Origins of Life Studies

Manet: Olympia

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

These stories were written before, between and after my three novels about paintings and painters. I thought of them as studies of the lives surrounding the painters.

Just as painters do studies of details from life, that is, from live models, in the process of working up a large and complex canvas, so were these stories my studies of details of lives that, taken together as the large canvas of a story collection, might show the complexities and richness of people whose lives are lived close to art.

Manet: Portrait of Berthe Morisot

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Berthe Morisot, 1872.
Private Collection

The seeds of these stories were usually details which piqued my interest. For example Cézanne did own a donkey. As a boy, Renoir was, in fact, a porcelain painter. Manet's hired boy who cleaned his palette did meet with a tragic end. And Manet did write a rather too-loving letter to a model. Claude Monet created new dahlia species, and his future second wife did live with him while his first wife was dying. Van Gogh wore a hat with lighted candles stuck in the hat brim in order to paint Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. Berthe Morisot was moody and agitated by sharp noises. Modigliani's last comment to his lover was the horribly portentous request that I've recorded.

Renoir - Watercan

Auguste Renoir, A Girl with a Watering Can, 1876.
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Sometimes a painting set me to wondering, and that sparked a story. Renoir's A Girl with a Watering Can, van Gogh's Portrait of Armand Roulin, and Manet's Olympia did that. Who were these models, and what was going on in their lives? Off canvas, where did the heat of their stories lie? For some paintings, research provided clues to go on. For others, the painting alone sufficed to make my imagination take flight.

Monet Japanese Bridge

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899.
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

For the most part, I've created the situations of the characters surrounding the artists. Although lying outside the realm of recorded art history, they illuminate the personal space the artists filled. Some of the events are reported in a line or two from scholars, tantalizing me to flesh them out in narratives that might make readers feel the sweep of a large canvas.

Rome: Trevi Fountain

Foutana Di Trevi, Rome, 1762.

For the contemporary stories, I used a different model. In Ways of Seeing, the art writer, John Berger, poses the question, "To whom does the meaning of the art of the past rightfully belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?" The contemporary stories of ordinary people who outgrow their former selves through their encounters with art comprise my answer to this question.

Jacques-Louis David: Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David, Death of Marat, 1793.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgigue

While an author's own sensibilities and all that he or she has read and loved shapes one's fiction, none of these stories are autobiographical, strictly speaking, although one, "Crayon, 1955," borrows heavily from two of my childhood experiences, and serves to honor two individuals bigger than life who widened my world and introduced me to art.