Ok, so it’s the wrong medium, but keeping with the spirit of the Academy Awards, I would like to give props to the best actor in a Supporting Role to none other than Impressionist Master, Edgar Degas for his performance in not one, but two works of fiction in recent months.
Fine art and its pioneering masters have always been fascinating to me. So it’s no surprise that I picked up the latest two novels in a literary trend featuring storylines steeped in art history. Using unquestionably different strokes of the brush, B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger and Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls both find inspiration in the life and art of Edgar Degas and use the circumstances surrounding some of his most celebrated works as the backbone of their respective masterpieces.
The Art Forger, set in modern-day Boston, weaves a tale around one of the world’s most infamous museum heists and offers a possibility of putting to rest this decades old mystery. Shapiro delves into the secret life of Isabella Stewart Gardner, American art collector, philanthropist, and one of the foremost female patrons of the arts, and founder of the museum that bears her name. By doing so, she gives life to the mystery surrounding the procurement of Degas’ “After the Bath” - the very painting that protagonist, Claire is hired to copy – the reader follows her through the steps of a job that proves to be as dangerous as it is intriguing in the current day chapters that are juxtaposed with historically based ‘Belle letters.”
In The Painted Girls, Buchanan masterfully tells the story of the van Goethem sisters struggling to get by in working-class Paris in the late 1800’s. This is a beautiful piece of historical fiction that provides ‘heart and drive’ to the otherwise unknown identity of Degas’ brutally accurate sculptural masterpiece, “Little Dancer Age Fourteen.” Buchanan paints the picture, if you will, of the struggles these young women are faced with just to survive, to reach their goals, to follow their hearts. At times heartrending, this tale takes us to the darker options available to these young, vulnerable women as permanently etched on the countenance of Degas sculpture or in his realist paintings of the coquettes, the criminals and the ‘ballet girls’ of that era.
Both of these stories are award-winners in my book.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
On March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art worth today over $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It remains the largest unsolved art heist in history, and Claire Roth, a struggling young artist, is about to discover that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye.
Claire makes her living reproducing famous works of art for a popular online retailer. Desperate to improve her situation, she lets herself be lured into a Faustian bargain with Aiden Markel, a powerful gallery owner. She agrees to forge a painting—one of the Degas masterpieces stolen from the Gardner Museum—in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But when the long-missing Degas painting—the one that had been hanging for one hundred years at the Gardner—is delivered to Claire’s studio, she begins to suspect that it may itself be a forgery.
Claire’s search for the truth about the painting’s origins leads her into a labyrinth of deceit where secrets hidden since the late nineteenth century may be the only evidence that can now save her life. B. A. Shapiro’s razor-sharp writing and rich plot twists make The Art Forger an absorbing literary thriller that treats us to three centuries of forgers, art thieves, and obsessive collectors. it’s a dazzling novel about seeing—and not seeing—the secrets that lie beneath the canvas.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.
Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.
Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.