Thursday, January 28, 2016

Literary Fiction that Avenges the Freedom of Women to Paint (no. 19)

 by Larry Witham


ELIZABETH KOSTOVA’S expansive novel, The Swan Thieves (2010), has given us one of the most unusual painter personalities in a long history of such fictional characters.
            His name is Robert Oliver. In the 1990s, he is a master painter, big and handsome as an opera singer. But meanwhile, he is so obsessed with the oil portrait of a nineteenth-century French woman that a psychiatrist has put him into a mental hospital. The possibilities are enticing, including the title itself: Swan Thieves?
           The setting is Washington D.C., and the attending psychiatrist is Andrew Marlow. He is, in effect, the central character. Marlow sets out to solve the mystery behind the painter’s mania. The mania became public when Oliver attempted to shred a painting in the National Gallery of Art, his knife-wielding hand deflected by a guard (After this, the police handed him over to the D.C. psychiatric system).
            It will take the entire novel to reveal a kind of dual aspect to Robert Oliver. On one hand, he treats his current women badly. And yet, on the other, he has plunged himself into mental despair trying to avenge a wronged woman painter of the 1870s. Her name is Beatrice de Clerval Vignot, and Oliver knows the woman only by an evocative oil painting of her, which he saw at the Met in New York City.
            The Swan Thieves is not a paranormal romance. And yet Beatrice exists in Robert Oliver’s life as if a palpable ghost. He paints her face constantly (freaking out his wife, Kate, of course). He wants to avenge Beatrice, but can’t go back in time. So he turns his rage inward. He becomes incommunicable. “She’s dead,” is all he can say.
            In time, the novel presents two mysteries to be explained. First is how and why Oliver got obsessed with Beatrice. Second is: Who is this Beatrice, and what happened to her that needs to be avenged?
            In the last chapters, psychiatrist Marlow finally goes to Paris to find the answers. One important clue is a note that Oliver had left in Paris when he pursued the life story of Beatrice. Oliver’s note says, “Perhaps you know what it is like not to be able to paint when you want to.”
            This one line—paint when you want to—reveals what might be called the essential feminist theme of the entire novel: Women want to paint, but they meet obstacles, and the main one is male prejudice.
            To be sure, the novel offers a note of sympathy for male painters, too. Psychiatrist Marlow is an amateur painter and his profession often gets in the way of his painting when he wants to. For women, it’s far worse. We meet Kate Oliver, a young artist who became Robert Oliver’s wife, now estranged. He left her with a baby and all the household chores, and she was forced to give up her artwork.
            Oliver continues the pattern. As Kate and Robert separate, he is seduced by a young art student named Mary Bertison. They cohabitate, but she is eventually so oppressed by his behavior, she too can no longer be an artist. She kicks him out.
            The moral conundrum for readers is this: Although Robert Oliver treats his present-day lovers badly, he is quite the opposite with the ghostly Beatrice. He is overwhelmed by compassion when he learns that she couldn’t paint when she wanted to.
            As Oliver says in a note, “She stopped painting too young. I must continue for her. Someone must avenge her, since she might have continued to paint for decades if she had not been cruelly prevented.” Oliver believes Beatrice was a “genius.”
            With clinic-bound Oliver mute throughout the story, it's up to Marlow to take us to Paris to unlock Beatrice’s past.  Back in the 1870s, she had been a young, married, and rising painter in the age of Courbet (a kind of early Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt figure). Her talent was encouraged by an older man, a widower—known in her letters as Cher Monsier—who is a good friend of the family and an art connoisseur.
            Cher Monsier falls in love with Beatrice. In this atmosphere he inspires her to do a very challenging painting. It’s on the classical Greek mythical theme of Leda, the story of a mortal woman whom Zeus visited as a swan to impregnate and give the world a few more mythical heroes. (This is the painting that Oliver will attack at the National Gallery and that underwrites the novel’s title, The Swan Thieves).
            The love affair between Cher Monsier and Beatrice is kept vague in the narrative. We don’t know whether they slept together (making her an adulteress) or just shared a Platonic kiss. Either way, one of Cher Monsier’s letters to Beatrice—“about us, about our night,” she says—was intercepted by Gilbert Thomas, a wicked art-dealer-painter who’d had his eyes on Beatrice’s career.
            A capable painter himself, Thomas had done the portrait of Beatrice (which Robert Oliver saw in the Met). Once Thomas has purloined her illicit love letter, he decides to blackmail her. If she did not let him put his name on the swan painting, thus boosting his career, he would take the love letter public. Beatrice relents, but says in a final letter, “I will never paint for this monster after I finish, or if I do it will be only once, to record his infamy.” She never paints again.
            As the investigator in the novel, Marlow realizes that Oliver had discovered all of this history and returned to D.C. as avenger. His attack on the swan painting was an irrational act of desperation. Rationally, the reader might think, Oliver could have declared the truth with documentary evidence. He might have rehabilitated Beatrice as the painter of a great masterwork.
            An overall motif haunts this novel: Men can be pretty malicious when it comes to stopping women from painting. Mr. Oliver does it in his way, and the evil dealer Mr. Thomas did it in his. Presuming this novel is written mostly for a female audience, it presents a very complex image of men in regard to women artists. What would that image be? You can’t live with them, but you can’t live without them?
            The happy ending is really about psychiatrist Marlow. He helps Robert Oliver get over his obsession. After that, Marlow will probably propose marriage to Mary (who was jilted by Oliver). Indeed, Marlow and Mary have already begun to paint together in the Virginia countryside.
            The Swan Thieves is a rich, detailed, and layered novel that seems to be rewarding to most readers who stay with the long-and-winding road until the end. The Janus-faced Robert Oliver is a good painter, but a very peculiar romantic, both a lout and a chivalrous defender of a wronged woman he never met. In an ideal world, we can suppose that he also would have let the other women in his life paint when they wanted to.

