Reviews of Life Studies
LOS ANGELES TIMES BESTSELLER
Complete reviews are below; just follow the respective periodical links.
Few story collections contain more than two breathtaking stories, but Vreeland's Life Studies delivers a full, rich palette. Light and beauty pour from the pages in deft, accessible prose strokes. The sense of joy captured in Vreeland's voice gives every character a moment of greatness. That joy seeps into the reader, where it beguiles, illuminates, enchants, delights, and maybe even transforms.-- SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
Anyone who has been caught under the spell of great art will already understand the wisdom of Vreeland's fiction. With this collection of stories, the art enthusiast continues her mission to preach a vibrant, intelligent sermon about the life-changing powers of art.-- CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
As if lining a gallery's white walls, the 17 stories in "Life Studies" are exquisitely crafted, miniature illustrations of Susan Vreeland's passionate belief in the redeeming power of art..."Life Studies" is charming and beautifully written. The stories feel soothing, even when they describe the darker side of life. Vreeland's ordinary characters are people you care about. The interior lives of her 19th-century women are particularly poignant and authentic-feeling.-- THE OREGONIAN
Just as a painting may be composed of many small brush strokes, so Vreeland creates these stories using many small strokes, adding details here and there to create color, depth, and emotion. Like miniature paintings, her finished pieces are small and lovely, each speaking volumes about the importance of artistic expression.-- LIBRARY JOURNAL
These stories do not attempt to uncover the brilliance of art but, rather, the humanity that lies just to the side. Vreeland's stories remind us that even the world's most renowned artists have had to endure such worldly trials as the death of a spouse, noisy children, chronic physical pain and temptation. And what the author manages to capture most successfully in Life Studies is a careful blending of reverence for the artistic process and sensitivity to those moments when human emotions are the most raw.-- ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS
Vreeland paints her scenes as well as any master. Her eye for detail and nuance is acute, as is her heightened sensitivity. With the extensive research she's completed, Vreeland now lives and creates within the artists' universes. Her skills make these studies enlightening, and sometimes even inspiring...Within the frame of this canvas, Vreeland has created a remarkable work. Her search for the hidden impact of art is so passionate her readers can't help but go off searching, too.-- MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
Readers will find this element of passion in all of Vreeland's stories; it is her trademark and her talent, to immerse us in the complex hearts and psyches of characters both ordinary and extraordinary for their creative genius.-- BOSTON GLOBE
Having carved out a niche as an insightful and sensitive chronicler of artists' lives, Vreeland continues to consider the artistic impulse with fresh and imaginative fictional portraits.-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
We also get a fresh look at the artist through the eyes of those coming at them for the very first time. "Why did you paint the same flowers so many times?" a postmaster's son asks van Gogh. On seeing a painting of a chair, the boy wonders, "What kind of man would paint what was already in the room?" Those are certainly questions few of us would think to ask, but Ms. Vreeland gets inside many different heads.-- WASHINGTON TIMES
Vreeland shows how art liberates. The collection reminds us that the bountiful promise of art is everywhere. Stimulating and enriching.-- KIRKUS REVIEWS
Twelve years in the making, Life Studies (Viking) by Susan Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia ) offers a highly satisfying feast of extraordinary tales imagined out of the everyday lives and loves, ...-- ELLE MAGAZINE
In "Of These Stones," a story in Susan
Vreeland's new collection Life Studies, a boy asks Cézanne why he
paints the same mountain again and again. He responds: "Why does man
pray to God again and again? To know him better. I paint to know the
mountain, the spectacle God spreads before our eyes. From every angle,
in every season, in sunshine, in shadow, in every circumstance of our
lives. It is never the same, yet it is always the same, and always
good, like God the Father. Painters need to think of the world as their
Vreeland [has a] remarkable ability to portray with lyricism and intelligence the life of the artist both at its most practical and most sublime.-- THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
A Student of 'Life'
Susan Vreeland paints with words in a solid short-story collection
Reviewed by Julie Brickman
The triangles that appear in Life Studies, Susan Vreeland's collection of luminous stories, always include art at the apex. Through art, characters gain courage, wisdom, cure body and soul, learn how to live, discover themselves and each other. Without it, they stay weak or muddled or foolish, bereft of serenity, elation, love.
Vreeland fought her own illness, lymphoma, by immersing herself in the beauty of Monet, the impressionists, Vermeer, Emily Carr, Michelangelo. From her convalescence came her award-winning novel Girl in Hyacinth Blue. As the young wife who finds her real beauty through modeling nude for a sculpture class says, "Whichever way you look at it, there's art to living, and those people who trudge through life unaware of it are missing one of the best parts."
