artist but a professor who keeps writing letters to himself!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a fantastic theme, Dave! There are lots of novels dedicated to artists, but my two favorites are Ivring Stone’s “Depths of Glory” and Alice Hoffman’s “The Marriage of Opposites.” The latter traces the life of young Camille Pissaro during the Jewish diaspora in the Virgin Islands, told through his mother. The former completely details the lives of Pissaro’s contemporaries.

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  7. First, The Shell Seekers is one of those books I would love to have written
    Secondly – the mysterious artist, Helen Graham, aka Helen Lawrence Huntingdon, Not just escaping abuse and making her living as an artist, but painting in oils too..

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Esther!

      I know what you mean about “The Shell Seekers.” Exquisitely written.

      And GREAT mention of the protagonist in Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”! An excellent novel almost as good as her sisters’ “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights,” and the most feminist book from that family.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The Time Traveler’s wife popped into my mind as I read this post and then I saw you beat me to it! 🙂 🙂 There’s also Amy in Little Women who desires to be an artist (but I can’t forgive her for burning Jo’s manuscript I just can’t). In Ruta Sepetys’s “the Fountains of Silence,” the male main character is a budding photographer, which I always enjoy reading about since I enjoy that hobby myself. And Emma pursues the occasional painting and drawing in Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Other than that I’m running a bit short on this one, but what a fun category in literature! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, MB!

      Nice that we were both thinking of “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” 🙂 And interesting “Little Women” mention. Burning Jo’s manuscript was indeed unforgivable. Makes any writer shudder in agony. 😦

      Glad you mentioned a photographer character — many in that line of work are artists in their way. And, yes, some drawing by some Jane Austen characters. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Hi Dave, I can only think of one series of books I’ve read about artworks and not really the artists themselves. I picked these books up because the art element interested me and I did enjoy them. The author is and indie author called Jennifer S Alderson. Other than her, I can’t think of a single book I’ve read that features an artist as an MC. I have read non-fiction books about Van Gogh, and REmbrandt. Thanks for another great post.

    Liked by 3 people

        • Robbie, I share your love of biographies of creative people, visiting their homes, and seeing museum exhibits relating to them. That da Vinci show must have been amazing!

          (Among the homes I’ve visited were Charles Dickens’ in London, Herman Melville’s in Massachusetts, and Mark Twain’s in Connecticut. I’ve also seen the Chateau d’If prison off Marseilles that has a prominent part in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.”)

          Liked by 2 people

          • Hi Dave, you have visited some wonderful houses and places. I would love to visit France. Covid permitting, I may go with Terence to Istanbul later this year. Wouldn’t that be terrific! I have visited Shakespeare’s house (birth), his mother’s working farm, and Anne Hathaway’s house. We have also visited Sherlock Holmes house, Charles and Erasmus Darwin’s homes (one in Kent and one near Birmingham), The Bronte Museum in Haworth and in Feb we are going to see the Charles Herman Bosman museum in Groot Marico, South Africa. I am looking forward to it.

            Liked by 2 people

  10. You’ve mentioned a couple of my all-time favourites, Dave: The Lacuna and Cat’s Eye. I also enjoyed Kavalier & Clay, from which I learned a lot about early comic-crafting. I suppose we should give a nod to Dan Brown here, if only for the mention of Bernini’s sculpture the Ecstasy of St Theresa, and to all those busy Bennett sisters et al from Jane Austen, daubing and sketching away.
    PS – a copy of your book was delivered to me last week. Looking forward to dipping in!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Chris!

      I share your enthusiasm for “The Lacuna” and “Cat’s Eye,” and also liked “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” I covered cartooning for a magazine for many years, and was impressed with how Michael Chabon got things right. I had even met a couple of the real-life people mentioned in the novel. 🙂

      Somehow I’ve never read Dan Brown, but I appreciate the mention! And, yes, plenty of sketching here and there by characters in Jane Austen’s great novels. 🙂

      Last but not least, thanks so much for being interested in my literary-trivia book! I hope you like it!

      Liked by 3 people

  11. I have always considered the life of Frida Kalo as highly interesting and tragic, but I have never read any novel, where an author writes about her, so thank you very much, Dave, for your “Lacuna”. 🙂 I myself thought of Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, where the character Griet works as a maid in Johannes Vermeer’s household as just a maid, but with time the girl is fascinated by the painter’s works and his consideration for her increases very much!
    It’s always a pleasure to participate in your creative quizzes:)

    Liked by 4 people

  12. Ooh art in literature is one of my most favourite topics! Immediately coming to mind is the beautiful Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew by Susan Fletcher, which is about Van Gogh’s stay at the hospital in Provence and his final days. The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey is a fascinating imagining of Edward Hopper and his wife. The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is woven around the performance art of Marina Abramović. Michael Fray’s Headlong is a fun romp through a story about a journalist who finds what might be a missing Bruegel…..! And Pat Barker’s Life Class trilogy series is a marvellous look at the lives of students at London’s Slade School of Art which starts just before WW1. So that’s a few off the top of my head. I’ll come back if I think of any more!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Liz!