Monday, January 25, 2016

They Say a Novel Can Be Judged by Its Opening (no. 18)

 by Larry Witham


IN JOURNALISM IT’S called the snappy “lede.” In novels the acid test is the first sentence, first paragraph, and first chapter. These are the modern-day formulas for “grabbing the reader,” and grabbing her immediately. The grabber, like an extravagant hook on a fishing line, seems to be the key to success in modern-day fiction writing.
            It wasn’t always so. But our modern attention spans, the competition books have with flashy movie scenes, and much else (such as overwhelmed acquisition editors) has made The Attention Grabber paramount. That’s why such an eminent journal as Poets & Writers has a regular feature for aspiring writers on the best, or most interesting (or least confusing), first sentences in new works of fiction.
            It can get a bit silly at times, and it is clearly a subjective judgment.
            One first sentence often voted the best in twentieth-century literature goes like this: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Hmm. Brilliant or too obvious? The line is from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915). By contrast, take the opening sentence from Michael Connelly’s 1996 novel about a crime reporter, The Poet, a line over which even Stephen King has marveled: “Death is my beat.”
            In high literary studies, it is said that the first sentence should do no less than summarize the entire novel. It’s a heady concept to be sure. (How, the skeptic says, can one short sentence possibly do that?) As a corollary, literary agents often say that they can divine which manuscripts will be bestsellers from the first ten pages alone (and that’s double spaced).
            None of this can be verified scientifically, of course. But such notions do carry weight in the fluctuating world of literature and publishing, where lots of experience has bred wisdom. Going back a generation, the same rules probably held true, but not as much as today.
            In former times, novels did not necessarily need to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, paragraph, or chapter. This is proved by the grand successes of novels that, as the reviewers say, “start out a bit slow.” Since this blog is about painters and the art world, we can turn to the historical novelist Irving Stone for how fiction can open slowly and methodically—and still be a popular success, though perhaps in the past tense now.
            Stone wrote four novels about painters, launching his stellar career with one about Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1934). He researched it for six years and had a record number of rejections from publishers.
            Let’s look at the first sentence, and first chapter theme, for Stone’s four novels on painters: Van Gogh; the New York “Ashcan School” painter John Nobel; Michelangelo of the Italian Renaissance; and, Camille Pissarro, an early Danish-French Impressionist.
            ■ Lust for Life (1934): “Monsieur Van Gogh! It’s time to wake up!” This is the landlord’s daughter. Once he’s awake, Van Gogh heads to his salesman job at a London gallery. He’s decided to finally ask this maiden to marry him. All of London looks in love. He’s vastly miscalculated her outlook, however. When he delivers the proposal that night, she’s dumbfounded. “Red-haired fool,” she chides. Going to work the next day, he sees London as bitter and sad. A great novel opening for what will drive the lovelorn Van Gogh to paint like a madman.
            ■ The Passionate Journey (1959): “He lay rolled in his blanket, watching the North Star brighten.” Out on the Kansas plain, the future painter John Nobel is sleeping out in hopes of seeing a rare white buffalo, which he wants to draw. With no luck, he returns to town, a place called Coffeyville. He next decides to sketch from a rooftop—and gets the subject matter of a lifetime. It’s October 1892, and the John Dalton gang suddenly arrives. They rob the two banks in town, but on escape, are killed in a raging gun battle. The young artist has sketched it all, a suitable novelistic opening for his later, raucous career as a painter of street life in New York City.
            ■ The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961): “He sat before the mirror in the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheek with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-colored eyes wide-set but heavy-lidded.” Clearly, young Michelangelo was not handsome, a clue to his quest to create perfect human form in paint and stone. That day in Florence, a friend takes the thirteen-year-old prodigy to the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, where the master painter says he’s full up with apprentices. Michelangelo dazzles him during a drawing test, and then requires the stunned Ghirlandaio to pay for his apprenticeship, the fee going to Michelangelo’s cash-strapped father. The odd looking little boy, sketching his self-portrait from a mirror, will obviously become a stubborn, self-confident, and larger-than-life artist. As the rest of the novel will verify.
            ■ Depths of Glory (1985): “It took him only a few moments to put his two leather-strapped bags through the octroy, customs, and carry them along the quai to the Boulogne railroad station.” Camille Pissarro has just exited a ship in a port city of northern France, headed by rail for Paris. His mother and sisters are already there, and his father and brother will soon come from the home they are leaving behind in St. Thomas, an island in the Danish West Indies. Pissarro is about to defy his merchant father by taking up with the city’s outdoor painters, a vocation with no income and no future. Thus begins the storyline of familial conflict. Pissarro will neither get a share of his father’s inheritance, nor gain his parents’ blessing toward the woman he marries. Still, against the odds, Camille helps bring about a revolution in the art world. And as the novel conveys, he gains artistic glory beyond the grave.
            Irving Stone wrote in the milieu of a James Michener (1907-1997) and a Norman Mailer (1923-2007), both of whom wrote very (very) long novels that “start out a bit slow,” but had millions of readers. Our modern attention span is being stressed, to be sure, but free will—and a little discipline—still serves a reader well. After all, how many novels today start with a promising bang, but fizzle by midstream?

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Edgar Allen Poe Extolled ‘True Beauty’ and ‘Loveliness’ in Art (no. 17)

