Sometimes it’s the fascinating artists and their muses, more than the art itself, that inspire me, as evidenced by this list of unforgettable novels about artists, real and fictional. From visionaries behind the Surrealism movement of Paris to the mural art of our current era, these colorful novels are the next best thing to visiting a gallery or a museum. And for a behind-the-scenes look into New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art Met, check out Patrick Bringley’s ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD for another vibrant celebration of how art can change us.
9 Books Depicting the Chaos and Beauty of Art
Inspired by a true story, this evocative and moving historical novel follows British socialite Leonora Carrington and famous artist Max Ernst in Paris. With the city home to icons such as Pablo Picasso and Man Ray, Leonora is inspired to begin painting herself. But World War II is on the horizon. Soon she and her fellow artists are separated—and struggling to survive in a world plagued by war and hatred.
*One of Oprah Daily’s Most Anticipated Historical Fiction Novels That Will Sweep You Away*
“Michaela Carter’s training as a poet and painter shines through from the first page of this vivid, gorgeous novel based on the lives of Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. Told with all the wild magic and mystery of the Surrealists themselves, Leonora in the Morning Light fearlessly illuminates the life and work of a formidable female artist.” —Whitney Scharer, bestselling author of The Age of Light
For fans of Amy Bloom’s White Houses and Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a “gorgeously written, meticulously researched” (Jillian Cantor, bestselling author of Half Life) novel about Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington and the art, drama, and romance that defined her coming-of-age during World War II.
1940. A train carrying exiled German prisoners from a labor camp arrives in southern France. Within moments, word spreads that Nazi capture is imminent, and the men flee for the woods, desperate to disappear across the Spanish border. One stays behind, determined to ride the train until he reaches home, to find a woman he refers to simply as “her.”
1937. Leonora Carrington is a twenty-year-old British socialite and painter when she meets Max Ernst, an older, married artist whose work has captivated Europe. She follows him to Paris, into the vibrant world of studios and cafes where rising visionaries of the Surrealist movement like Andre Breton, Pablo Picasso, Lee Miller, Man Ray, and Salvador Dali are challenging conventional approaches to art and life. Inspired by their freedom, Leonora begins to experiment with her own work, translating vivid stories of her youth onto canvas and gaining recognition under her own name. It is a bright and glorious age of enlightenment—until war looms over Europe and headlines emerge denouncing Max and his circle as “degenerates,” leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Left along as occupation spreads throughout the countryside, Leonora battles terrifying circumstances to survive, reawakening past demons that threaten to consume her.
As Leonora and Max embark on remarkable journeys together and apart, the full story of their tumultuous and passionate love affair unfolds, spanning time and borders as they seek to reunite and reclaim their creative power in a world shattered by war. When their paths cross with Peggy Guggenheim, an art collector and socialite working to help artists escape to America, nothing will be the same.
Based on true events and historical figures, Leonora in the Morning Light is “a deeply involving historical tale of tragic lost love, determined survival, the sanctuary of art, and the evolution of a muse into an artist of powerfully provocative feminist expression” (Booklist, starred review).
Another bewitching novel of passion from the author of GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING, this book explores the backstory of several mysterious medieval tapestries that currently hang in Paris. When a French nobleman hires an arrogant but talented designer and a masterful weaver to create stunning tapestries, the results change their lives and art history.
When the Nazis invade Austria, newlywed Maria’s life is turned upside down. Determined to keep herself and her loved ones safe, she draws inspiration from her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the muse behind one of painter Gustav Klimt’s most famous works. Presenting twin storylines of two unforgettable women, this is a stirring tale of survival and the power of art in the darkest of times.
In this moving exploration of identity, grief, and family, a Syrian closeted trans boy is struggling with his mother’s suspicious death. The only comfort he has is sneaking out to paint vibrant murals on buildings in his Manhattan neighborhood, but everything changes when he discovers the journal of a mysterious Syrian American artist whose life seems to be connected to his mother’s.
Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction
Winner of the ALA Stonewall Book Award—Barbara Gittings Literature Award
Named Best Book of the Year by Bustle
Named Most Anticipated Book of the Year by The Millions, Electric Literature, and HuffPost
From the award-winning author of The Map of Salt and Stars, a new novel about three generations of Syrian Americans haunted by a mysterious species of bird and the truths they carry close to their hearts—a “vivid exploration of loss, art, queer and trans communities, and the persistence of history. Often tender, always engrossing, The Thirty Names of Night is a feat” (R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries).
Five years after a suspicious fire killed his ornithologist mother, a closeted Syrian American trans boy sheds his birth name and searches for a new one. As his grandmother’s sole caretaker, he spends his days cooped up in their apartment, avoiding his neighborhood masjid, his estranged sister, and even his best friend (who also happens to be his longtime crush). The only time he feels truly free is when he slips out at night to paint murals on buildings in the once-thriving Manhattan neighborhood known as Little Syria, but he’s been struggling ever since his mother’s ghost began visiting him each evening.
