The Muralist

Written by B.A. Shapiro
Review by Helene Williams

On the eve of the Second World War, artist Alizee Benoit is employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to paint murals for public buildings in New York City. Her heart isn’t in the flat representational work, which to her is akin to painting by numbers. She and her like-minded friends, who include Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, are interested in pushing the boundaries of art, beyond the representational into abstract expressionism.

Alizee’s mind races with the artistic possibilities, so much so that when Eleanor Roosevelt visits the warehouse studio, Alizee confronts the president’s wife with the request to include more modern art in the WPA’s projects. This chance meeting also offers her hope that she can use Roosevelt’s influence to help evacuate her Jewish relatives from an increasingly desperate situation in Europe. Thus Alizee gets pulled into the political world of immigration (surprisingly like the current international situation) and isolationists and fear-mongers such as Charles Lindbergh and Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. And then, Alizee disappears.

Seventy five years later, Alizee’s great-niece Danielle works at a New York City auction house, and runs across several canvases which she thinks may have been painted by Alizee, based on their resemblance to two pieces she owns. Danielle’s search for more clues leads her back through history to piece together what really happened to Alizee.

Shapiro deftly weaves the political with the artistic, providing stirring historical details of U.S. foreign policy along with biographical and cultural information about the Abstract Expressionist movement, to create a seamless story with great impact. The multiple perspectives of Alizee, Danielle, and Eleanor Roosevelt herself, add depth to this tale and significance for readers concerned with world politics today.