 by Larry Witham


THIS WEEK CELEBRATED Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, conjuring images of the founder of modern mystery and horror, dark as dark can be. He was born on January 19, 1809, and died destitute at age forty-one in Baltimore, where there’s been a long tradition of leaving cognac and three roses on his grave—in the dead of night, by a mysterious visitor.
            It is therefore a surprise to learn that Poe loved traditional beauty, even “loveliness,” in art.
            Poe was not a novelist, though he did write one. And the topic of art is virtually absent from his many short stories. The exception is a quick reference in “Landor’s Cottage” (1849), where Poe describes a building as being like the paintings of Salvator Rosa, the seventeenth century Neapolitan painter. (Rosa’s images of stormy skies and ruins were a guide to American landscape artists in the literary age of Romanticism, the age of Poe’s writing).
            Poe’s views on art came out in his articles. It is a side of him that many would not expect, given the way he pioneered a genre that culminated in noir detective fiction and the celebration of the macabre, typified by Stephen King.
            Poe was born in Boston. He came of age in an adoptive family in Virginia. He spent his adult life between New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. Poe wanted to be a poet. But in need of a livelihood, he catered to the new sensational writing of the 1830s and 1840s. During a three-year stint in New York, he achieved success with his 1845 narrative poem “The Raven.,” It appeared in a newspaper and then his first book, The Raven and Other Poems.
            We might think that from here Poe descended into his terror mania, but quite the opposite, it seems. He lived two lives, one in his horror stories and the other in his truer self, a rather traditional aesthetic thinker.
            In New York he was exposed to a revival in visual arts. Those decades saw a flourishing of the National Academy of Design. It was the arbiter of taste in painting, what it called “contemporary American art,” painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher Durand and others. Thousands attended the exhibitions. Poe lived among the Manhattan painters and art organizers. He wrote on the visual arts for periodicals.
            His writings disparaged what today we call kitsch, and he urged ordinary people to elevate their tastes. Such is the tone of his 1845 magazine article, “The Philosophy of Furniture,” a guide to home decoration. Good design required an overall effect. Unfortunately, he wrote, most domiciles were “blindly subservient to the caprices of fashion,” cluttered with glass bobbles and mismatched colors.
            All this was offensive to the eye. As an alternative, he argued, the designing of a room is “amenable to those undeviating principles which regulate all varieties of art; and very nearly the same laws by which we decide on the higher merits of a painting.” Paintings have a focal point, a mood, and a harmony of color. Such a room would give even “the veriest bumpkin” pleasure.
            Poe also wrote on landscape gardening. In his essay “The Domain of Arnheim,” he reveals his thoughts on painting, art, and art criticism. The best landscape paintings present nature as “exalted and idealized.” A painter must arrange elements in a quest for “true beauty.” In later years, as Poe drifted inexorably into his reputation as a literary purveyor of dread, he nevertheless said his sentiment in “The Domain of Arnheim” still “contains more of myself and of my inherent tastes and habits of thought than anything I have written.”
            Some have said that both Poe’s Gothic stories, and the Gothic spirit of many paintings of this period, with their dark ruins, for instance, reveal the cultural elite’s terror at America’s rampant democracy. Just as likely, though, this darkness was all about visual and literary entertainment. It was the so-called Romantic Age, and it needed a look and feel that was commercially interesting.
            As the bard of the macabre, Poe dropped that mask often enough. He spoke of “physical loveliness” in nature. Great painters created “paradises.” He admired Titian and the French neoclassical landscape artist Claude Lorraine. Good art produces pleasure: “The only test . . . by which we should try a work of art is the delight it gives us.” And he extolled craftsmanship, not only in the art of writing (see his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” 1846), but in all artistic endeavor.
            At the end of Poe’s short life, his short stories and poems were translated into French. Thereafter, the modernist poet Charles Baudelaire championed Poe as the man who made beauty out of what was horrible, even evil. In his first book of poems, Flowers of Evil (1857), Baudelaire hoped to give modernity a new definition of beauty, one that justified every man’s dark and hedonistic impulses. As he famously said, “all pleasure lies in evil.”
            Many of the fin de siècle painters of England, Spain, Germany, and France took the spirit of Baudelaire to heart on the eve of the twentieth century. Death, insanity, decadence, and melancholy were all the rage in painting. These artists not only created radical new visual forms—from Expressionism to Cubism—they adopted a licentious lifestyle, the new and dark bohemianism.
            And yet, here is Edgar Allen Poe, a muse to Baudelaire, addressing his American magazine articles to “all lovers of the true and beautiful in art.”
            Beauty has always been a tough definition for art. Today it tends to go by the wayside as being old-fashioned, bourgeois, or elitist. Poe wouldn’t agree with that fate. And when we consider the dark world of literature he invented, it’s just the more surprising to think about his light-filled visual aesthetics of “loveliness.”
            Poe seemed to know beauty when he saw it—a very traditional form. Even if the black raven is saying, “Never more!”

Monday, January 18, 2016

Novelist Creates ‘Family Sagas’ with Art Objects (no. 16)

