The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro

I'm still thinking about artists and their process. Here we have Claire Roth, a young painter who has somehow made herself anathema to the art world. She is still painting, alone in her hardscrabble Boston studio, one of a warren of studios carved out of an old handkerchief factory where she—illegally—also lives. She's working on what she calls her windows series. As she describes them to the gallery owner who has come to view her work:

“It's urban windows, Boston windows. Hopper-esque thematically but more multi-dimensional. Not just the public face of loneliness, but who we are in many dimensions. Unseen from the inside. Or unknowingly seen. On display from outside, posturing or forgetting. Separations. Reflections, refractions.”

Mostly, though, she makes her living copying paintings for Her specialty is Degas. As the story opens, Claire is offered a Faustian bargain that, if it comes off, will restore her place in the art world and coincidentally do good in the world.

As I followed her struggle to distinguish right from wrong, not just in this initial decision but throughout the book, I thought about another book I am reading. In Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Sissela Bok delves deeply into questions around deliberately telling untruths. Is there any circumstance where it is ethical to tell a lie? What are the true costs and benefits of each kind of lie? As one character says to Claire, “‘There's illegal and there's illegal.'”

I loved hearing Claire describe her own paintings, the genesis of them and how she executes them, how she hangs them and what she admires about them. I also became deeply caught up in the details of copying, even forging, an old painting. The particulars about glazes and washes and brushstrokes were slipped casually into the story, at first almost without my noticing and then I started seeking them out.

I wanted more, but at the same time was thoroughly caught up in the story. It becomes quite a thrilling mystery, touching places and events in Boston with which I am very familiar. Finally I just gave up pretending I would wait until bedtime to finish it and tore through to the end.

Of course, I rooted for Claire as an underdog—her pariah status hounds her attempts to establish herself as an artist—but I also loved her snarky reaction to a pretentious fellow artist who won a contest she herself had hoped to win and thereby re-establish her reputation. I loved too the banter with her friends in the local at the end of the day.

The inside look at the art world and its politics matches what I've heard from artist friends. Who has the power and what they choose to do with it. A theme through all of the books about artists I've been reading lately is that there is the making of art and then there is the selling of it. Not so different from writing.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about the book is how she describes Degas' paintings, his techniques, especially during a visit to the MFA:

I'm touched by Degas' artful use of asymmetry to catch the viewer off guard, to bring her in, then to reveal so much. . . His work is astounding. The way he creates light from within and without, faces glowing with life where there is only canvas and paint. The way he captures movement with the tilt of a head or the hem of a dress drifting off the edge of the canvas. His use of dark and light values to create texture, depth, and shadow. How he seizes an unselfconscious moment of everyday life, like the mother and wet nurse in Races pressed together as they proudly gaze at the infant, then sends it galloping away.

Shapiro's novel makes for a great, light read. Or, if you choose to ponder further some of the ideas embodied here, you'll find much to consider.

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