Art in Novels (Fictional and Otherwise)


Lucian Freud. L’Atelier, Éditions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2010 (© David Dawson)

As some of you may already know, I am fortunate enough to work for a publishing house famous for luxurious artists monographs which means that I get to work with beautiful books and inspiring people on an almost daily basis. Nothing fascinates me more than the lives of artists and in particular, their daily routines – be it writers, painters, architects or photographers. When I worked in a bookshop and was responsible for carrying out signing sessions with authors, the question I always asked them was ‘what is your daily routine? what are your writing habits?’  These would vary enormously, ranging from the fairly normal – ‘I sit at a desk from 9-5 hammering it out’ (Sebastian Faulks, if you’re interested) – to the bizarre and extreme (see Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine here and marvel at how he managed to survive, let alone write a novel). This is why I fall upon books such as Martin Gayford’s The Man With The Blue Scarf (his account of sitting for a Portrait with Lucien Freud) and Tracey Emin’s Strangeland with an almost rabid fervour; they reveal a side of the artist usually concealed from view. Artists spend so much of their time in complete solitude, alone to reflect on their thoughts, their memories and their work that I often wonder how they retain their sanity and cling on to their aims and original intentions. It isn’t something that many artists tend to speak about but it is this part of the creative process that I find the most captivating.  Therefore it is a theme that I love coming across in fiction – particularly when a writer goes on to explore the relationship between creativity and relationships and mental health.


I was prompted to write this post by reading Robin Black’s LIFE DRAWING, a book which carefully examines the creative forces at play within a long-term marriage and emphasises the fine line between creativity and the sexual impulse. Augusta and Owen, a childless, middle-aged, long-term married couple have set up home in the Pennsylvanian Countryside, leaving behind their hectic lives to devote their later years to painting (Gus) and writing (Owen) in seclusion. Their marriage has been shaken by infidelity which has lent a certain polite awkwardness to the way they conduct their relationship, or as the author puts it, ‘there are often two conversations going on in a marriage. The one that you’re having and the one you’re not.’ This is definitely about the latter – the silence in this novel is almost deafening. The couple’s forced solidarity is further threatened by the appearance of a new neighbour and amateur artist Alison. Narrated by Gus, the plot plays with the reader’s sympathies and forces you to question where (and with which characters) your loyalties lie. Both partners treat their creative pursuits as an escape, a release and an opportunity to be alone with their thoughts and both go through agonising blocks and struggles to create. Here are some extracts:

I sometimes think of such visual details as deep, private pools of water into which I dive alone. I am oblivious at those times to anything beyond my sense that there is a way to communicate to others exactly how the world appears to me. This is the precision for which I strive. Some kind of commitment to accuracy, my belief that the appearance of a thing can flow right through me and out to another set of eyes.

There are moments in a creative life when you understand why you do it. Those moments might last a few seconds or maybe, for some people, years. But whatever the actual time that passes, they still feel like a single moment. Fragile in the way a moment is, liable to be shattered by a breath, set apart from all the other passing time, distinct.

Read a great interview with Robin here

Below you will find a selection of my favourite books featuring art, artists and the artistic routine (both fictional and otherwise) and which all attempt to tap into the creative mindset.



I remember being sent a proof of this when I was a bookseller and immediately falling in love with Sarah Hall’s beautifully crafted and sensitive writing. This was my introduction to  Hall and Iwent on to read her previous novels and her wonderful collection of short stories The Beautiful Indifference. This book consists of four interwoven stories and voices – two based in Umbria in 1960s (an ageing renowned Italian painter Giorgio and a young, blind flower seller, Anette) and two in Britain in the noughties (Peter, an artist and father and Suze, a curator who is trying to come to terms with the death of her twin brother). At first it isn’t obvious how these individuals are linked but the connections gradually become clear as the novel unfolds. Hall examines the discipline of Art and explores how it can mean different things to different people; be it a struggle, a freedom, a passion or a release.The strengths of this novel lie in Hall’s delicate observations, her incredible, almost painterly attention to detail and the way she highlights the difference between the artistic eye and the layman:

 …if it is embraced, solitude is the most joyful of commitment. In the grace of these quiet rooms, I know far better the taste of each day. How well I know life. I understand water in its glass. As the afternoon circles, shadows move behind the objects on the table. There is a pinch of cinnamon in Theresa’s lamb casserole. Such acceptance! Such intimacy. The paint on the chassis of the easel is as thick as guano on the cliffs where seagulls nest.