 by Larry Witham


EPIC NOVELS CAN lay out a story lasting centuries. The preferred approach has been the “family saga.” Our collective bookshelves bulge with them: Brideshead Revisited by Waugh, The Covenant by Michener, Roots by Haley, The House of the Spirits by Allende, and The Immigrants by Fast (to name only a few).
            A lesser-used species of the saga chronicles the life of an artifact, document, or treasure over hundreds of years and across the fates of generations. This formula has been happily exploited by the English historian and adventure writer Derek Wilson. He dubs his series “artworld mysteries.”
            The six novels feature British protagonist Tim Lacy, a modern-day security expert with a crack military background and a taste for objets d’art. Lacy repeatedly stumbles upon long-lost treasures ensnared in modern-day crime. The odds are tough, the villain is bad, and yet Lacy will always pull through, stylishly, in fact.
            The first title in the series, The Triarchs (1994), features a fictional painting by Raphael, the Renaissance artist. One half of the novel has Lacy gallivanting around the world in pursuit of the stolen Raphael. Spliced into this adventure, the other half of the novel tracks the five-hundred-year journey of the artwork itself, from its origins to the current dilemma.
            As a historian, Wilson is remarkably adept at finding turning points in the past and inserting the particular artwork of the hour—a painting, manuscript, artifact, etc.—into the thick of the crisis. The approach has a formulaic element, of course.
            In fact, the Triarchs provides a good anatomy lesson in how this formula is applied. Like the double helix of DNA, Wilson gives the novel two strands: the several week period of the contemporary crime and the centuries-long history of the painting. Let’s disentangle these two strands to see both storylines in isolation. We begin with the contemporary crime.
            One day, Lacy’s old flame, Venetia, inherits her uncle’s estate, Farrans Court, with its old paintings, one of which gets a visiting art dealer murdered in the attic. She goes to Lacy for help. He realize the painting in question is a long-lost Raphael (fictitious), The Triarchs (in which Raphael depicts Pope Julius II and two secular rulers as the three magi before the Christ child).
            Lacy finds the painting at the dead dealer’s shop, but so do the violent henchmen of a top global art thief, Karakis, a nefarious Greek. His bumbling operatives had hidden an entire cache of paintings in the vacant Farrans. Once Lacy meets the thugs, they play cat and mouse until Karakis holds Venetia hostage. Lacy is forced to hand over the painting.
            A while later, Lacy is summoned to Japan, where a yakuza-businessman wants him to build a security system. The yakuza boss is about to buy the Raphael and other paintings from Karakis. Lacy and the yakuza find common cause in tricking Karakis. And meanwhile, Lacy and the yakuza’s American personal assistant, Catherine, fall in love (and get married at the end, turning Farrans into an art center).
            Soon, Karakis arrives in Japan, Lacy poses as an art expert, and they rendezvous on a yacht near a Greek island to authenticate the Raphael. Lacy’s undercover team arrives, there’s gun play, and a final shootout-explosion culminates on the island, which is Karakis’s secret warehouse. Lacy thinks the Raphael is destroyed. Actually it was spirited off by helicopter before the island blew to bits. It will end up happily in the National Gallery, London.
            Now let’s turn to the isolated story of the Raphael painting, which Wilson has woven into the crime plot.
            It’s the sixteenth century in Rome, and Raphael is summoned by the pope to paint a religious picture solemnizing a three-way alliance against Venice. Thus, the “triarchs” as magi. Venice, however, licks the alliance in a few battles, and gloats over capturing the Raphael painting that celebrates the pope’s overconfidence.
            The Raphael painting is handed down through an aristocratic Venetian family, developing the rumor that it has a curse. The latest owner decides to give it to a Dutch trader, and he takes it to England as a prize for the royal court of King Charles I.
            Then comes the English Civil War. The Puritan iconoclasts of Cromwell eviscerate the British royalty of all their art (and behead Charles). Yet the Raphael gains safekeeping by a loyal servant of the royal household. When Charles II restores the monarchy, the painting is foolishly lost to a French aristocrat in a bet over a horse race.
            The Frenchman takes it back to Paris, but in time, the French Revolution ransacks his family wealth. The painting lies unheeded in a decaying country estate. An enterprising architect under Napoleon finds the painting, and sells it at auction in England.
            An Austrian banker buys the Raphael. Back in Vienna, amidst an anti-Semitic financial battle with a rival Jewish banker, the Jewish family gets the painting. It is inherited by a Catholic daughter-in-law who marries the Jewish son.
            In time, the Nazis take the painting, and it ends up in a Bavarian salt mine with hundreds of other looted treasures. One of the American GI’s who first found the mine helped himself to a truckload of treasure. In these, the Raphael was sent to his home in Los Angeles. Afraid to sell the loot, it stayed hidden until 1988, when the GI—old, guilt-ridden, and dying of cancer—sells the story to a reporter.
            Aha, now the connection! The reporter recruits an art appraiser before he declares the news of Nazi loot found in Los Angeles. The appraiser, crooked to be sure, calls Karakis and sells him the Raphael and all the rest. The LA cache becomes part of what was hidden at the Farrans Estate in England, hidden until it could be disposed of on the art black market.
            No chance, though, Karakis, when Tim Lacy is your opponent.
            Wilson has given the Raphael painting the aura—and remarkable specifics—of a family saga. He’s done this not by people recalling the past as they uncover letters or documents (a time-honored plotting device), but by presenting a real-time narrative. This breaks the rule that says “no flashbacks” in a forward-moving novel. Entirely half of this novel is a flashback—and yet Wilson pulls it off: he’s got the formula down. Over more than ten generations, he has turned a painting into a family saga—and Tim Lacy gets rich and married in the end.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Allure and Pilfering of Dutch Paintings in Novels (no. 15)