"Then," the first eight stories in Life Studies (and the most glorious), portray the great impressionist painters through the eyes of someone in their near circle. "Mimi With a Watering Can" sketches a father, anguished by the dullness of his life, reinvigorated by Renoir's portrait of his young daughter as she waters plants in a Montmartre garden. "Winter of Abandon" is recounted by Monet's mistress (and later wife) Alice, as they tend to the bedside of his dying wife, and she sees him painting "Camille on her Deathbed": "When I came back with the tray, he was whispering to himself 'Blue-gray under her eyes. Losing the blue. Light magenta fading from her cheeks. Yellowing.' My stomach knotted. What if she heard?"
In "Olympia's Look", Manet's wife, Suzanne, tends to him as he dies of syphilis, exulting in the gruesome but precious intimacy denied to his model-mistresses, especially the nude Victorine whose insolent gaze has taunted her from a portrait above the mantel for years. "The Yellow Jacket" recounts how van Gogh's painting of a young army recruit launches him into manhood: "A man who'd cock his hat like that and wear a jacket that yellow was a man afraid of nothing."
"A Flower for Ginette" is the story of Monet's gardener at Giverny, Emile, who "had come to work for Monsieur when the Japanese cherry trees were only spindles," and of their shared love of beauty cultivated just to the edge of wildness and disorder. In "In the Absence of Memory," Modigliani's daughter, Giovanna (Jeanne), searches for the parents she never knew. Throughout the stories, the only character who remains unredeemed is the one who refuses to give himself to art.
"Interlude," the entr'acte section, presents the story of two Tuscan peasants who make a lifesaving pilgrimage to see the great art of Rome. Here, the link between the impulse to art and the impulse to spirituality becomes explicit.
Eight stories about the redemptive power of art in the lives of ordinary people follow. In "Crayon, 1955," loosely based on Vreeland's own life, a fourth-grade girl learns to look beyond the surfaces through the artifacts in the home of her plain, spinster neighbor. Her dying grandfather, painting a calle lily with her hand inside his, imparts the secret of an unconventional life: "Look at everything. Always." The girl envisions Gramp's "face rearranged, his ears upside down, his eyes at weird angles"; she has seen Picasso.
Vreeland is a San Diego writer, and two of these stories are spiced with the magic of Southern California. "Tableaux Vivants" is the story of a son and a mother who pose at the brink between illusion and reality in the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters. "The Things He Didn't Know" depicts love, unachieved, in the museums along the Promenade in Balboa Park.
Few story collections contain more than two breathtaking stories, but Vreeland's Life Studies delivers a full, rich palette. Light and beauty pour from the pages in deft, accessible prose strokes. The sense of joy captured in Vreeland's voice gives every character a moment of greatness. That joy seeps into the reader, where it beguiles, illuminates, enchants, delights, and maybe even transforms.
Vreeland's tales bring art to life
by Mary Houlihan, Staff Reporter
Susan Vreeland broke onto the literary scene in 1999 with Girl in Hyacinth Blue, an intelligent and luminous novel that followed the life of one Vermeer painting from the 20th century back to its creation in 17th century Delft. With this novel Vreeland, a former high school English teacher, found her niche in a blend of fact and fiction that brought both art and artist to life. In subsequent novels, she explored the lives of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (The Passion of Artemisia) and Canadian artist Emily Carr (The Forest Lover).
At this time Vreeland also was working on a series of short stories that now appear in Life Studies, a collection of 18 pieces about great painters and the people who have been moved by their work. Here, the main characters are not the artists but rather the ordinary folks touched by their vision.
Vreeland's style, which uses elements of biography, art history and romance fiction, draws in the reader with an air of seductive mystery. In the first eight stories, she concentrates mostly on the Impressionists: Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Manet, Van Gogh, Berthe Morisot. A prodigious researcher, Vreeland uses facts from these famous lives to build often compelling fictional vignettes. At times she relies too heavily on a style straight out of a commercial romance novel, but her fertile imagination otherwise weaves character, setting and mood into succinct word portraits.
In the opening story, "Mimi with a Watering Can," Renoir helps a depressed banker appreciate the joys of fatherhood. "Olympia's Look" is a touching and perceptive account of Manet's devoted widow, Suzanne, as she confronts the truths about her husband's relationships with his former models. As she cares for Berthe Morisot's baby daughter, a young wet nurse observes the liaison between Morisot and her brother-in-law Edouard Manet. In "A Flower for Ginette," an elderly gardener precisely manicures the gardens at Giverny and watches in dismay as a frustrated Monet burns early versions of his water lily paintings.
