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.