 by Larry Witham

From Vermeer to Rembrandt, Small Dutch Artworks Set the Tone

DUTCH PAINTINGS HAVE always been a good centerpiece for novels. The Dutch style has its allure, and the smallish size of many Dutch works makes them convenient objects for human intrigues—such as personal contemplation or theft.
            In the real world, a few small Rembrandt paintings hold the record for art thefts, somewhere around eighty. But for fiction, any kind of Dutch paintings will do. They just have that certain quality.
            The allure began with Frenchman Honoré de Balzac. His was a time when Dutch landscape and genre painting was making its way into France. These detailed paintings of ordinary life—versus large paintings about history, politics, and heroes—fascinated a detail-telling artist such as Balzac. So he frequently injected Dutch artworks into his story plots.
            Best known is the 1830 short novel, At the Sign of the Cat and Racket (La Maison du chat-qui-pelote). A young artist returns from Italy. He comes upon the “cat and racket” shop, and there envisions a genre scene, which Balzac portrays in the Dutch style. The artist paints the scene in that new manner and it revolutionizes the Paris Salon. The artist also sees a young maiden, the shop owner’s daughter, in the window. He captures her image exquisitely in what might also be called a portrait in the Dutch manner.
            They marry, and as the painter is drawn more to his wife’s portrait than to her, and as she feels more and more inadequate next to the ideal of the portrait, their marriage breaks down. The artists wants to live in the world of the artistic ideal, with all its freedom. His wife represents the shackles to humdrum life on earth. Besides such melodrama, Balzac is clearly influenced by Dutch painters’ attention to everyday detail—a hallmark of his own novelistic style.
            Pulitzer-winning novelist Donna Tartt has also chosen a small Dutch painting as a scaffold for her very long novel, The Goldfinch (2013). The choice is not necessarily integral to the characters or the plot. Except that the young hero in this coming-of-age story—Theo Decker—can end up in Amsterdam for a gun battle with European gangsters to recover the Dutch artwork. In Amsterdam, with its lenient drug laws, Theo can also feed his drug habit, which is a key feature in the character’s story.
            The Goldfinch (a real artwork) was painted by the little-known Dutchman Carel Fabritius in 1654. Of the Dutch painters, otherwise, Rembrandt and Vermeer seem the obvious favorites of novelists.
            Either artist can certainly swing a book cover, as proved by spy-thriller novelist Daniel Silva’s The Rembrandt Affair. Silva’s plotting around Gabriel Allon, a tough and cagey former Mosad agent who is also an art restorer, often evokes the plight of European Jews. In this case, they were owners of art taken by the Nazis. This Rembrandt was owned by a Jewish woman, but later came into the illicit possession of a Swiss banker who made his fortune on the back of the Holocaust.
            The woman slipped a list of stolen art and treasure into the lining of Rembrandt painting. The list is also an indictment of guilty parties. For this reason, the painting becomes an object of pursuit by the good guys and the bad. In the end, Allon recovers the list. The painting is given justice. The Swiss banker is foiled, but he is so high up in the system, he is beyond punishment for the time being.
            Most literal of all is British novelist Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which tells the fictional love story of Vermeer with the young woman, a house servant girl, who was the subject of his famous portrait in blues, yellows, browns, whites, and flesh tones, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).
            So little is known of Vermeer’s private life that Chevalier has had to mine her powers of invention. The sexual tension between Vermeer and the attractive sixteen-year-old Griet is the obviously story line, but Chevalier also introduces a modern-day controversy into her plot.
            It has been argued in modern times that Vermeer’s renderings were so well done because he used a camera obscura to trace the scenes before he painted them, a kind of “cheating,” you might say (like using an overhead project today, a favorite method of Andy Warhol, for example). The evidence in Vermeer’s work is the curved perspectives of his paintings and the blurry highlights that cameras produce. As Griet said in the novel, “They set up the camera obscura so it pointed at me.”
            The debate continues in fiction, however.
            When Katherine Weber decided to create a fictional Vermeer painting for her plot in the elegant novel, The Music Lesson (1998), her main character, Patrician Dolan, argues that Vermeer didn’t need a camera obscura to simply draw very well; it’s done all the time by talented art students, after all.
            The central theme, however, is how a Dutch painting can overwhelm the heart and senses. This painting—a fictional “music lesson” by Vermeer—mesmerizes Dolan during her long isolated stay in the Irish backcountry after the painting was stolen by an IRA splinter group.
            Author Weber knows her art history, and the Irish landscape. Vermeers had been stolen before, one by the IRA from the stately Russborough House in England (Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid, now recovered), and one from the Isabelle Steward Gardner Museum in Boston (The Concert, still missing, with speculations on IRA involvement).
            This novel, a kind of diary of past events, opens with: “She’s beautiful. Surely, there is nothing more interesting to look at in all the world, nothing, than the human face. Her gaze catches me, pins me down, pulls me in.” There is more such exaltation, and we don’t learn the portrait painting is a Vermeer until halfway through the book.
            As girl in Boston, fictional Dolan had been enchanted by a Vermeer at the Gardner Museum. So later, as an art historian, she was brushed-up on the painter. Indeed, an agent from the IRA splinter group duped her into identifying a Vermeer worthy of theft for the Irish cause. It is a political cause deep in Dolan’s family background, but one she's been sucked into only now, a time of loneliness, making her a party to high crime and unexpected violence.
            She now calls herself a “naïve idiot” for not seeing all the betrayal. But the painting’s spell over her did not lend to seeing hard, cold reality. For an hour or so, on the eve of the crime, an airport heist in Holland, “I just sat with the simple painted panel in my two hands, and I looked and I looked and I looked. And anything that might happen to me when this is over, however it ends, will be worth that hour.”
            As long as there is fiction, we're likely to find its profitable use of Dutch painting.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Part III: Henry James’s Short Stories about Artists (no. 14)