      Wow — what a large/great list of artist-related books! None of which I’ve read, so I have some additions to my TBR list. 🙂 I liked your skilled, concise descriptions of each one.

      Re Pat Barker, I did recently read her compelling “Regeneration” — also set in the World War I era.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Aw thanks Dave, you are very kind. I’m glad some of these appeal. And I’ve had PB’s Regeneration trilogy on my shelf for far too long, so will give it a nudge up the pile thanks to your recommendation!

        Liked by 2 people

        • You’re welcome, Liz! I only read one-third of the trilogy (the sobering “Regeneration” itself), but it was definitely worth the time. Recommended here by “Sarah” and Martina Ramsauer, and Robbie Cheadle reviewed it on her blog.

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          • I’ve just read the first chapter. I’d forgotten that it starts with Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital, which is just a couple of miles from where we live in Edinburgh. PB has such a simple yet compelling writing style doesn’t she. Sigh, I can see that my other reading plans will have to go on hold for now….!

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  13. You bring up wonderfully thought-provoking questions: thank you!

    I heartily agree that it IS a tricky proposition, as you said, for authors to describe a work of art. And then I think of Hitchcock’s “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And I wonder if some authors leverage that principle to make what would have been a passing moment to a enduring one. Here’s an example: the moment Miss Elizabeth Bennet is captivated by Mr. Darcy’s portrait unleashes the reader’s imagination in a memorable way. If we had access to SEE the image, I’m not sure that moment would have been as “sticky”?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Endless Weekend! A terrific point, eloquently stated! Readers’ imaginations can indeed often be more potent than seeing things visually. Perhaps among the reasons why novels are usually better than their movie versions.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. “Maudie” a quiet movie that stayed with me for a very long time. A film biography of Maud Lewis, one of the most beloved folk artists of 20th century. It’s not a very famous film and neither one of the actors got an Oscar (but should have) if you ever want to watch a good movie, at rainy day. Give it a try.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I didn’t remember that detail you mentioned about the character’s painting from almost 200 years ago viewed by his modern self. I love ‘Forever’ although there is so much that happens in it that I’ve forgotten. Thanks, Dave! Isn’t Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ about Paul Gaugin? I haven’t read it but I know that much about it. Henry James also wrote a few novels and stories about artists, notably ‘Roderick Hudson’, one of his earliest novels, and the story “The Real Thing”, which is actually more concerned with models who as real-life wealthy people think they’re more authentic at modeling for the image of aristocrats rather than the lower class actor/models who capture the elusive ‘real thing’ quality.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, bobess48!

      Coincidentally, I had mentioned “The Moon and Sixpence” in my reply to Rebecca Budd just before seeing your comment. Terrific novel that’s definitely at least loosely based on Paul Gauguin.

      “Forever” is uneven, but has some great moments — including seeing that painting so many years later!

      Excellent Henry James mentions as well! I unfortunately haven’t read the works you referred to.

      Liked by 2 people

  16. The first time I met Irving Stone was when I watched Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison in the movie, The The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961). I was about 15. Reading the book came a few years later.

    What was remarkable about this book was Irving Stone’s dedication to Michelangelo Buonarroti. I found out the Irving Stone lived for many years in Italy, in both Rome and Florence. He went as far as working in marble quarries and becoming an apprentice to a marble sculptor. I found out that Canadian sculptor, Stanley Lewis traveled with Irving Stone to Italy to reproduce the sculptural tools and techniques that were used by Michelangelo.

    I have not read Irving Stone’s novel “Lust for Life” (it remains on my ever growing TBR stack of books) which was written much earlier in 1934 and was his first major publication. He based it on the letters between Vincent and Theo. I read that he completed a huge amount of on location research for this book as well.

    My takeaway – research is key to telling a story about artists. I believe that authors, as creatives, are able to understand the emotional state that envelops the artist when involved within their work.

    Another wonderful post, Dave. You brought back great memories of reading Irving Stone.

    Liked by 6 people

  17. I’m thinking The Picture of Dorian Gray, both for the art and artistic character Basil Hallward. It’s probably fair to consider the art itself a character in that book.
    I’ve never read The Shell Seekers. Maybe something to add to my list!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Donna! Oscar Wilde’s memorable novel (which I’ve read) is definitely a book I should have mentioned. Glad you did! I agree that the changing painting in the novel is a character of sorts.

      “The Shell Seekers” is an extraordinary book. The 60-something character of Penelope is unforgettable as she looks back on her life and also deals quite a bit with her current life and her very different adult children.

      Liked by 4 people

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