Novelists have long been fascinated by artists. Some fictionalise the lives of real people, others use characters to explore a particular period in art history or examine the creative process. These ten books all approach the subject differently, from mysteries and thrillers to love stories and comedies. They are an opportunity to learn as well as be entertained.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Set across America and Mexico from the 1930s to the 1950s, The Lacuna is epic. Central to the story is Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, who offer the narrator a job mixing plaster at their studio. Fact weaves with fiction as we’re drawn into their layered, colourful lives. It’s a joy to read about iconic historical figures in this way, to get to know them as characters as well as artists: “How does an artist learn enough about life to fill a thimble? He needs to go rub his soul against it.”
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro is a rare novelist who writes across different genres. An Artist of the Floating World is set in Japan in 1948, the story of Masuji Ono, a retired artist whose career has become problematic because of the historical period he has lived through. He is hesitant and troubled, uncertain about everything, art, family, his guilt over being a pro-government painter, his dealings with the secret police. It is subtle and unsettling and beautifully told.
How to be Both by Ali Smith
There are two versions of How to be Both. Depending on which copy you buy, you will either start the novel with the story of 16-year-old George in Cambridge, or you will start with Francesco del Cossa, an Italian Renaissance painter. Aside from the order, the stories are identical. This is an incredible risk, and that the novel works both ways is a testament to Ali Smith’s talent. As always, her writing is funny, inventive and daring.
The Muse by Jessie Burton
The Muse is a double portrait of creativity. In 1960s London, Odelle works in a gallery but longs to be a writer, and in 1930s Spain Olive is a painter who has turned down an offer at the Slade. They each long for freedom in their creativity and feel tied down by self-consciousness and a sense of duty. This is a novel full of mystery, surprising twists, expertly researched art history and vivid settings.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian is deeply disturbing. After a violent dream, the perfectly ordinary Yeong-hye decides to become a vegetarian. In South Korea, this is a subversive act. Her family react badly, her father tries to force-feed her and her brother-in-law, a video artist, becomes obsessed with her. She becomes the focus of his art as she descends into madness. The winner of the International Man Booker Prize in 2016, it’s a haunting, Kafka-esque story about rebellion and taboo.
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Attwood
This is considered to be Margaret Attwood’s most autobiographical novel. It follows the life of Elaine Risley, a painter who returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work. Stretching from the 1940s to the late 1980s, Elaine reflects on the trauma caused by a childhood friend who cruelly bullied her. It’s a story about carrying your childhood with you and its influence on life and art told with Attwood’s signature humour and irony.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray was widely condemned as immoral when it was first published in the 1890s. But Oscar Wilde’s only novel about a painter and his beautiful sitter is now a classic. It’s a book about ideas, asking questions about beauty, hedonism and the relationship between art, life and consequence. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Rarely do 900-page books just fly by. But this one is special, flawlessly written, with suspense and humour, and characters who feel like your friends. It’s packed with interesting themes, fathers and sons, abandonment, the meaning of art, obsession, identity. The story is difficult to condense, but at its heart is a painting, The Goldfinch, and a 13-year-old boy who steals it. Donna Tartt spent ten years writing this novel and it’s a gripping, compulsive masterpiece.
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff
In this beautiful, sensitive novel, David Ebershoff fictionalises the life Lili Elbe, a Danish painter and one of the first people to receive sex reassignment surgery in 1930. It’s a story about transformation, how the marriage of two artists changes as they do. Ebershoff’s descriptions are almost painterly, with vivid imagery that brings the art to life. An incredibly moving portrait of a pioneer.
Trick by Domenico Starnone
Trick is a novel about Daniele, an illustrator in his 70s who returns to his old family home in Naples for a week to look after his grandson. Back in the apartment where he grew up, surrounded by the ghosts of his childhood, he is confronted by whether his talent and work have meant anything, his precocious charge always looking over his shoulder as he draws. This is my favourite type of novel, both funny and reflective, and a thoughtful meditation on creativity.