 by Larry Witham

Painted Portraits Play a Large Role in Tales of Fickle Relationships

WHETHER HENRY JAMES was an Impressionist or Mannerist in his literary approach to the modern novel, he was prodigious in including artistic subject matter. Besides his four novels in that mode (see James Part II), four of his short stories explore the painter’s work.
            ■ In “A Landscape Painter” (1866), which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, we meet an experienced American landscape painter. He has found refuge in a New England coastal town after a falling out with a young woman who wanted to marry him for his wealth. His names is Locksley, and the narrator—and Locksley himself—are frequently telling his story based on entries in a diary the painter has kept.
            Having fled a “gold-digger,” so to speak, the middle-aged Locksley conceals his wealth by emulating a kind of simplicity and even poverty as he boards at the house of Richard Quarterman, a retired sea captain. The captain’s daughter, Miriam , is a music teacher. She and Locksley develop a mutual attraction. During a time when Locksley is feverishly ill, she reads his diary and plumbs his secrets—and resolves to marry him. Through excerpts of the diary, moreover, the artistic mind of Locksley is revealed at length. He muses on landscape painting, the tools of the trade, and great painters such as J.M.W. Turner.
            Miriam becomes the painter’s fiancée. On their honeymoon, he confides that he is actually wealthy. He lets Miriam read the diary, tacitly giving her credit for not loving him for his riches. Then she, too, confides: she had read his diary, and indeed, his wealth had only increased her affection for him. James leaves us wondering: Will it last? Either way, the mind of an American painter is revealed in a way not yet known in America literature.
            ■ Two year later, James wrote “The Story of a Masterpiece” (1868), which appeared in a publication called Galaxy. After the wealthy widower John Lennox meets and proposes marriage to Marian Everett, an artist acquaintance begins a portrait of Marian. Lennox looks on, seeing things in the portrait that skewed his affections toward his wife negatively. In paint she looks steely, frivolous, and cynical. The painter’s name is Stephen Baxter. Earlier in life he, in fact, had also fallen for Marian, but they had quarreled and he was rejected. Now, Baxter’s painting of her has become an interpretation, apparently in the style of the Postimpressionists (a Van Gogh comes to mind). The image becomes disconcerting to Lennox. He can only bear to look at the painting of his fiancée twice; the second time under dim light to dull the impact.
            The wedding awaits. Lennox is troubled by Baxter’s “marvelous insight” through the portrait. It has cast the bride-to-be as having a “horrible blankness and deadness that quenched the light in her eyes and stole away the smile from her lips.” The sentiments of love are drained from Lennox: “his love was dead, his youth was dead.” Still, he tries to rationalize this loss, the narrator tells us: “His love's vitality has been but small, and since it was to be short lived it was better that it should expire before marriage than after.” Lennox decides, therefore, that marriage is built on more than love. So he goes ahead with the commitment. Soon after, he turns to the portrait, and striking it “with a half-a-dozen strokes, he wantonly hacked it across. The act afforded him an immense relief.”
            As always, James is inconclusive at the end. The narrator says: “How has he fared—how is he destined to fare—in matrimony, it is rather too early to determine. He has been married scarcely three months.”
            ■ Now we come to James’s 1873 short story, “The Madonna of the Future.” Appearing also in Atlantic Monthly, its theme reflects a short work already done by the French author Honoré de Balzac, which offers the story of a fickle, struggling painter.
            The James short story takes place in Florence, Italy. A young American narrator named “H” arrives and meets Theobald, an old Yankee painter who is not producing any work. Theobald laments that American artists “lack the deeper sense” of the Europeans. The narrator H protests; he is an American boosters. He says that the solution is to “Invent, create, achieve!” At some point, Theobald mentions that “horrible little tale by Balzac” (which in reality had been titled, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” and which had probably influenced James, as noted).
            Theobald says he is working on a Madonna painting, and introduces his model. She is a very old woman named Serafina. Our man “H” reacts by commenting on her deleterious age. This upsets Theobald terribly and makes him so ill that he dies. When H visits his studio to see the Madonna painting, he finds that the canvas is both decrepit and blank. In short, Theobald spent his whole life failing to get a start on the painting. As in Balzac’s story, James is poking fun at all artists, and perhaps even himself, since remaining artistically productive was a never-ending challenge for a writer, let alone a painter.
            At the end of the short story, to add some artistic accomplishment to the dismal tale, James has another character arrive. He is a commercially successful artist who make statuettes of obscenely posed monkeys and cats. A dozen years later, Emile Zola will echo the same theme of an artist obsessed by an unfinished painting. He may have found it in the short stories of both Balzac and James. Be that as it may, Zola’s full novel—The Masterpiece (1885)—reflected his own life among Postimpressionists such as Paul Cézanne.
            ■ Henry James’s last short story to feature a painter is “The Liar,” which appeared in Century Magazine in 1888. Again, the story orbits around a portrait. The painter Oliver Lyon is doing one of Sir David at Ashmore estate. The painter meets there a Colonel Clement Capadose, the reputed “liar” in the story for his innocent tall tales. To Lyon, the colonel has a certain look: “He might have been a dethroned prince or the war-correspondent of a newspaper; he represented both enterprise and tradition, good manners and bad taste.” The colonel, in fact, has married a woman that Lyon had once loved.
            The egotistical Lyon is himself a bit cagey, using his portraits to manipulate his subjects. James may have been playing on the term “liar” by naming the painter “lyin.” In any case, Lyon next paints the daughter of the colonel, and then the father. The portrait so reveals Colonel Capadose’s dishonest character that, in private, he slashes it to pieces. When Lyon sees the destroyed work, the colonel accuses a young painter’s model of doing the deed. To Lyon’s amazement, the colonel’s wife supports him in the fib, saying that she and her husband admired the portrait; he would never have wrecked it.
            The theme of a portrait spookily revealing secrets of its subject had been used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short story, “The Prophetic Pictures” (1837). James had surely read it before he conceived his own tale. Soon after, Oscar Wilde used the haunting portrait theme in the novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890). It tells the story of a portrait that aged as its decadent subject remained young, a kind of Faustian bargain that backfires in the end.
            Once a good idea gets into print, authors clearly play on it in new ways—and so it is with evocative portrait painting that seems to control the lives of their subjects.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Part II: Four Novels by Henry James that Feature Artists (no. 13)