One night, he enters the abandoned community house and finds the tattered journal of a Syrian American artist named Laila Z, who dedicated her career to painting birds. She mysteriously disappeared more than sixty years before, but her journal contains proof that both his mother and Laila Z encountered the same rare bird before their deaths. In fact, Laila Z’s past is intimately tied to his mother’s in ways he never could have expected. Even more surprising, Laila Z’s story reveals the histories of queer and transgender people within his own community that he never knew. Realizing that he isn’t and has never been alone, he has the courage to claim a new name: Nadir, an Arabic name meaning rare.
As unprecedented numbers of birds are mysteriously drawn to the New York City skies, Nadir enlists the help of his family and friends to unravel what happened to Laila Z and the rare bird his mother died trying to save. Following his mother’s ghost, he uncovers the silences kept in the name of survival by his own community, his own family, and within himself, and discovers the family that was there all along.
Featuring Zeyn Joukhadar’s signature “folkloric, lyrical, and emotionally intense...gorgeous and alive” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) storytelling, The Thirty Names of Night is a “stunning…vivid, visceral, and urgent” (Booklist, starred review) exploration of loss, memory, migration, and identity.
Travel to the resplendent Italy of the 1600s with this richly drawn novel about one of the few women to become a renowned painter at the time—Artemisia Gentileschi. A fascinating true story of a resilient woman who was ahead of her time, THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA follows the highs and lows of a life spent reconciling her art with her familial obligations and the sexism of her era. An unforgettable read.
In this vivid and whip-smart novel about the power of imagination and desire, a world-famous artist has become disillusioned with his success and lack of ideas. Soon his mental health takes a turn, and he can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy. Written by a renowned painter himself, Domingo Zapata, this book is filled with authentic and biting observations on the art world.
In this immersive and satirical novel about the contemporary art world from celebrated painter Domingo Zapata, an artist grapples with the intersection of his personal and professional lives as he begins to slip further and further into delusion.
World renowned painter Rodrigo seemingly has it all: a multi-million dollar penthouse in Gramercy Park; a talent for creativity that seems never ending; a recurring invitation to the exclusive modern art exhibit Art Basel; and lovers by the dozen. But what his longtime admirers don’t see is Rodrigo’s deep frustration with the world around him: the wild and sinfully luxurious parties have lost their luster, those who worship him and those who work for him seemingly do so out of self-interest, and worst of all, his art has lost all meaning.
As he begins to slip further down into the rabbit hole of despair, so begins his descent into madness, culminating with a beautiful, pristine vision in the shape of the perfect woman: Carlotta. As the lines between reality and fantasy slowly begin to blur and fade, Rodrigo finds himself at a very difficult crossroads: will he choose to live in his imagined world with the woman of his dreams by his side, or make a swift return to sanity, success, and the life he was always supposed to live?
When a famous artist attacks a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., he becomes the patient of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow. Together they descend into a tumultuous journey of obsession, taking us from the world of nineteenth-century French Impressionism to today. This emotive novel from the author of THE HISTORIAN transcends time and locale to provide an encompassing worldview of history, love, and art’s enduring power.
An in-depth and sultry look into the story of Emilie Flöge—fashion designer, muse to painter Gustav Klimt, and subject for one of his masterpieces. Whisking us to the bohemian Austria of the elegant Gilded Age, THE PAINTED KISS is a compellingly passionate novel you won’t be able to put down.
Gustav Klimt, one of the great painters of fin de siècle Austria—and the subject of Helen Mirren’s latest film, Woman in Gold—takes center stage in this passionate and atmospheric debut novel, which reimagines the tumultuous relationship between the Viennese painter and Emilie Flöge, the woman who posed for his masterpiece The Kiss, and whose name he uttered with his dying breath.
Vienna in 1886 was a city of elegant cafés, grand opera houses, and a thriving and adventurous artistic community. It is here where the twelve-year-old Emilie meets the controversial libertine and painter. Hired by her bourgeois father for basic drawing lessons, Klimt introduces Emilie to a subculture of dissolute artists, wanton models, and decadent patrons that both terrifies and inspires her. The Painted Kiss follows Emilie as she blossoms from a naïve young girl to one of Europe's most exclusive couturiers—and Klimt's most beloved model and mistress. A provocative love story that brings to life Vienna's cultural milieu, The Painted Kiss is as compelling as a work by Klimt himself.
Unique and atmospheric, GIRL READING offers the backstories of a variety of works of art, all with the same subject: a woman reading. From a medieval painting to a digital photograph, these works are explored as never before, resulting in a fascinating and eye-opening look at how the female form has been used in art for centuries.
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