A painting presents a writer with the challenge of putting into words what someone else conveyed on canvas. How can a picture’s visual immediacy be translated into text?
From Marcel Proust to A.S. Byatt, authors have meditated on artists’ images and speculated about their effect on viewers. In recent fiction, paintings have been used as key plot devices, such as in Ciaran Carson’s Shamrock Tea, a trippily tangential take on Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini” portrait, or, as in Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, have provided the story’s subject matter.
Chevalier’s novel, narrated by the teenage girl in the famous portrait by Johannes Vermeer, offers the most literal approach. The painting, we are made to believe, depicts an instant in the relationship between artist and sitter. It is almost a still from the life of the model, Griet, whose story we are invited to discover. The tension wells from the uneasy bond between Griet and Vermeer, yet the link between the painter and his work seems utterly uncomplicated.
Four new novels ask readers to re-examine the profoundly uncertain process of artistic creation, and to think not only of the stories occurring within a painting but of the ones occurring around it.
An artist’s quandaries, as Arabella Edge demonstrates vividly in The Raft, begin long before he undertakes a project. The choice of appropriate subject matter can cause as much anxiety as its execution. Theodore Gericault produced only a handful of monumental canvases in his lifetime, but it was his masterpiece, “Scene of a Shipwreck” (conventionally known as “The Raft of the Medusa”), that earned him a place in art history books.
The Raft opens on a restless Gericault wondering how to follow up on the successful “Charging Chasseur” that won him a gold medal at the King’s Salon. He is guilt-ridden by his affair with the coquettish young wife of his patron - his uncle - and envious of the ease with which rivals conjure heroic compositions. Tired of reiterations of historical episodes, he seeks inspiration in current events.
The great scandal of the day is the shipwreck of the French frigate Medusa en route to Senegal. The story, Gericault realises, has all the right dramatic elements: incompetent senior officers, abandonment of the passengers, their battle to survive: “Here was his space. Scorched implacable skies, clouds raining dust. An ocean so tumultuous and vast it would hurt your eyes to stare at it for long. Men huddled on an improbable tempest-tossed raft. Mere planks lashed by rotting cords. Perhaps he had chanced on a subject for the King’s Salon at last.”
As soon as he has made up his mind, however, Gericault is faced with unearthing the reality behind rumours and newspaper reports. “He needed the entire story, the full truth. But now it occurred to him that the truth lay elsewhere, beyond his reach, in a great humming murmur of other voices. In the stories of the dead, even, carried through the tireless tides of the deep.”
In his quest to verify the facts, Gericault seeks out two survivors - the Medusa’s surgeon Henri Savigny and its cartographer Alexandre Correard - and invites them to his house in Montmartre, hoping to prise out information about their ordeal. But whereas the artist searches for a brutal tale to represent - did survivors really eat the flesh of the dead? - his guests are intent on redressing the damage to their reputations. Factual truth and artistic intention, Gericault finds, are ultimately at odds. Truth to life is, ultimately, superseded by allegiance to art.
The decisions painters grapple with - regarding subject, treatment, technique - are equally relevant to Iain Pears’ The Portrait. It is a monologue spoken by a once-famous (fictional) Scottish painter, Henry Morris MacAlpine, while in the process of creating a likeness of an (equally fictional) English art critic, William Nasmyth. As they sit in the artist’s studio, in a cottage on a bleak island off the Brittany coast, MacAlpine revisits their early careers in Paris, their unequal friendship and their eventual falling out, while meticulously plotting his revenge on the man who destroyed both his career and that of the woman he loved.
This is a novel about power - the power to make or break a reputation - and how its balance shifts when the once mighty critic is at the mercy of the artist’s brushstrokes. There are technical difficulties to overcome: “The stoicism of the English gentleman is a wonderful thing, unless you are trying to capture it on canvas, because emotions bounce off it and never reveal themselves.” New problems emerge as MacAlpine progresses, “for the painting must convey the intellect through the physical”.
Modern portraiture strives to represent inner qualities, and MacAlpine labours over the best way to capture his sitter’s duplicitous nature. “It is a darkness, your ambition, a shadow on your face, and I fear I will not get it just right. The magnificence of your arrogance, the exuberance of your daring, your sincerity and your cynicism, all these must find their place.” The final result, one imagines, will hardly flatter Nasmyth. Yet his displeasure at seeing himself exposed on canvas cannot compare to the alarm he is certain to feel upon learning what this unsettling novel’s narrator plans next.