To him, the painting on the easel is a funeral. It is careful and uncluttered, and it is not loud enough for him to understand. He does not have the practical training to recognise the layers of vermilion used, their illuminating effect. If he had turned to the west during our conversation, he might have seen the sun setting behind the mountains, he might have seen the radiance of the sky.



This is a complete, fictionalised biography of a Yorkshire-born artist called Jennet Mallow who comes of age in the 1940s, goes to Art college (much to the dismay of her Priest Father) falls in love with enigmatic fellow artist David Heaton, falls pregnant and is forced in to the confines of marriage and motherhood. Supposedly the characters are loosely based on Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (who were married in the 1950s) and the key events of Jennet’s life and the areas in which she lived and worked (London, Spain, Cornwall) certainly match those of Hepworth’s, however Mallow is a painter not a sculptor. This perfect little novel explores the difficulties encountered by a woman trying to establish herself as an artist in the 1950s/early 1960s  and the conflicts between motherhood and creativity, responsibility versus passion, conforming versus striking out.

However what is memorable about this book is the art itself – the paintings that are described (one of which appears on the hardback cover, pictured here). The descriptions of Mallow’s paintings are remarkable. Kay uses rich, sensuous language to conjure up the colours, the textures and the composition so that you can actually visualise each and every painting. By the end of the book, you become utterly convinced that these paintings exist, they have a real weight and presence within the narrative. I can’t remember every reading anything where the art is so vivid and real. In an interview with NewBooks Kay said:

What a treasury of words I was allowed to plunder! Ultramarine, indigo, apricot and amber – so rich and beautiful they fill the mouth like cream…Describing paintings…gave access to a whole vocabulary, some of it technical and all of it precise, which I loved exploring.

I won’t ruin the descriptions for you – they really must be read and savoured but here are some great extracts nonetheless:

She was on her own but encumbered by her millstones, and unlike the great artists of the past, almost all of them male, she had no choice but to shoulder them, to drag them with her into the material of art. She used to dream of alchemy, but that was in another time. She did not imagine then the rawness of the stuff she would have to transmute later into gold.

And everything is still, the slack tide poised, the sway of the sea suspended, the air unmoving as if the whole world were holding its breath. Air and water in an equal stillness, sharing with each other the same scantness of colour, the same palely blue-tinged milky light.

I have aways felt that this novel didn’t quite receive the literary attention it deserved – although it was awarded  The Orange Award for New Writers in 2009, it was later selected for The Richard and Judy Book Club and packaged in a horrible, woman-facing-out-to-azure-blue-sea chick-lit style cover and sold as a 3 for 2 in Waterstones at large. I pushed it on everyone I knew at the time, it made such a strong impression on me and I have since gone on to read Kay’s second novel, The Translation of the Bones, which was also very good but not quite as memorable as this one.

LOVE LESSONS by Joan Wyndham


This is the first biography/diary  in a three volume set written by the formidable and fantastic Joan Wyndham. It covers the years 1939-1944, when Joan was studying at Art School, living in bohemian Chelsea and desperately attempting to shed herself of her cumbersome virginity. Although she never truly became an Artist herself, she meets and falls in love with so many struggling and agonised artists and spends much of the war years cooped up in overcrowded studios, drinking tea and being seduced by inappropriate older men who try to persuade her to pose nude. She is taught sculpture by Henry Moore and her accounts of him are worth reading alone, as her are incredibly detailed descriptions of the hearty food she manage to prepare in spite of wartime rationing and desperate lack of funds. There is a wonderful camaraderie and humour between these students as they struggle to create in the most challenging of circumstances – they share almost everything, food, girlfriends, possessions, gas and heating. The diaries take the reader from Chelsea to Soho and the Serpentine, as Joan finally sheds her much maligned virginity, gets fitted for a cap and joins the WAF. A wonderful coming of age story filled with optimism and sheer joy, despite the ongoing war.