 by Larry Witham

HE Often paints these novels with thwarted characters

HENRY JAMES’S SECOND published story was about a Yankee painter who retired to an obscure coastal town in New England. There, the artist's diary reveals his musings on rendering landscapes. This short story, which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866, was aptly titled, “The Landscape Painter.”
            After this, James wrote two more short stories with artist characters (“Story of a Masterpiece,” 1868, and “Madonna of the Future,” 1873) before he ventured to build an entire novel around an artisan. Four novels went in this direction. James began with a sculptor, and then moved on to draftsmen, painters, and paintings. These four novels are herewith summarized.
            ■ Roderick Hudson (1875) tells the story of a New England sculptor invited by a wealthy American abroad to practice in Rome. His talent is dazzling, but his judgment poor, leading to some untoward gambling and his insulting of an aristocrat. Hudson is also entranced by a young beauty, Christina. But when she is required by her mother to marry a prince in Naples, Hudson entirely loses his will to work. A trip to Florence helps him forget, but then he sees Princess Christina in Switzerland. Demoralized, he rambles into an Alpine storm. The next morning his body is found below a precipice.
            As is so often the case in a novel by James, the reader is left wondering about a clear resolution: did he jump or did he fall?
            ■ In the “short” novel Confidence (1879), James studies the relationship between two male friends, Bernard Longueville the artist, and Gordon Wright, who has a scientific bent. The two are courting two different women, with a third male rival entering later. While sketching in Siena, Italy, Longueville meets Angela. Wright is also attracted to Angela, but marries another woman. That marriage is plunged into crisis when his wife flirts with the rival character. Angela persuades Wright to keep his marriage. She, in turn, while at first resenting artist Longueville’s maneuvers, marries him. All of this raises the typical kinds of tensions—and uneasy resolutions—that James likes to experiment with. Because novels are often autobiographical, Confidence’s buildup of tension between artist Longueville and scientist Wright may reflect the same experience between the James brothers; Henry the literary artist and William the scientist.
            ■ Next comes Henry James’s The Tragic Muse (1890), set in England. The novel follows the life of the well-born Nick Dormer. He wants to be a painter, but his mother pressures him to run for political office. With it he will gain status and perks for the family. (Actually, James’s desire to write about “the conflict between art and ‘the world’” in this novel is dramatized by another character, the actress Miriam and her fortunes between the London and Paris theater scenes). In any case, Nick’s Oxford friend, the philosophical aesthete Gabriel Nash, urges Nick to reject politics for the sake of art. Nick wins the election, but as time passes he goes back to painting. He does not have success with this, and his family’s fortunes dwindle. This upsets his mother, and it has further alienated his one-time fiancée, Julia. In the end, Julia sits for Nick as he does her portrait. Family affairs seem to be resolving, but again, James leaves us hanging: Will Nick and Julia marry?
            ■ The very last novel of James’s writing career was also about the art world. Titled The Outcry (1911, though first drafted as a play), it was inspired by real events: a British controversy over Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait, The Duchess of Milan, being bought by a foreign collector, thus leaving England. In the novel, the “outcry” arises when rich American Breckenridge Bender comes to bid on a Joshua Reynolds portrait, Duchess of Waterbridge (fictional), in the collection of Lord Theign. Other saleable paintings become an issue, especially as young art critic Hugh Crimble claims to discover mislabeled treasures in the Theign collection. Grace urges her father to not sell the paintings out of loyalty to England. Newspapers also join the patriotic outcry. Experts vie over Crimble’s claims, and finally Lord Theign bites the bullet: he donates his most valuable painting to the National Gallery. He then challenges another owner of British art, Lady Sandgate, to tear up Bender’s check and donate her artwork to the National Gallery as well.
            At the time, James was playing both sides. He wrote this as his New England friend, the heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner, was rapaciously buying up European art for her Boston villa.
            In the next installment (James, Part III), we’ll look at his four main short stories that included artists as characters.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Part 1: Henry James as an Impressionist Painter of Novels (No. 12)

 by Larry Witham

He was the first american to put painterly themes in fiction

IN 1875, THE AMERICAN novelist Henry James arrived in Paris. At that moment, his first novel was also being published in Boston. Titled Roderick Hudson, it was about a lovelorn sculptor and his tragic end in an Alpine snowstorm.
            The Paris arrival and the first novel set the stage for James—an expatriate New Englander who would live most of his life in London—to be the first American novelist to seriously include artists in major works of fiction.
            Up to this point, Nathaniel Hawthorne was still the “great American novelist,” a mantel that both Herman Melville and James aspired to inherit.
            Hints of the visual arts began to appear in Hawthorne. Well before Oscar Wilde’s novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1890), for example, Hawthorne wrote his short story “The Prophetic Pictures” (1837), in which portrait paintings reveal the fates of their subjects. Melville was a friend of Hawthorne, and much more than his older compatriot, Melville used artistic references, especially in two of his major-period novels, Redburn and Moby-Dick. And naturally so: Melville was a print collector, lecturer on ancient art, and was everywhere exposed to the painters and art books of his day in New York City.
            Nevertheless, James finally outdoes Melville by making artists and art lovers the actual characters in the stories.
            Having seen art in Europe during his upbringing, James further honed his tastes at the family home in Newport, Rhode Island. There, his brother James—later, a famous psychologist—studied under Boston’s leading painter, William Morris Hunt. In those circles, Henry also met John La Farge, the American Impressionist. La Farge helped Henry see that, as a writer, he could be a painter of sorts “even with canvas and brush whisked out of my grasp.”
            James’s first story about an artist was set in New England, orbiting around a seasoned painter’s life. This was “A Landscape Painter” (which appeared in 1866 in the Atlantic Monthly), his second published story. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” James boldly equated the painter and the novelist. “The novel is of all pictures the most comprehensive and the most elastic,” he writes.
            James’s European return began with the 1875 arrival in Paris. He was thirty-two and a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. In no time he was in the company of three venerable writers: Turgenev, Zola, and Flaubert.
            He was also in the company of the great revolution in painting, early Impressionism. James had arrived a year after the first Impressionist exhibition. It was organized by a so-called Société, a dissenting group led by Monet, Renior, Degas, and Pissarro. Eight more exhibits followed over the next twelve years.
            In all, some Jamesian scholars sees these painters and their paintings as a primary influence on James’s future style. The evidence is threefold: Under the influence of French painters, James developed an “impressionist” literary style. Second, his largest category of metaphors and similes draws upon art. “Painting,” for example, accounts for four hundred of his sixteen thousand figures of speech—the largest single grouping. “Portrait” is also a favorite, of course.
            And third (as we’ll see in James, Part II and Part III), he ended up writing four short stories about painters (see the James III post), one novel about a sculptor, and three novels related to painters and paintings.
            Each of James’s novels speaks for itself, but literary critics keep us in suspense: Using painting categories as a measure, was Henry James an Impressionist or a “mannerist” in his writing style? Are his novels like a Monet, Pissaro, and Sissley? Or are they more like a Parmigianino, Tintoretto, Bronzino, and late Michelangelo?
            At the start, James was not impressed by the Impressionists. He called them “partisans of unadorned reality,” and “absolute foes to arrangement, embellishment [and] selection.” In dismissing James McNeill Whistler, he said, “His manner is very much that of the French Impressionists.”
            And yet to many commentators, painterly Impressionism began to influence James’s “major period,” making his prose Impressionist: looking at the ordinary, dwelling on the moment, eliciting subjective experience, and leaving matters open ended (such as having an ambiguous conclusion to a novel). In painting, Impressionism was the recording of fleeting impressions. It sought open-air observation and detachment. It contrasted pure colors and liked a visually nebulous atmosphere (rather than visual clarity).
            The same could be said of the new modern novel, of which James was the leading American pioneer. In character, James himself was cosmopolitan, individualistic, apolitical, and inclined to a life dedicated only art. All of this was very much like the leading French Impressionists.
            To the contrary, however, others have said James used traditional literary forms, but then added on a quality of exaggeration. He exaggerated characters, viewpoints, and dialogue. Far from being Impressionist, this would make James an echo of the so-called mannerist paintings between the High Renaissance and the baroque period. Mannerist paintings (a term art historians now dislike) offered odd angles of vision and perspective. They stretched bodies and used abnormal lighting. It has been noted that James’s favorite painter was the Italian Tintoretto, the emblematic mannerist.
            As one scholar said, mannerism in painting emphasizes “intricate asymmetrical patterns leading to no final solution.” And so it is with James novels. On this aspect of James, the two sides have tacitly agreed. He was forebear of the modern novel, which by definition, tends to avoid a clear resolution to the plots.
            (Next: The James novel plots.)

