- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005


By Susan Vreeland

Viking, $24.95, 304 pages


“Artist fiction” has become immensely popular the last few years. With Americans hungry for reality in other forms of entertainment, authors have been quick to provide it in fiction, too. Books like Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (made into a film) and Susan Vreeland’s “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” both about the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, easily became bestsellers.

Men also got in on the action — Will Davenport’s “The Painter” imagined Rembrandt’s “lost” year. By now, it seems a tired, overworked genre. Which makes Susan Vreeland’s new short story collection all the more surprising. Ms. Vreeland is certainly no stranger to the field. Besides “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” she has found success with “The Passion of Artemisia,” about post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and “The Forest Lover,” about Canadian artist Emily Carr.

The first eight stories “Life Studies” involve 19th-century artists, mostly Impressionists, and are based on her research into their lives and loves — many of the words coming out of those artists’ mouths they actually said, although not always in the contexts Ms. Vreeland places them. The other 10 stories are almost all set in the present day, and take for their subject the effect that art can have on our lives.

In this collection, Ms. Vreeland moves beyond her previous work of tales centered on the artists themselves to give us a fuller picture of art’s power to make us love, hate, comprehend, and break out of our often small lives. In an Afterword, Ms. Vreeland even gives citations for many of her quotations and situations. And on just the first page, there are so many references that one thinks she did not want to waste any of her library time.

But she quickly gains confidence, shedding the need to show off her knowledge, immersing herself — and us — in another world. It is a world almost familiar. For Ms. Vreeland, at her best moments, has the uncanny ability to bring a painting to life. It is unfortunate that none of the paintings that form the basis of many of these stories are reproduced in the book. You will not always get the intended effect without them at hand.

The protagonists here are the artists’ daughters, gardeners, nurses, and other virtually unknown figures. This allows her to approach the material in a sometimes startlingly original way. In the small story, “Flower for Ginette,” Ms. Vreeland cleverly chooses as her focus the gardener who helps make the magic of Monet’s flower garden and lily pond. In “Cradle Song,” the longing of a wet nurse for her own child mirrors Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot’s longing for the Manet she didn’t marry.

That shared feeling is complicated by the nurse’s moral outrage on discovering Manet’s sexually charged portraits of Morisot: “She lay like this for him. That isn’t one of the sofas in the house. She went somewhere else and lay like that. I shiver at the thought.”

We remain fascinated by artists because they are some of the clearest manifestations of genius we have seen. We cannot help but try to comprehend the incomprehensible. “Olympia’s Look” is told from the perspective of Manet’s recent widow, Suzanne, who still cannot get her husband’s indiscretions out of her mind:

“She took up reading Vasari again to occupy her mind, although if she admitted the truth, it was really to discover just how frequently artists made their models into lovers.” Of one of her husband’s most famous paintings, she thought only that “Olympia had mocked her with that barefaced impudence every day of her married life.” We see a beautiful, nude woman; she saw a rival.

We also get a fresh look at the artist through the eyes of those coming at them for the very first time. “Why did you paint the same flowers so many times?” a postmaster’s son asks van Gogh. On seeing a painting of a chair, the boy wonders, “What kind of man would paint what was already in the room?” Those are certainly questions few of us would think to ask, but Ms. Vreeland gets inside many different heads.

A common, and weighty, theme of many of the stories, both historical and present day, is the effect that art can have on ordinary people. “Mimi with a Watering Can” tells the tale of the creation of a famous Renoir. Jrome has that all too familiar disease — malaise caused by modern life: “Was a man to resign life or die bitter because he only had two days of every seven to call his own?”

But an artist’s eye helps him to see the beautiful in the everyday. Looking at his daughter anew after Renoir expresses the wish to paint her, “He saw her then with a frame around her, adorable and full of life, with that silly watering can as ineffective as a thimble of water against a field in drought. A painting would make her immortal, not only the girl immortal, but this day when his three-pointed kingdom was of one accord, in one place.”

The modern-day stories may not be as immediately attractive — and it is true that they are not as engrossing — but most of them are at least serviceable, and a few are quite lovely. Most involve ordinary people who are just starting to let art into their lives, with often remarkable results. A lonely housewife takes the astonishing step of becoming a nude model in “Respond,” without telling her husband. Another wife, this one separated, also learns to free herself by taking her son’s suggestion to become a part of art in “Tableaux Vivants.” Readers can more easily relate to such tales, and they can even be inspiring.

“Life Studies” is, in the end, something of propaganda. The book is Ms. Vreeland’s attempt — and not her first — to impress upon us the life-changing possibilities of art, great and amateur alike. There is something to what she believes, of course. Experiencing art is the closest many of us will get to experiencing something outside and above ourselves. It can teach us how to live, it can tell us what is important, it can make our lives better in myriad ways.

Ms. Vreeland has an enviable talent for prose, sometimes even great prose. But that stimulating style often seems wasted on stories that simply do not go anywhere. “Of These Stones” starts out as a promising exploration of the seeming (to the young boys who taunt him) madness of Czanne, but ends abruptly, with no satisfying conclusion to the story of one of those boys. The mix of God and art that made the story so interesting turns out to have been to no effect.

The author’s next novel is to be based on Renoir’s famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” It seems a work ripe for this kind of fiction, with its jolly depiction of 14 people, some famous, some not, in a scene to make us mortals envious. One hopes that Ms. Vreeland has not yet exhausted her subject. “Life Studies” is the work of a great talent, but one who, finally, may have to move on.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a books columnist for The American Enterprise Online.

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