Here are a few favourite snippets:

Had lunch in the canteen for the first time, huge plates of steak and kidney pie. Sat next to my new friend Susan who wears emerald green corduroys and a cerise blouse, and hangs shells around her neck. She said, ‘Hell, I’m so sick of being arty, I think I’m going to marry a stockbroker.’ She is a jolly nice girl.

Still Life at the polytechnic – no one came near us, there was only me and an old woman painting stuffed birds. I bought a canvas and started on the inevitable guitar with a few broken vases. I painted to please myself, very bright colours and no perspective. If they don’t like it they can go bugger themselves, as Jo would say.

Jo painted a nude of unsurpassed vulgarity, even for him, on a very big canvas. Leonard, on the other hand, produced a work of great sensitivity on a very small canvas. Jo is always saying things like, ‘You know my new thing is “Light”, or ‘Pure Colour’, or some such thing, and at the moment it’s ‘Monumental Form’. This came as a great relief to me, as when it’s ‘Colour’ he uses up all my best paints.

WHAT I LOVED by Siri Hustvedt


This book was quickly pressed into my hands by several of my colleagues at Hatchards and I soon learned why. A beautiful, memorable and very original novel – if you are looking for a way into Siri Hustvedt’s writing, this is the remarkable and haunting gateway. Our narrator, Leo Hertzberg, is an Art History Professor looking back on his younger years when he was submerged in the New York SoHO Art scene and lived in an apartment below the soon-to-be lauded artist William Weschler. The men and their wives form a friendship, and both couples have a son at the same time. However this is not the perfect family fable – there is a growing sense of foreboding, of tension, a constant nagging feeling that this idyll won’t last forever. And of course it doesn’t, the characters are confronted with tragedy and deception. Hustvedt’s writing as always is constantly analysing and examining the human psyche and she is capable of picking apart a thought as accurately and precisely as if she were analysing a painting. The character of the artist, William or ‘Bill’ as he is known is so well-rounded, his paintings and artworks so carefully described that he becomes a very real artist in your mind. You want to be able to visit a gallery and find these paintings, some of which you feel you know intimately by the end of the novel, hanging alongside Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

Even on that day, I felt Bill’s asceticism, his almost brutal desire for purity and his resistance to compromise…”That’s the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape in front of you. Cezanne wanted the naked world but the world is never naked. In my work I want to create doubt,’ he stopped and smiled at me. “Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

The difficulty in seeing clearly haunted me long before my eyes went bad, in life as well as in art. It’s a problem of the viewer’s perspective…we’re missing from our own picture. The spectator is the true vanishing point, the pinprick in the canvas, the zero.

Other books which deal with art, artists and the art world are Steve Martin’s AN OBJECT OF BEAUTY (a modern satire on the New York art scene) D.H. Lawrence’s WOMEN IN LOVE (who can forget the wildly beautiful artist-sister Gudrun?) Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE (Lily Briscoe is another torn female artist). I would also highly recommend reading John Logan’s play RED about Mark Rothko in 1958-59. I saw this at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010 and it quite literally blew me away, something that theatre hasn’t achieved before or since. Here, to end, is a quote from the man himself:

I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.

A very worthy pursuit for any artist or writer methinks, after all, isn’t this what we’re all aiming for in the act of creation?


17 thoughts on “Art in Novels (Fictional and Otherwise)

  1. A fascinating post and you’ve extracted some great quotes from each book. It’s interesting how art can give rise to so many different feelings and reactions, and how our interpretations can vary.

