7 Favorite Historical Novels with Art/Artists

I love to read fiction with art and artists. Do you? Do you have some favorite titles to share here? Recently, author Susan Vreelend, preeminent writer of novels focusing and drawing from the visual arts, asked on Facebook for readers to submit titles of books that have what she calls: “art tie-ins”. After some weeks she amassed more than 100 titles! Art in fiction is a growing niche. I’ve been voraciously reading these art-based novels as this is also my passion in writing and reading.

My current top 7 favorites (and these are not in any particular order — I love them all equally but for different reasons, the numbering is for organisation only):

The Forest Lover Cover1. The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland

“She sat very still, listening to a stream gurgling, the breeze soughing through upper branches, the melodious kloo-klack of ravens, the nyeep-nyeep of nuthatches – all sounds chokingly beautiful. She felt she could hear the cool clean breath of growing things – fern fronds, maple leaves, white trillium petals, tree trunks, each in its rightful place.”
― Susan VreelandThe Forest Lover

This one of my all-time favorite novels. The writing is gorgeous and evocative of the majestic Pacific Northwest of North America and 19th century Canadian painter/writer, Emily Carr — her painting, her struggle, her love of this special place — its native people and culture.


cascade_tpb cover2. Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara

“She knew better: when artistry seems most elusive is when you must focus, dig deep, and force yourself to think about how to give form to an idea that seems too vague to express.”
― Maryanne O’Hara

I really loved this story: tension on every page as you are plunged into the plight of the female painter. I could relate profoundly to the protagonist, I being a working visual artist for the last 20 years.



The Passion of Artemisia cover3. The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

“I remember being disappointed when Papa had shown me Caravaggio’s Judith. She was completely passive while she was sawing through a man’s neck. Caravaggio gave all the feeling to the man. Apparently, he couldn’t imagine a woman to have a single thought. I wanted to paint her thoughts, if such a thing were possible — determination and concentration and belief in the absolute necessity of the act. The fate of her people resting on her shoulders…” ― Susan VreelandThe Passion of Artemisia

This is an important and fascinating story about Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. I wish for everyone  to read it and learn about her story and incredible paintings.


Portraits of an Artist cover4. Portraits of an Artist by Mary F. Burns

“I want to paint something that no one has ever painted before,” he was saying. I almost laughed at that — doesn’t every artist? We are all touched, however lightly, by the finger of god, and long to be gods ourselves, bringing forth new creations, and yet, so very few achieve it. Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian. We stumble in their footsteps, and wait at the closed door.” ― Mary F. BurnsPortraits of an Artist

I loved the writing and voices in this book, along with poignant and insightful reflections of what the artist thinks and cares about. It is a story about American painter John Singer Sargent.


The Agony and the Ecstasy cover5. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

“Talent is cheap; dedication is expensive. It will cost you your life.” ― Irving StoneThe Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo

I read this novel way back in 1993, while I was studying oil painting, ceramics and Italian art history — living in the blessed city of Florence, Italy. This is a classic and moving tale about Michelangelo.



Claude & Camille cover6. Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell

“Sometimes he dreamt he held her; that he would turn in bed and she would be there. But she was gone and he was old. Nearly seventy. Only cool paint met his fingers. “Ma très chère . . .” Darkness started to fall, dimming the paintings. He felt the crumpled letter in his pocket. “I loved you so,” he said. “I never would have had it turn out as it did. You were with all of us when we began, you gave us courage. These gardens at Giverny are for you but I’m old and you’re forever young and will never see them. . . .”
― Stephanie CowellClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

I cried at one point in this read. It is a touching and beautifully wrought story. The writing is exquisite and vivid: irresistible. I highly recommend this novel about French painter Claude Monet and his muse, Camille.

7. I’m currently reading The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro and loving it, but I’m not yet finished, so I will wait to comment!

My to read list: The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen, The Miracles of Prato by Laurie Lico Albanese, Lydia Cassett Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman, The Painted Kiss  and The Wayward Muse by Elizabeth Hickey, The Hypnotist by M.J. Rose

Please leave a comment and your favorite Art in Fiction titles!

For more highly recommended books visit my blog page “Recommended Reading: Fiction with Art/Artist”


8 thoughts on “7 Favorite Historical Novels with Art/Artists

  1. I don’t specifically read historical novels because they are about the lives of artists, but I remember reading the Agony and the Ecstasy. I enjoyed Claude and Camille because I do love Monet’s work. I interviewed author Stephanie Cowell a couple of years ago and asked her about the use of paints. They had a little technology in paints in tubes which enabled 1850s artists to go out and paint plein aire.. I got a chance to see his Monet this past September and thought of Camille.

  2. Wonderful list — I just adored Cascade! Recently finished Bárbara Mujica’s I Am Venus, about Velazquez and the model for his painting, the Rokeby Venus. Very interesting.

    I adored to pieces Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude, about painter Tamara de Lempicka. Great novel — very dark, sexy, and atmospheric.

    A few years ago I read The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald — it barely squeaks in as hist fic as it takes place in the ’50s and ’60s — but has such a strong sense of those eras, I have to mention. He becomes an animator — lots of fascinating stories about early Disney animation, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine movie, etc.

    And perhaps bending the definition of art/artist, I know many love Tracy Chevalier — her The Lady and the Unicorn is about tapestry making, the Cluny tapestries, etc.

  3. The list keeps growing. I have just written an endorsement for the exquisite novel, I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU by Robin Oliveira, about Mary Cassatt and Degas, with Berthe Morisot and Manet as secondary characters. Deep and stunning. Will write a review when it comes out February 4.

    • Susan- Thank you for stopping by and adding yet another Art in Fiction title! I will definitely keep my eyes open for this one and I look forward to reading your review.

      And can’t wait for your next release, summer 2014: Lisette’s List

      “Three artists.
      Three generations.
      Three wars.
      Eight paintings.
      One of the most beautiful villages in France.
      A woman, and the men who surround her.
      A heartache. A vow. A mystery. A search.
      And a list.”

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