Art is a subject so pregnant with romantic possibility that some novelists simply cannot resist the temptation to write yet another tale...
Art is a subject so pregnant with romantic possibility that some novelists simply cannot resist the temptation to write yet another tale about art’s power to seduce, transform and transcend. Susan Vreeland is one such writer.
A former high-school English teacher with an interest in art, Vreeland has since 2000 published four novel-length works of fiction based on well-known paintings or famous artists. She is the author of “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” based on a painting by Vermeer; “The Passion of Artemisia,” about a 17th-century Italian woman painter, Artemisia Gentileschi; and “The Forest Lover,” a fictionalized life of Emily Carr, a trailblazing early-20th-century painter in Vancouver, B.C.
In her newest work, “Life Studies” (Viking, 292 pp., $24.95), Vreeland once again draws her inspiration from paintings familiar to anyone who’s had a college art-history course, though this time she concentrates on works by the Impressionists and the Post Impressionists, groups already extravagantly romanticized in popular culture. Her method in the first half of “Life Studies” is to use paintings by August Renoir, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Vincent Van Gogh, Berthe Morisot, Paul Cézanne and Amadeo Modigliani as springboards for short stories describing the circumstances in which Vreeland imagines the paintings were made. She weaves historical and biographical data about the artists into domestic situations embellished with her fictionalized details. None of the stories is told from the point of view of the artist. Sometimes this is
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Susan Vreeland will read from “Life Studies,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
For instance, in “Olympia’s Look,” Vreeland describes Manet’s long-suffering, good-natured Dutch wife as she tends to him in his last throes of syphilis. After he is dead, she walks through the house gazing at her husband’s artworks and reveals to her nephew her game of making up unflattering names for each painting. Manet based many of what are now his most acclaimed works on his favorite model and mistress — a beautiful but banal young woman named Victorine — and Madame Manet saves a special savagery for those paintings. Victorine was the naked woman lunching on the grass with fully clothed men in Manet’s most controversial painting, “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” in 1863. But in the short story, Madame Manet says she prefers to call the famous scene “Victorine’s Notorious Debut.”
(One of the pleasures of this book is discovering how quickly you can visualize which famously pretty painting Vreeland is describing. But since not all readers will have art history textbooks at the ready, it is baffling that the publisher didn’t include even small images of these works.)
Stories are told from the point of view of mistresses, friends, children and servants. Artists are abandoned by patrons, befriended by postmen, bedeviled by grade-school ruffians and scorned by neighbors. Sometimes the stories are clichéd, as in “Mimi with a Watering Can,” a story about a bored bourgeois banker whose spiritual awakening comes when Renoir decides to paint the banker’s adorable daughter with a watering can. The painting becomes Renoir’s luminous “A Girl with a Watering Can,” 1876, showing a beautiful blond toddler with a red bow, blue dress and petite watering can.
Other tales are more interesting because they seem less sugar-coated. They suggest a truth closer to what might have occurred. Vreeland limns Berthe Morisot, one of the only women who achieved fame as an Impressionist, as a calculating careerist more interested in her art and a love affair than her child. And Modigliani, an Italian who spent his short and tragic career in Paris, is painted as a violent drunk.
The second half of the book is unfortunately less compelling. Set in contemporary times, the stories are about what happens when ordinary people — divorced mothers, construction workers, young school teachers — open themselves to art. The point of these heartfelt tales is that art can transform your world if only you’ll take a look. Vreeland’s thesis is, of course, true, but you wouldn’t be convinced by reading the limp final stories in this volume.
Robin Updike is a freelance arts writer and an Internet editor.