The section ends with the unfettered emotional chords of "In the Absence of Memory," as Amedeo Modigliani's daughter, Giovanna, searches World War II Paris for clues to the father and mother she never knew. Sheltered by a grandmother and aunt, she is just learning that her father led the frenzied existence of a doomed artist: drinking, drugs, sex and painting. She hopes "to find out something good about him so she could love him."
(While reproductions of the paintings in the stories are not included in the novel, they can be seen on www.svreeland.com. A quick glance through them brings an added richness to understanding the stories' emotional balance.)
The strength of Vreeland's biggest success, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, lay in her ability to bring to life through words the vivid colors and simple, overwhelming power of Vermeer's work and how it affected those who came in contact with it. With the stories in Life Studies, Vreeland once again proves to have a painterly eye. Filled with vivid details and colors, her descriptions of rural, city and domestic scenes provide the reader with a verbal picture of life in all its vivid detail.
In the remaining stories, Vreeland moves into the present and turns to a more straightforward prose style. Completely fictional, these are rich, heartfelt accounts of how ordinary people's lives are liberated and changed by art. (Vreeland writes from experience. Girl in Hyacinth Blue was written while she was undergoing treatment for lymphoma and she is convinced that the experience was essential to her recovery.)
While some of these stories can push a point too far, several are elegant, perfectly modulated and crafted. In "Respond," a neglected young wife is rejuvenated when she takes a job as a nude model for a sculpting class: "To stand pared, shelled like an almond, all imperfections visible, body and soul, and have them murmur, not leering but studying, was strangely, airily uplifting."
In the semi-autobiographical "Crayon, 1955," Vreeland writes of a chance encounter that opens a young girl's eyes to the mysteries of art and the minds who create it. When Jennifer is hired by a vacationing neighbor to look after her plants, she peruses artifacts and bookshelves in the house and discovers pre-Columbian art and Picasso, which gives her a better understanding of her dying artist grandfather.
The compelling "Their Lady Tristeza" is the story of a high school student whose outline of a Matisse nude refuses to disappear from the chalkboard. A miracle of sorts, it brings a teacher to a truer understanding and appreciation of the Latino community where she has reluctantly taken a teaching position.
Anyone who has been caught under the spell of great art will already understand the wisdom of Vreeland's fiction. With this collection of stories, the art enthusiast continues her mission to preach a vibrant, intelligent sermon about the life-changing powers of art.
A passionate belief in the redeeming power of art underpins 'Life Studies'
by Tricia Snell
As if lining a gallery's white walls, the 17 stories in "Life Studies" are exquisitely crafted, miniature illustrations of Susan Vreeland's passionate belief in the redeeming power of art.
She's produced two rooms' worth: The first eight stories (in a section titled "Then") are vivid, impressionistic imaginings of the domestic lives of 19th-century European painters such as Renoir, Monet, Manet, Modigliani, Morisot and Van Gogh, and the last eight stories (in a section titled "Now") are contemporary American studies of ordinary people transformed by their encounters with art. These are told in a flatter, more direct style than the earlier stories (in the same way that American English is flatter than French or Italian), but they are just as visually effusive.
The two sections are joined by a single folk tale, like a narrow hallway between our "Then" and "Now" rooms, that relates the Don Quixote-like "adventures" of two Italian peasants, Bernardo and Salvatore, who believe that viewing the great art of Rome will save their lives.
Vreeland's readers will already know from her first three novels (also historical fiction concerning painters) that in her world, art does save lives. Art saves us from the squalor of life, Vreeland suggests, and even from the final despair of death.
Vreeland's visual aesthetic, like the painters she loves, glorifies nature, the ordinary and the domestic. Think of Van Gogh's potato-pickers, Modigliani's street people or a Cézanne still life. Not kings, queens, bishops or generals. Similarly, the protagonists of Vreeland's "Then" are the wives, children, servants and neighbors of the artists, not the artists themselves; the protagonists of "Now" are ordinary people, unschooled in, though profoundly affected by, art.
In "Their Lady Tristeza," a "Now" story, a young teacher in a Southwest U.S. border town witnesses a milagro when a boy in her class draws a Matisse-like blue nude on the chalkboard. The blue lines transform themselves into a Blessed Virgin; a tear runs from the Virgin's eye. Everyone, even the doubting teacher, is uplifted in some way by witnessing this miracle.
Vreeland likes miracles and uplifting endings. This, too, corresponds with her view of visual art: It may depict tragedy, but within the depiction lie hope and redemption.
Perhaps. Assigning a moral or therapeutic value to art is an unfortunate American tendency (read: Puritan; read: self-improvement), in my view. A painting is not a tonic or a prayer. The precisely crafted, uplifting messages in this book, while lovely, made me squirm just a bit.