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Painter of Birds Gives this Literary Novel Wings (no. 11)

 by Larry Witham

Novelist norman handily illustrates the early years of a boy artist

PUT ASIDE THE predictable jealousy, tragedy, infidelity, and murder of your typical novel. They do appear in The Bird Artist (1994), Howard Norman’s third work of literary fiction. But the coming-of-age part in the first chapter—where we see a Newfoundland boy at the turn of the century aspire to draw birds—is itself enough to satisfy.
            Oh, and yes, by the way, young bird artist Fabian Vas has committed a murder. He confesses his crime bluntly in the novel’s first sentences.
            Otherwise, Fabian recounts his pre-murder boyhood through much of the early novel. His reticent father works hard at the docks, while his mother, a neighborly librarian, and a mail-order teacher encourage Fabian’s art. Things change, however, when a new lighthouse keeper, the swaggering Botho August, comes to town. When Botho sleeps with Fabian’s mother, and then with the bird artist’s first true love, Margaret, Fabian has no choice: he shoots the man.
            But we digress. First and foremost the birds, and the drawing and painting thereof.
            The novel opens in 1911 at the fictitious Witless Bay, Newfoundland, and we hear Fabian tell a story that is not unlike that of many young boys who aspire to be artists, whether they finally succeed at that vocation or not.
            Fabian’s mother first discovers his talent. She sees his bird drawings in the margin of the new primer book from school. At Mrs. Bath’s living room library, Fabian is introduced to natural history books, and in particular, “the book that changed my life.” It is a natural history of the Southeast coast and Bahamas—which includes 109 magnificent, colorful bird illustrations. “This book was a true revelation for me,” Fabian reports.
            He even “dreamed about” the wild variety of birds.
            At age eight, to advance his drawing skills, Fabian practically lives out at the coves, wetlands, and trout camps. At age eleven he publishes an illustrated field guide for birds (not that the locals don’t already know their birds). Soon enough, through Bird Lore magazine he hooks up with a correspondence teacher, Mr. Sprague, who lives way off in Halifax. Thus begins Fabian’s apprenticeship: each month he packs and sends five pencil and watercolor renderings of birds. Mr. Sprague sends them back with comments and notes.
            Sprague’s typical comment is, “You have a knack, but you’re no genius,” or “shows improvement.” Then he goes into detail about a feather pattern, claw, or bird characteristic. Occasionally, he’ll enthuse: “The belted kingfisher you sent me . . .  is pretty good—fine. A solid effort, Mr. Vas.”
            For young Fabian, birds are a bit more magical that his mentor seems to take them. Fabian tacks above his desk a bird painting Sprague has done for Bird Lore. It spurs him on (again, not unlike any boy artist):
            “[The red-throated loon] was so graceful and transcendent that each time I sat down in front of it to work, it made me want to give up. But then after I had stared at it, the loon became an inspiration. It was uncanny how the change overtook me. The pencil seemed to move of its own volition. The brush made a beak, feather, eye. . . . I was convinced that birds were kinds of souls.”
            Back to the murder. In the end, Fabian is acquitted, even though everyone in the village knows it was him. He’s acquitted because his father, with nothing left to lose but his son’s love, feigns guilt, takes the blame, and flees the village.
           Fickle Margaret is another story. Fabian’s parents had refused to let him marry her, and had nearly forced Fabian into a rural arranged marriage (which is what prompted Margaret to sleep with Botho as a kind of revenge). On the night that Fabian shoots Botho, Margaret also shows up, shooting him a second time, the shot that actually kills. And the family tragedies multiply. Fabian’s mother is so ashamed of her infidelity that she rows out into the harbor, crashes her skiff into the mail boat, and drowns.
            Through it all, Fabian continues his boyhood joy of drawing and painting birds, this after his laborious day job at the docks. He becomes a regional bird artist of some note. And as things settle down, he and his first love Margaret—with her drinking and psychiatric issues—marry and welcome a child.
            The art theme wraps up the story. The village minister, who preaches about the sins of the Vas family, nevertheless makes Fabian an offer: paint a mural in the church hall, something like a “peaceable kingdom” made up of local flora and fauna. Fabian agrees to do it for the money. There’s one caveat, though. The minister demands that Fabian insert people and events in the vast mural, and these must include one event in particular: the murder of Botho August. Fabian complies.
            One day, after the mural is done, old Mr. Sprague—the master bird artistarrives from Halifax. Not long to live, he is eager to see the progress of his students scattered around the countryside. On seeing the birds in the mural, the old teachers says as usual, “shows improvement.”
            Sprague still talks as he did during the years of correspondence. “The Ibis is splendid,” he tells Fabian. “The owl working over the trout with its talons has a proper ferocity, and I’d recommend that you put birds into action more often—have them doing something.” And so it went.
            The fading master is passing his mantel to a student who’s done fairly well (if old Sprague only knew!) “Clearly your strength is in shorebirds. My best guess is that you’ll continue to contribute” to the availability of quality bird art. “You’ve got a knack. And while you may never wholly make a living from bird art—difficult for anyone—your mergansers, teals, all of your ducks . . . may secure you some small reputation.”
            The Bird Artist was a finalist for the National Book Awards. And the part about the boy-artist and his teacher echoes down, and across every generation, as young lads everywhere are awe-struck by artistic pictures, and want to make them, too.