Love Art? Love Books? The Best of the Art Novels

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art-novelsBy Maria Judnick

Donna Tartt’s recent 775 page novel The Goldfinch earned widespread critical -- and reader -- acclaim for its inventive plot that involved a painting stolen from the Museum of Modern Art. But she’s not the only author who has slipped more than a little art into their plots. Here are some of our favorite books that blend fiction with the art world.

For the Child At Heart:

files-basilThe Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to read this 1967 children’s classic. Two children run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After many enchanting stories of how they settle into their new home, the kids take note of an exhibit featuring a statue of an angel that may or may not have been carved by Michelangelo. The resourceful siblings do their research and visit the benefactor who sold the angel at auction for a measly $225 to find out the secret of the statue, and, in the process, discover they’ve met their match in this smart but eccentric older woman.


For the Serious “Artiste”:

an-object-of-beautyAn Object of Beauty by Steve Martin


Steve Martin is much more than just a comedian; particularly in recent years, he has brought his other talents to light: banjo player, author, and serious art collector. His 2010 novel follows the meteoric career of Lacey Yeager, a young, smart and ambitious art seller in the 1990s and 2000s. Martin's intricate, knowing details based on his personal insights of the art market will make any reader feel like the ultimate insider at places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.


For the Historical Romance, Colin-Firth-Swooning Fans:

girl-with-a-pearl-earringGirl with a Pearl Earring By Tracy Chevalier

This 1999 novel was popular for a reason: it offers a compelling fictional backstory to the famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665) by the mysterious and methodical Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. A young maid, Griet, enters the Vermeer household, where the painter gradually discovers she has an eye for art. Griet spends much of her time fighting off suitors in the book -- from the local butcher’s son Pieter to Vermeer’s lecherous patron, Van Ruijven -- all while seemingly pining for the married painter. Will the title painting commissioned by Van Ruijven get finished without Vermeer’s jealous wife interfering? Will Griet and Johannes give in to their urges? Best of all, when readers finish the book, there’s a 2003 film starring a young Scarlett Johansson and -- of course -- a smoldering Colin Firth.


For the Heart-Pounding Mystery Enthusiast:

123744The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Forget all about Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Hammett’s 1929 novel, which introduced the world to hard-boiled detective Sam Spade, offers readers more than just a plot summary for the famous 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart. Listed 56th by the Modern Library on their list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, Hammett’s writing brings a noir-like, gritty quality to San Francisco life. Of course, once readers finish the book there’s always a literary trip to Hammett’s home (891 Post Street #401), John’s Grill (63 Ellis Street – also home to the Dashiell Hammett society), and the Flood Building to stare at the Falcon itself displayed behind glass (870 Market Street).


For the Literary Reader:

virginia woolf to the lighthouseTo the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

No matter how many times you read Virginia Woolf, there’s always another layer to peel back in her books. Her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse is no exception. Often cited as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, this three-part work muses on the meaning of time and loss, but involves very little actual plot. Mrs. Ramsey and her family have a summer house on the Isle of Skye where they try to visit the local titular lighthouse on separate occasions, while Lily Briscoe, a  visiting artist, attempts to  figure out how to finish a painting. What matters more -- leaving a legacy or an execution of a vision? While Woolf’s readers are often entranced by her point-of-view shifts, this novel also offers juicy morsels of autobiographical elements tucked into the text.


Other Texts Worth A Read: Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland; Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco; The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver; and The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant.