Appreciating Art Through Fiction

I still remember seeing Girl With A Pearl Earring displayed at Barnes & Noble many years ago. One look at that cover, and as a lover of historical fiction, I had to snap the book right off the shelf and head for the cashier. During that period, I also discovered Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, another novel that imagines a Vermeer painting. This story traces a portrait’s ownership back in time to WWII and ultimately to Amsterdam when the artist created it. I was saddened to learn Vreeland died last month—and shocked to hear she’d passed the same day I presented my spare copy of her novel to a friend as a gift.

Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland spurred my love of novels about art and artists. What is it about these books that fascinates me (and other readers) so much?

In the Historical Novels Society’s (HNS) series called Art in Historical Fiction, Stephanie Renee Dos Santos interviewed Vreeland some time back. The author had this to say about fiction that ties in art: “While an art history can give us an appreciation of a painter’s work, the view is from the onlooker, while fiction invites us into the artist’s inner nature, takes us to his bosom, and makes us feel the artist’s strong emotions for ourselves.”

I would add that feeling strong emotion as we read also holds true when getting in the head of someone obsessed with an artwork, such as with the protagonist of The Goldfinch.

Vreeland went on to say, “Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it’s a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.”

HNS asked Cascade author Maryanne O’Hara why fiction about art matters to readers. “The contemplation of art enriches fiction, I think. And to quote Alice Walker: ‘If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.’”


I’ve been captivated by books that take me into a painter’s studio centuries ago. I’ve been enlightened by stories that reveal the horrors committed against Jews—and the fate of their stolen treasures. I’ve been swept away by novels of lost masterpieces, of women who dared to hold the brush rather than pose for the master, and of forgeries and muses and love.

Novels that alternate between the past and present are fertile ground for stories about artists and masterworks, as well, from Lauren Willig’s That Summer to Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind.

To explore books that deal with art, check out some that are pictured from my collection. Also, you might find the following online articles of interest: 11 Novels Every Art History-Lover Should Pick Up and 10 Great Fictional Artists in Literature. The latter piece is written by Dominic Smith, author of The Last Painting of Sara De Vos—my top pick as posted on this blog last March.

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