A trend with a long past

Do you believe that the genre of fiction focusing on artists’ lives is a recent trend? Although it appears to be a recent trend, there are many forerunners. The first I might say would be Emile Zola’s «L’Oeuvre» (1885), whose main character has elements of Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Cezanne. In the 1940s and 1950s, Irving Stone produced novels on Michelangelo, Van Gogh, and Pissarro. I must enlarge this question beyond the limits of entire novels being devoted to an artist’s life, to illustrate the frequent use of art as an incidental but profound element in fiction. Dostoyevsky uses a Holbein painting to dramatize a crisis of faith. Proust’s character sees eternity in a patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s painting «A View of Delft.» Both are versions of «ekphrasis,» a word of Greek origin meaning the description in one art form of a work created in another art form. One might begin with Homer’s description of the image on Achilles’ shield, or a piece of classical sculpture depicting an event in myth, and follow this thread through literary history. The classical story of Paris choosing the most beautiful of the three goddesses Venus, Minerva, and Juno is rendered by Raphael in a drawing created for an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi. The pose of two of the figures was taken from Michelangelo’s Sistine frescoes. The engraving was seen by Edouard Manet in the Louvre and those two poses are used in his painting «Dejeuner sur l’herbe.» And an American fiction writer, myself, incorporated that painting into a short story from the point of view of Manet’s wife which appears in my collection «Life Studies.» I find this thread of connection fascinating. No doubt there are other such threads in the tapestry of art and literature.

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