Ordinary viewers are not usually privy to the stories behind the creation of a work of art. The question of whether those stories should be germane to viewers’ appreciation of the work of art is central to Margaret Forster’s latest novel, Keeping the World Away. “Did she need to know where the artist was born, or trained?” asks Gillian, one of her protagonists, while visiting an exhibition. “All that mattered now, surely, were the paintings themselves and what she could see in them. She was convinced that art should be looked at in a pure way, uninfluenced by any knowledge either of the artist or the circumstances in which it had been painted. But then, in front of one painting in particular, she began to have her doubts.”
The painting that makes her change her mind is “A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris” by Gwen John, sister of Augustus. “I was wondering where it had been,” Gillian muses, “who had owned it, who had looked at it. And other things - I mean, what effect did it have on the people who have looked at it? What has it meant to them, how have they looked at it, did they feel the same as I did, did they see what I saw. “
So we are transported back to the late 19th century and observe Gwen John in the process of becoming an artist. From Wales to London, following in her brother’s footsteps, and then to Paris, where she models for artists and becomes a lover to Auguste Rodin. At his prompting she leaves her dreary digs for brighter lodgings in the Rue St Placide. “The room. much as she loved it and kept it spotless and adorned it with flowers, was a lie. It was not her. It was how her lover wished her to be, and how she had tried to be. She went on straining to match herself to the room and make herself a true reflection of it. Gradually, this led her to paint it, the room on the courtyard, the room as he would have her be.”
Rodin’s eventual abandonment of Gwen gives the otherwise tranquil scene its unbearable poignancy. “She wanted to record how things might have been and so nearly were... The person who lived in this room was in perfect control of her emotions. She wanted for nothing. But I, thought Gwen, still want so much.”
If Keeping the World Away can be described as a novel about art, it is also a novel about longing, and about the things we lose. Quite literally, sometimes, for the painting is misplaced during a voyage back to England, finds its way to a London sitting-room from where it is later stolen, only to appear at a bric-a-brac stall, to be taken to Cornwall, then dragged back to London, where it becomes the object of a family dispute before finally ending back in Paris.
The women (it is only women) who see Gwen’s tiny canvas in the course of its itinerancy are deeply affected by the loneliness it conveys. “The apparent serenity, the prettiness, of the painting did not fool her for a moment,” Forster writes about one of its later owners. “Someone’s breath was being held. And the sense of waiting, the anticipation of someone’s arrival, was painful.”
The fate of another painting - Marc Chagall’s “Study for Over Vitebsk” - provides the backdrop for The World to Come, a delicate novel by American author Dara Horn. It was inspired by the work’s real-life theft in 2001, while it was exhibited at New York’s Jewish Museum, on loan from a Russian gallery (the painting was recovered in Topeka, Kansas, months later).
Horn sympathetically imagines the thief - recently divorced former child prodigy Benjamin Ziskind - and speculates about his attachment to Chagall’s minuscule study. The novel begins with Benjamin, reluctantly attending a singles’ night at a gallery, spotting the picture on the wall. “The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia. This intrigued Ben. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room in his parents’ house.” Alongside the narration of events in the aftermath of the theft, Horn tells the story of how, in 1920s Russia, Chagall’s painting came to be in possession of Benjamin’s grandfather, and what happened to it since.
Like Chagall’s paintings, the novel is steeped in Jewish Russian folklore. Warm and humorous, it is also drenched in the melancholy that attaches itself to the history of 19th and 20th century Jewish culture. Underpinned by exquisite reflections on loss, beauty and identity, it is perhaps one of the most outstanding novels published so far this year.
Painters have been known to envy musicians, and writers must often envy painters, whose medium offers an instant connection to the viewer. While reproducing that impression on a page is beyond the abilities of even the most accomplished author, novelists are better placed to elaborate on the stories that images can only hint at, or illustrate.
What these remarkable novels have in common is not only their subject matter - art and artists - but their success as works of fiction. All are thoroughly documented (three of them offer bibliographical sources), but the research does not hang heavily over the narrative.
Like Gericault abandoning the literal truth in favour of a more effective composition, these authors recognise that how a story is told matters most. What stays with the reader is a sense of the intricate play of personal and historical circumstances contributing to the creation (and lingering impact) of a work of art, and the certainty that a picture can be worth much more than a thousand words.
by Arabella Edge
Picador £12.99, 320 pages
Keeping the World Away
by Margaret Forster
Chatto & Windus £16.99, 352 pages
by Iain Pears
Harper Collins £15, 215 pages
The World to Come
by Dara Horn
Hamish Hamilton £14.99, 416 pages