    I’ve read Sarah Hall’s short stories, but not her novels. The Siri Hustvedt appeals, too.

    • Thank you Jacqui! You really should give them a try, particularly if you are interested in Art. The ageing Italian artist Giorgio in How To Paint A Dead Man paints compositions of bottles (like the one on the cover) so it could be very suitably teamed with a particularly attractive bottle of wine 🙂

  2. Very interesting post, Alice, an excellent selection of books and always a delight to see What I Loved given a mention. Hustvedt’s descriptions of Bill’s boxes are so beautifully expressed you wonder what she would produce if she turned her hand to art instead of writing. I stumbled upon The Man with the Blue Scarf and found it fascinating both for its insight into Lucien Freud and how he worked, and what its like to be an artist’s model – extremely hard work! You’ve given me a great start to my day – thank you.

    • Oh Susan what a lovely comment, thank you! I agree entirely about Siri, it does seem that she has a great artistic desire which manifests itself in writing and imagining these works. I think her and her husband (Paul Auster) are quite involved in the NY Art scene, in fact, when I was reading Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty (and Michael Cunningham’s last book, the title escapes me now – protagonist is a gallery owner) I was imagining people just like them. I was lucky enough to meet Lucien (and Martin) at the book launch, a year before his death. You could tell they had developed a deep bond, a kind of understanding from all those hours spent in the studio. Was wonderful to see

    • Thank you Lizzi! It’s a wonderful, consuming book, very tragic and sad but filled with moments of pure beauty. Let me know if you read it

  3. i’m a little too poorly-read to really comment [but i won’t be for long, thanks to this post!] but i believe Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan includes an artist character inspired by French artist Sophie Calle – who subsequently returned the favour by actually making the fictional art works from the book

    • Ooh that sounds wonderful, how did I not know about this?! And pish to your literary self-deprecating, you always have great book recommendations. I will add this book to the towering pile 🙂

  4. Sophie Calle has indeed worked with Auster quite a lot throughout the 1990’s… I have a copy of her book ‘M’as Tu Vue’ which includes her project with Auster titled ‘The Gotham Handbook’ (1994), he writes personal instructions on “How To Improve Life in New York City” from smiling and talking to strangers to occupying a phone booth.

    It’s worth a read, very interesting if you are intrigued by anyone’s daily life and if not, it’s just a beautiful book! I’d also recommend her 1978-79 project “Paris Shadows”. Thank you Alice, you have inspired me and ended my few days writing/blogging drought.I shall also add your recommended reads to my wishlist 🙂

  5. Pingback: Sophie Calle: Paris Shadows and Rachel, Monique | Brogues In A Coffee Bar

  6. Entertaining. The mystery of the creative process. It’s like swimming to me: you move about and leave a wake. Interesing what the subject get out of it. Models can be very energised by the act of sitting.

    • Thank you Trevor, you’re right that the very act of creation affects many more people than just the creator themselves – it makes ripples. Water is a great metaphor for creativity

  7. I love reading novels that re-imagine artists and writers lives, the most recent one I read was Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You, an excellent read of the life of Mary Cassatt, the American painter in Paris and her close friend Edgar Degas, who introduces her to other rebel impressionists who wanted to create their own exhibition, scorning the great annual Paris Salon that dictated whose work was “in” and whose was not. Very fascinating depiction of the time and a glimpse of the artists she was contemporaries with.

    It created for me the same feeling you describe of imagining exactly how the painting is and I had to stop myself from looking at both their works until I finished the book, especially Degas’s bronze sculpture ‘The Dancer’ which was such a challenge for him to complete.

    I recently read an amazing review of the classic novel The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (reviewed by an amazing work of the life of an artist, that is still widely read today.

    Great post, thanks for sharing these fabulous titles and what an inspiring job you have!

  8. Pingback: Sophie Calle: Paris Shadows and Rachel, Monique

  9. Pingback: February Reading | Girl, 20

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