Amy Sackville on the top 10 novels about painters

//Amy Sackville on the top 10 novels about painters

Amy Sackville on the top 10 novels about painters

From an obsessed forger in Perec’s Portrait of a Man to a disturbing project in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, the author of Painter to the King shares her favourite literary works on artists
Saint Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa
 Saint Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa, the painting featured in Ali Smith’s How to be Both. Photograph: Alamy

To write about painting is to think about the act of seeing; the way the world begins to arrange itself before an artist’s eye and hand; the suspension of self that happens in the moment of creation (plus all the anxieties, intensities and ecstasies it might entail). Whether an artist in a novel is based on a real person or not, authors are almost always more interested in what it is like to paint, than what is painted.

Many of these books share a concern with the search for perfection – the model set by Balzac’s Le Chef d’Oeuvre and Zola’s L’Oeuvre – and with failure. These painters are introverts, villains, outsiders or sometimes entirely ordinary, but they all have a gift that makes them irresistible (certainly to the writer), one that might also destroy them, or offer redemption, hope and joy.

Painting, like writing, has a peculiar and essential relationship with time, with the creation outliving the creator and their world. My novel about Velázquez and his career as Philip IV of Spain’s Painter to the King attempts to inhabit that strange timeframe: the moment of painting; the 40 years of work; the 400 years that have passed since he arrived at court. That court is now long dead, but stand before one of Velázquez’s subjects and – through the subtlety, humanity, and sheer brilliance of his brush – it’s almost as if they’re still here.

1. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


Lily Briscoe is a guest at the Ramsays’ busy holiday house and “in love with all of them”. She is no egotist, unlike the numerous men who tear her attention from her painting without a second thought. She is tormented by the “moment’s flight” between seeing and painting; still she strives, bravely, “to say: ‘But this is what I see, this is what I see’.” When I think of the brief satisfactions of creative endeavour, I think of Lily finishing her portrait of the Ramsays, and thinking “I have had my vision”.

2. The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
Gulley Jimson is 67 and just out of jail. He is impoverished and in trouble; he’s also thieving, selfish and callous. All he cares about is painting and everything he has is dedicated to it; every inch of space in his run-down habitation and his heart. Cary’s dazzling staccato prose manages to be hard and lyrical and hilarious all at once.

3. The Recognitions by William Gaddis
This vast triptych of a novel is filled with artists, critics, plagiarists, failures, charlatans and frauds; a series of foils for Wyatt Gwyon, a forger of 15th century Northern masters trapped in a Faustian pact with an art dealer. Wyatt is the book’s vibrating centre; his “exquisite sense of privacy” keeps his internal world locked. Yet when Wyatt speaks, he speaks for the book itself: “Do you get the perspective in this? […]— There isn’t any. There isn’t any single perspective, like the camera eye, the one we all look through now and call it realism …”

JE7M9D Le Il Condottiere or mercenary leader by ANTONELLO da Messina 1475 Italian Download Add to cart View cart See pricing › Image Ref CEHG21 (RM) ContributorPeter Horree Credit line Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
 Il Condottiere, a 1475 painting by Antonello da Messina and featured in Georges Perec’s novel Portait of a Man. Photograph: Alamy

4. Portrait of a Man by Georges Perec, translated by David Bellos
Gaspard Winckler, no longer satisfied after 12 years in the business, becomes obsessed with the impossible task of forging an “authentic” Antonello da Messina. Confronted with the unassailable completeness of Messina’s Il Condottiere, Winckler drives himself to drink and murder. We find him paranoid, despairing, and digging himself out (literally, with a chisel) of the basement he’s trapped in.

5. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal
Anna Aemelin paints small watercolours of the forest floor, waiting for the snow to thaw before setting out into the dense wall of trees behind her house every spring. This is a quietly disconcerting story about seeing and perception, deception, cruelty and kindness.

6. Contre-Jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard by Gabriel Josipovici
“In one person, one room, there is enough to keep a hundred painters busy for a hundred lives,” says Bonnard of his work. But what if you are that one person? The French post-impressionist lived in relative seclusion with his wife, who he painted over and over again, in the rooms of their house and in the bath that she spent so much time in. This unhappy muse, and a daughter who doesn’t quite exist, narrate this unsettling book, which has stayed with me since I first read it almost 20 years ago – in the bath, apparently, as I find my copy water-stained.

Big Bathtub (Nude), painted by Pierre Bonnard between 1937-1939.
 Big Bathtub (Nude), painted by Pierre Bonnard between 1937-1939. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

7. Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
In one chapter of this book, we meet Filippino Lippi as a 14-year-old apprentice to Botticelli: adroit, canny, cool, an unnervingly penetrative observer. We see his commission in the present day, now at the centre of a mystery: who painted Vashti, the “exiled queen”, “La Derelitta”? The beauty of the panel endures regardless. When Krasznahorkai’s torrential sentences come to rest at last at a full stop, it will take the very last bit of your breath away.

8. How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Smith’s playful, generous work is often interested in art and in words as they exist in the world. This gloriously inventive dual narrative can be read in either of two directions (or both). A little-known Renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, is dragged from the afterlife by the gaze of a grieving girl, George. Following her, the artist remembers his/her life and work, in gleeful, sensuous detail. A joyous meditation on the meaning and power of art to comfort, to connect. If you are in London, go stand in George’s place and look at the portrait of Saint Vincent Ferrer in the National Gallery – Del Cossa will thank you for it.

9. Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, translated Natasha Wimmer
This wild and vigorous book, ranging over decades and continents and through the careers of cardinals, dukes and conquistadors, is held together by the propulsive energy of a viciously hungover tennis match between the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo and the Lombard artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Enrigue’s painter is venal, horny, volatile, unwashed, and – of course – a genius: “Caravaggio was to painting what Galilei was to physics: someone who took a second look and said what he was seeing … ”

10. The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
The central story of this elusive, disturbing novel concerns the eponymous vegetarian’s brother-in-law, a video artist so possessed by dreams of bodies painted with plants that he is driven to make them a reality. This hallucinatory, erotic and frightening novel is haunted by the unknowable and the obscure.

 Painter to the King by Amy Sackville is published by Granta at £14.99 and is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £12.74.

By | 2018-04-22T16:00:08+00:00 April 22nd, 2018|Blog|0 Comments

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