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Central Standard

KCUR's Bibliofiles Recommend The Best Books About Artists

Kyle Smith

Perhaps it's the insight into the creative process. Or maybe it's because they seem like larger-than-life figures. Whatever the case, there's just something fascinating about reading about the lives of artists.

KCUR's Bibliofiles — our book critics — share their favorite books about artists with Gina Kaufmann on Central Standard.

Here are their recommendations:

Kaite Stover, Kansas City Public Library:

  • The Art Forgerby B.A. Shapiro (fiction). After a career crash and burn, a young talented artist turns to painting commercial reproductions of Impressionist classics — until the day she is commissioned to paint a reproduction of a priceless Degas stolen many years ago in an unsolved art heist.
  • Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Forger by Ken Perenyi (memoir). The author gives a detailed account of his life as one of America's preeminent forgers of masterpieces and the lengths to which OTHERS would go to not reveal his crimes.
  • Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasuresby Robert K. Wittman (non-fiction). It reads like a detective art memoir thriller, which is what it is. Wittman is the founder of the FBI's art crime team.
  • Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Artby Phoebe Hoban (biography). The brief tragic life of one of New York City's rising art stars of the 1980s.
  • Alice Neel: Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban (biography). The artist's life and work reflects the artistic and political culture of 20th century New York.
  • Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (fiction) is about the Renoir painting (of the same name) and all the characters in the painting.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie, freelance book reviewer:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. It's inspired by the actual painting, called "Girl with the Pearl Earring" by Vermeer. This is actually a very well-done novel, and I enjoyed it a lot.
  • Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland is about a fictional Vermeer painting. It's rich and elusive and really wonderful. It's eight interconnected stories, starting in contemporary times and working back to Vermeer's time.
  • The Passion of Artemesia by Susan Vreeland bangs you over the head. It's about Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque artist, whose father was also an Italian Baroque artist. She was the first woman painter admitted to the Florentine Academy, and she changed the way that Biblical and historical female characters were represented in painting.
  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, a novel that explores whether the narrator is capable "of having a profound experience of art," as he says.
  • A couple of children's novels by Blue Balliett that are inspired by artists:Chasing Vermeer features a trio of art sleuths looking for a stolen Vermeer. The Calder Game (featuring an Alexander Calder sculpture) — the trio looks for a young kid named Calder and a missing mobile. These novels are all about developing the artistic eye, noticing pattern, coincidence, and are full of wordplay and code — just fabulous.

Mark Luce, The Barstow School:

  • The Lives of The Artists by Giorgio Vasari. The first biographies in art history. And catty as hell.
  • Redby John Logan. This is a play about Mark Rothko. In the 1950s, Rothko got a commission to paint murals for the Four Seasons. Red is about the making of the murals, and the question of whether Rothko wants to put them in this very fancy restaurant.
  • Strapless by Deborah Davis, is about John Singer Sargent's infamous "Madame X" painting of Amélie Gautreau, the Paris it-girl of the late 1800s. The book follows what happened to both Gautreau and Sargent.
  • Sargent's Daughters: Biography of a Painting by Erica Hirshler. This looks at the creation of John Singer Sargent's painting, "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," and what happened to the four girls in the painting.
  • Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut. It's about a painter who has seen awful things and is kind of a grumpus. He's working on a masterpiece, but he won't let anyone see it. It's satirical, it pokes fun at the art world, and there's a dark sense of humor.
  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud looks at how we see comics. It's spectacular.
  • Contract with God trilogy by Will Eisner
  • Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Because comics = art too.
  • Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy by Michael Baxandall. This is an outstanding look at what exactly is "period eye" by the guy who coined that term. It is so much fun; it really looks at how painters work. It's cheeky and absolutely fascinating.
  • The Lost Paintingby Jonathan Harr is the story of a found Carravaggio.

Listener Recommendation:

  • Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life by Roxana Robinson. Biography of an artist who had a long life and independence and success as a woman artist.

KCUR Staff Picks:

Gina Kaufmann:

Dan Margolies:

  • Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Written by noted conductor and musicologist John Eliot Gardiner. Really brought the great man to life. A formidable work of scholarship that, as Gardiner says, is meant to be a “corrective to the old hagiolatry.” How did someone so seemingly ordinary – at least to all outward appearances – manage to produce such sublime works of ineffable genius? To the extent it’s even possible to answer that question, this book does a better job than just about any artist biography I’ve read.
  • The Year of Learby James Shapiro. It’s about Shakespeare and the year 1606. I’ve only read the first 50 pages, but here’s another instance of a biography (albeit one mostly confined to one year) bringing an artist demigod to life.

Jill Jordan: