Art in Historical Fiction Interview Series featuring Susan Vreeland
Stephanie Renee dos Santos
Welcome to week one of the “Art in Historical Fiction Interview Series”, where for the next nine Saturdays I will be sharing one of the author interviews that inspired the recently published article “The Artist’s Call, The Writer’s Calling”, Historical Novel Review, May 2014. There are multiple novels that have helped pave the way for the current boom of art-related historical fiction titles, for instance, Ivring Stone’s novels Lust for Life and The Agony and Ecstasy, Tracey Chevalier’s The Girl with the a Pearl Earring, and Sarah Dunants’s The Birth of Venus. Highly anticipated forthcoming books like Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List (releases August 26, 2014), Donna Russo Morin’s women artists of the Renaissance trilogy, and Heather Webb’s Rodin’s Lover (releases 2015) show that historical novels interwoven with art is a flourishing niche.
To launch the series I’d like to introduce preeminent writer of art in fiction, Susan Vreeland, author of eight novels, all of which investigate in some way the arts and artist.
Stephanie Renée dos Santos: Uniquely, Susan you have dedicated your writing career to telling stories of the female artist and the arts. Will you share with us about this passion?
Susan Vreeland: First, I must issue a correction. While three of my novels focus on female artists, the other three feature male artists. Of course, I was motivated by giving Italian Artemisia Gentileschi, Canadian Emily Carr, and American Clara Driscoll the attention their skills and determination deserved and popular history neglected, but I was equally moved by the struggles and joys of the more well-known French Auguste Renoir, Dutch Johannes Vermeer, and American Louis Comfort Tiffany.
SRDS: What compelled you to include or focus on art or artist(s) in your historical novels?
SV: The short answer is love. One reason I devote myself to writing about art is for me; the other is for the reader and the world.
Exploring the world of art teaches me to see, to be more responsive to and appreciative of the appearance, color, shape and texture of things around me. Oh what I would miss otherwise. Art stops me. It makes me rise. It invites me to ponder some subject–a pear (Cezanne)or a violin in the sky (Chagall), a massive cedar tree (Emily Carr) or the marble lovers of Rodin’s “The Kiss” or a cathedral–until its qualities teach us something, balance or stretching or boldness or tenderness. It inspires us to ask ourselves: Do I have balance in my life like that pear? Can I be as jubilant as that fiddler in the sky? Am I growing and stretching like that cedar? Does my thinking soar like a French Gothic cathedral? Am I bold enough in what I claim and do? Am I tender enough to care about a wounded enemy soldier and save his life?
For the viewer and reader, art’s effect on the imagination is crucial to our civilization. Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own, we see it multiplied and can see into other times, other worlds which offer a window to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it’s a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.
When there is no imagination of others’ lives, there is no human connection. When there is no human connection, compassion does not develop. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving kindness, human understanding and peace shrivel. Individuals become isolated, fearful, resentful, marginalized, and these states of mind can develop into cruelty, where the tragic hovers in forms of domestic, civil, international violence. Art, and its concomitant, literature, are antidotes to that.
SRDS: What draws you to your specific visual art mediums, art works, and artists?
SV: Again, love, and curiosity. Painting is my primary love, but I love Bernini’s sculpted Apollo and Daphne as much as I love Renoir’s painted Luncheon of the Boating Party. Both draw me into their moment in time, hold me in a trancelike state so that I can touch with my understanding their circumstances.
I can answer this question best by tracing my career. In the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shop, I came upon a book of Vermeer’s paintings, open. It made me consider that a thing made by hand, the skill and thought of a single individual, can endure much longer than its maker, through centuries in fact, can survive natural catastrophe, neglect, and even mistreatment. I was filled with wonder. The book invited me to see a connection between Vermeer’s Dutch nationality and my little-known Dutch family heritange. With that slim connection, I came to know his paintings, imagining them as my ancestors; I selected elements from several, and composed my own fictional Vermeer canvas for which I could invent a provenance. That imagined territory would become Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s powerful women from history, classical myth, and Biblical sources opened for me an appreciation of her courage reflected in the independent thinking of her women–her Cleopatra who died by her own will rather than by the bite of a serpent, Lucretia who protested that a raped woman did not need to kill herself out of shame, Judith who.stealthily cut off the head of the enemy general about to lead his forces against the Jews, the penitent Magdalen ambivalent about the life she would give up in order to follow Christ.
Emily Carr’s love for British Columbia’s deep forests and wild seacoast reflected my own passions. Her art taught me to be curious about the native peoples she depicted–the Kwakiutl, the Haida, the Squamish, the Nuu’chah’nuth, and taught me respect for their complex belief system, their highly developed culture, and in turn, instilled in me their respect for nature–all of this resulting in The Forest Lover.
Oh, France, how I love it!–its art, language, architecture, music. Selecting Renoir’s masterpiece of fourteen of his friends posing after eating lunch on a balcony overlooking the Seine, peopled my novel with fascinating individuals who so vividly represented the joie de vivre of Belle Epoch Paris–an actress, a mime, a singer who rose from the streets, an Italian journalist, a Russian art collector, a seamstress, an artist and champion sailor, the son and daughter of a proprietor of a riverside restaurant–each one a gift to me.
