Women Artists | Stories of Painting and Collecting

Authors explore the lives of women artists in these works of historical fiction, centering the talents, concerns, and interests of those who made their way in the world through creative endeavors.

Authors explore the lives of women artists in these works of historical fiction, centering the talents, concerns, and interests of those who made their way in the world through creative endeavors.

Franklin, Emily. The Lioness of Boston. David R. Godine. Apr. 2023. 400p. ISBN 9781567927405. $28.95. F

In her adult debut, YA novelist (The Half-Life of Planets) and poet Franklin (Tell Me How You Got Here) tells the life story of Isabella Stewart Gardner, from her marriage in 1861 to Jack Gardner, a member of Boston’s “High Society,” through her death in 1924. Isabella (or Belle) was an heiress from New York whose father bequeathed her a fortune in 1891 that enabled her to build a house that became a museum and to purchase art for it. In the novel, her struggle to find a place in Boston society is hampered by her outspokenness and interest in subjects generally reserved for men. After the death of her son, Belle falls into a deep depression that inspires Jack to take her to Europe. The trip reawakens her to life, and she begins her exquisite collections, first of rare books and then fine art, especially paintings. She befriends many artists and intellectuals and travels abroad frequently; her growing collections soon necessitate the building of a new larger home, which would become the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an idiosyncratic reflection of the collector’s tastes and life. VERDICT Franklin’s lyrical, erudite style befits Belle and grabs readers’ attention. Pairs well with Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist, a nonfiction title about Gardner’s fabulous collection and the famous unsolved robbery at the museum in 1990.—Vicki L. Gregory

Lundberg, Sofia & others. The Friday Night Club: A Novel of Artist Hilma af Klint and Her Creative Circle. Berkley. May 2023. 336p. ISBN 9780593200490. pap. $17. F

Veteran authors Alyson Richman (The Secret of Clouds) and M.J. Rose (Cartier’s Hope) team up with Swedish relative newcomer Lundberg (A Question Mark Is Half a Heart) in this historical novel. Meeting at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm in the 1880s, artists Hilma af Klint and Anna Cassel form a friendship that withstands decades of highs and lows. As the two begin their creative lives, they welcome Sigrid and sisters Mathilda and Cornelia, forming a group of spiritualist exploration that they call De Fem. In the present day, Guggenheim curator Eben Elliot discovers af Klint’s paintings at an art conference in Sweden. Curious to learn more, Eben finds that his best source of information is art historian Blythe Larkin, the woman who left him eight years ago without explanation. Based on the real artist, her work, and the four other creative women of De Fem, this historical fiction is a fascinating look at the process behind af Klint’s pioneering vision of abstract art. Readers will also see how society in early 20th-century Sweden affected the choices available to women, especially those in non-traditional roles. However, some of the novel’s relationships, in the past and present, don’t feel fully developed, and the resolutions to problems can seem overly simple or rushed. VERDICT A great choice for discussion that will inspire a deeper look at marginalized women artists. An authors’ note and reader’s guide complete the journey.—Stacey Hayman 

McMillan, Claire. Alchemy of a Blackbird. Atria. Jul. 2023. 288p. ISBN 9781668006559. $28. F

McMillan’s (Gilded Age) latest details the life of Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo and her decades-spanning friendship with fellow artist Leonora Carrington, as well as the artists’ mutual interest in occultism and tarot. At its start, Remedios is living in Paris in 1939, a dangerous time, and is forced to flee to the countryside after the Nazi invasion of France. Reunited there with her older lover, Benjamin Péret, she learns about tarot reading and foraging from women she meets. When they’re forced to leave France entirely, Remedios and Benjamin travel to Mexico, where Remedios’s friend Leonora has also fled. Together again, the two women tap into their creative energies through learning about and creating their own occult practices. Full of stunning detail about historical tarot practices, the Surrealist movement’s treatment of women creatives, and the thriving artistic and intellectual community in postwar Mexico, McMillan’s novel tells of two real-life artists seeking to create despite being stifled by societal norms surrounding gender and class. McMillan’s inclusion of tarot-card illustrations and her pairing of characters with certain cards gives the characters further development. VERDICT Readers of historical fiction and those who are interested in women’s roles in art and occultism will enjoy.—Tristan Draper 

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