Six Great Books for Art Historical Leisure

By Jimena Martinez Gerhard

March 20, 2016

photo of a stack of colourful books

History can be written in many different ways. Sometimes as Art History students we may feel that scholarly texts are missing a more human element amidst the academic format and language. We know how inspiring art can be, but between all the essays we write and the classes we take, it can be easy to lose focus on this and become lost in the academic side of things. When you stumble across something that reminds you of the kind of inspiration art can give (and why we study it in the first place), it is mesmerizing.

For instance, the art we study in our courses has inspired a wide variety of literature. Many authors play with the history behind paintings or artists. While some authors may blur the boundaries between historical accuracy and fiction, their novels offer to fill-in the gaps sometimes missing in scholarly text. They offer a unique insight into the processes of art making and the personalities involved in the form of thought-provoking narratives that capture the attention of art-lovers and non-art lovers alike. The author’s playful storytelling may indeed help enhance your knowledge with rich descriptions and stories. No one forgets an incredible story! Just don’t forget to be wary of the fictional and the fantastical!

  1. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999): You may have seen the movie featuring Scarlett Johansson, but it was first a book about a maiden named Griet who grows close to the artist Johannes Vermeer when she begins working in his home. Like many of us, the author was captivated by the intense gaze of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earing (1665) and the novel provides a literary description that parallels the The Hagues’s artistic style.
  1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013): If you would like to continue reading about Dutch art, this book is for you. The highly acclaimed novel follows the story of Theo Decker and the power of single painting, Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch (1654).
  1. Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex: This novel explores Leonardo Da Vinci during the creation of The Last Supper (1494-1499) and the Mona Lisa(1503-1519). Essex offers a unique perspective by telling the story through the eyes of two Italian sisters who fight for political power in the courts of Milan, where Da Vinci was working for noble patrons.
  1. Madame Picasso by Anne Girard: This is a fictional story about a girl who became Picasso’s lover, inspired by “the love of Picasso’s life,” Marcelle Humbert, whom he called Ma Jolie and referenced in the painting by the same name. This novel gives insight into a more personal inspiration for Picasso’s cubist period.
  1. Lust for Life by Irving Stone: We all know that Van Gogh’s life was not what you would call boring. Even though his life was short, the impact of his work has endured well-beyond his lifetime. If you want to know more about Van Gogh, consider reading Lust for Life for an engaging narrative based on letters exchanged between Van Gogh and his brother Theo.
  1. The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey: Ever wondered what inspired Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss (1907-1908)? In this novel, Hickey introduces Klimpt’s model Emilie Floge and re-imagines the often tumultuous relationship between artist and model.

If you feel like procrastinating a little bit from you schoolwork, better cuddle up with a book that can be as engaging as being in class!