That the creator of the famous stained glass lamps was kept out of the limelight by the egotistical Louis Comfort Tiffany enraged me, especially when I discovered that she developed a large department of women artisans, introducing them to the workplace of industrial design beyond the sphere of home crafts.
SRDS: How do you go about incorporating art and artists into the novels?
SV: Except for my work-in-progress, Lisette’s List, I start with an artist or a piece of art, and work out from there. I don’t add them in to an already constructed novel, although their presence and import deepens as I work on multiple drafts. First I learn as much as I can about his/her biography and major works. Then I research his/her contemporaries. I look for letters and reviews of the artist’s work. Next, I explore the time and place. Then I settle down to think about what I want the novel to say about work, art, nature, life, God, love.
SRDS: Do you have any messages you are trying to convey by including art and artist(s) in the books?
SV: Yes, but it seems rather simplistic to lay out messages apart from the text of the novels themselves. Half of any message is the mind of the receiver. I can nudge, but I cannot control a reader’s response, and I certainly don’t want to curtail a reader’s reflection on the characters, action, and conversation by giving a capsule message.
SRDS: What story lines do you see as unexplored in this niche of art in fiction?
SV: Rather than story lines, I see individual paintings which are not yet represented in fiction: Keeping my favorites to myself, I offer these:
Disposition of Christ, Giotto
Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt
Young Woman with a Water Jug, Vermeer
The Death of Marat, Jacques-Louis David
The Gleaners, Jean-François Millet
The Bar at the Folies Bergère, Manet
Paris: A Rainy Day, Caillebotte
SRDS: What do you think readers can gain by reading stories with art tie-ins?
SV: Insight into the human condition and its concomitant, compassion. Appreciation for color, line, texture, nature. Understanding of other cultures and time periods. Enrichment. Soul.
SRDS: Why does fiction with art and artists matter?
SV: See last paragraph of my answer #2.
SRDS: Are you working on a new historical novel with art and artists’ thread(s)? If so, will you please share with us a bit about the upcoming book.
SV: In Lisette’s List, set in Provence, France in the years just before, during, and after World War II, an ochre miner of paint pigments has collected paintings by Pissarro, Cézanne, and Picasso which had to be hidden from German officers keen on contributing to Hitler’s collection of art. Their recovery is left to his grandson’s Parisian wife, Lisette, who loses a husband, gains a lover, befriends Marc and Bella Chagall hiding nearby, and learns the values of village life in her search not only for the paintings as part of the endangered legacy of French art, but for her place in the Paris art world.
SRDS: Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to share or expand on?
SV: Yes, why I write novels instead of non-fiction explorations of these artists.
I am not an art historian. I’m a story -teller. While an art history can give us an appreciation of a painter’s work, the view is from the onlooker, while fiction invites us in to the artist’s inner nature, takes us to his bosom, and makes us feel the artist’s strong emotions for ourselves–struggle, ecstasy, physical and mental exhaustion, frustration at limited skills, despair at creeping age, arthritis of the fingers, financial ruin, doubt, ridicule, scorn. Fiction gives us the individual in his own voice. To me, the artist’s ideas don’t dance in an academic review of a painter’s work. His brush does not sing in the act of painting. His soul is not laid bare by the conflicts that can be expressed in an approximation of his voice. We don’t come away from reading an art history wrung dry and panting after a session at the easel.
The person who goes to an art history lecture or reads an art history already has art in his bloodstream. A novel reaches a different audience–an audience or a society that needs art and may not know it. That’s where I want to point my pen.
About the author: Susan Vreeland is an internationally known author of art-related historical fiction. Four of her eight books have been New York Times Best Sellers: Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Forest Lover, Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Luncheon of the Boating Party, The Passion of Artemisia Life Studies, What Love Sees, and her soon-to-be-released Lisette’s List. She has received four times the Theodor Geisel Award, the highest honor given by the San Diego Book Awards. Her novels have been translated into twenty-six languages, and have frequently been selected as Book Sense Picks. She was a high school English teacher in San Diego for thirty years.
For more about Susan’s novels: http://www.svreeland.com/
Join us here next Saturday June 7th for an interview with Mary F. Burns, author of Portraits of an Artist.
Interview posting schedule: May 31st Susan Vreeland, June 7th Mary F. Burns, June 14th Michael Dean, June 21st Donna Morin Russo, June 28th Alana White, July 5th Maryanne O’Hara, July 12th Stephanie Cowell, July 19th Cathy Marie Buchanan, July 26th Alicia Foster
About the contributor: Stephanie Renée dos Santos is a fiction and freelance writer and leads writing & yoga workshops. She writes features for the Historical Novel Society. Currently, she is working on her first art-related historical novel, CUT FROM THE EARTH. A story of Portuguese tile and its surprising makers – The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 — and the wisdom of nature to guide and heal. www.stephaniereneedossantos.com & Join Facebook group “Love of Art in Fiction”