Recommended Novels About Art and Artists
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Recommended Novels About Art and Artists

Brief summary of five recommended novels about art and artists; The Moon and Sixpence, The Agony and the Ecstasy, My Name is Asher Lev, The Lust for Life and Of Human Bondage.

Reading novels about art and artists can give some insight into the inner workings and thought processes of the times and movements of visual expression and culture. These five novels explore the world and times of the renaissance, post-impressionism and modern art.

The Moon and Sixpence W. Somerset Maugham (1919)

A novel inspired by the life of post-impressionist French artist Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903). The main character, Charles Strickland is a stockbroker leading an average but dull and uninteresting life in London with his wife and children. Recognizing that he is miserably unhappy he suddenly leaves his family and his career as a stockbroker to pursue art in Paris. He becomes maniacally obsessed with his painting and rejects social intercourse and even every day comforts in order to pursue his passion. The novel follows him to Tahiti where, like Paul Gauguin, he lives out his remaining years painting life in the tropics. His life ends in illness and tragic death. Although the novel loosely follows the life of Gauguin it is not a biography but can certainly be viewed in light of the art movements and characters at the turn of the 20th century.

Of Human Bondage W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

Listed in the top 100 Best English-language Novels of the 20th century,  this novel is inspired by the author’s own life. Somerset Maugham admits that it has autobiographical elements but is not an autobiography. The main character, Philip Carey is orphaned at an early age and sent to live with his unemotional aunt and uncle who is the vicar in a small English village. He is treated civilly if not lovingly and he is encouraged along the path of his uncle’s calling. Due to his disappointment of not being healed by God of a cIub foot, he becomes disenchanted with religion and sets off to seek what he believes to be his calling as a painter. His life journey is a story about artistic angst and finding one’s calling and purpose. The novel is unsettling, tragic and thought provoking, following Philip through many transformative life events to an ultimate satisfying conclusion.

The Agony and the Ecstasy Irving Stone (1961)

The Agony and the Ecstasy is a biographical novel of Michelangelo. The reference material is well researched by Irving Stone and is based on Mr. Stone’s travels to Italy and nearly 500 translated letters of Michelangelo. This is not only a biography of possibly the greatest artist that ever lived, it is a sweeping epic of the politics, social structure, art history and the enlightenment of the age of the renaissance. The story follows Michelangelo Buoneratti, as a young boy in Florence, through his training and career as a painter, sculptor, architect and poet. His relationship with the Medici family, local stonecutters and the popes of the Roman Catholic Church take you through nearly eight decades of the Italian Renaissance.

Lust for Life by Irving Stone (1934)

A biographical novel of post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890) this novel is largely based on information from the extensive number of letters that van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. Stone also published a non-fiction book on van Gogh called Dear Theo in which much of the correspondence is published. Stone’s novel follows van Gogh from his failed attempt as a clergyman living in poverty among the coal miners to his life in France and his relationship with Paul Gauguin. His tumultuous mental state and his manic fervent bouts of painting and severe depression are highlighted up to his ultimate death from a self inflicted gun shot.

My Name is Asher Lev Chaim Potok (1972)

This novel is loosely autobiographical but is not an autobiography. Asher Lev is a child prodigy growing up in an Hasidic Russian Jewish community. From the time he is a child he has had a sense that he is different. He does not see the world the same as his orthodox community. The novel tells the story of his growth as an artist and his alienation from his strict traditions. The conflict is between good and evil, blessing and curse. Does he give in to his art talent that possesses him or does he abandon his talent, a prospect that fills him with angst and dread. Asher Lev is finally given the blessing of the Rabbi to pursue his art out in the world of the gentiles leading him to some difficult decisions. Potok follows Asher through his struggle to manage his two worlds and the tension between them.

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Comments (4)

excellent article thank you

Great work...thanks for sharing

My wife has all of these books in her library and has read them many times. Excellent reviews Judith.

Thank you all for the nice comments. I have read them all several times too. They are certainly among my favorites.

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