That said, "Life Studies" is charming and beautifully written. The stories feel soothing, even when they describe the darker side of life. Vreeland's ordinary characters are people you care about. The interior lives of her 19th-century women are particularly poignant and authentic-feeling. In "Winter of Abandon," Alice Hoschedé's inner struggle as she tends to her dying sister, Camille, at the same time that she and Claude Monet, her sister's husband, are attracted to each other, is beautifully wrought. "Cradle Song," the story of the intertwined destinies of a country wet nurse and the painter Berthe Morisot, is deeply moving.
Allow yourself to be charmed by these stories. Don't fight the art-saves-lives formula as I initially did. Quiet any nagging voice that asks, "Why not just read Maupassant, who was really there?" Vreeland's imagination is vivid, as is her tenderness toward her characters as they struggle with life's deep sorrows.
*VREELAND, SUSAN. Life Studies (starred review)
In this collection of vignettes, the masterly Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) once again transports the reader into the intriguing world of art. Working in a lightly roundabout way, she offers stories of people who were either a part of an artist's world or whose lives have been influenced by art; among her characters are an acquaintance of Van Gogh's in Arles and the young daughter Modigliani never knew. Despite a diversity of subjects, the author's deceptively simple touch creates an easy flow. Just as a painting may be composed of many small brush strokes, so Vreeland creates these stories using many small strokes, adding details here and there to create color, depth, and emotion. Like miniature paintings, her finished pieces are small and lovely, each speaking volumes about the importance of artistic expression. Recommended for all collections.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS
Masters and the mundane
Author looks at everyday life to illuminate artistic world
By Jennie A. Camp
Despite a front cover that features a nude woman in repose - and kept me turning Susan Vreeland's short-story collection face-down for fear that others might think I was reading something risqué -- Life Studies is not an erotic work. Instead, it's a rich and tantalizing glimpse into the lives of such famous Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters as Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Amedeo Modigliani.
Rather than offering us the pinnacle - Monet sweeping paint brilliantly across a canvas in his studio or van Gogh grappling alone in a café with the weight of his talent - Vreeland instead hands us the mundane: a tired father who is renewed by Renoir's interest in painting his daughter; a boy who pays penance for throwing rocks at Cézanne by rebuilding a crumbling wall at the artist's estate; a nursemaid whose knowledge of the infidelities and longings in the Manet home is complicated by her grief over her young son's death.
These stories do not attempt to uncover the brilliance of art but, rather, the humanity that lies just to the side. Vreeland's stories remind us that even the world's most renowned artists have had to endure such worldly trials as the death of a spouse, noisy children, chronic physical pain and temptation. And what the author manages to capture most successfully in Life Studies is a careful blending of reverence for the artistic process and sensitivity to those moments when human emotions are the most raw.
The stories in Life Studies are divided into three sections: "Then," which includes stories from the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a famous Impressionist or post-Impressionist painter at the core of each tale; "Interlude," which is a sometimes amusing story of two men's search through art for a sense of spiritual and personal fulfillment; and "Now," which includes stories about contemporary issues of pain and love, disappointment and resilience.
Vreeland is a lyrical writer for whom a solitary moment often speaks the loudest. Consider, for example, the opening line of the story "Crayon, 1955": "One summer, when the raspberries along Miss Haskin's fence hung down all ripe and ready and I didn't know what to do with dolls anymore, Gramp came to our house to die."
Or consider the moment when young Anatole feels the disparate halves of his world drawing together after listening to the wise words of an aging Cézanne in the story "Of These Stones":
"(Anatole) couldn't look at the man right then. Instead, he stared downward at a spot of orange paint on the man's boot. It seemed to him a cheerful color, like the bowl of coffee. If he could only remember that happy color shining there on the man's boot, maybe from some peach he painted, painted for eternity, then no matter what would happen, he'd be all right."
And always, alongside the most worldly of details comes Vreeland's innate sense of artistic rendering: when, for example, in the story "Winter of Abandon," Alice describes the colors of an autumn countryside and admits that Monet is teaching her to see; or when the narrator of "Uncommon Clay" discards her inhibitions to mold an oddly misshapen pot.
Perhaps one of the most memorable stories in Vreeland's collection is "Respond," which tells of a contemporary woman who decides to pose nude for a college sculpting class to fill an internal emptiness fostered, at least in part, by a frustratingly preoccupied and inattentive husband.
Rather than use her renewed sense of self-worth to demand a divorce or, at the very least, an audience from her husband, Cynthia instead embraces the undulating complexities of life and marriage and shrugs off her own ego to drape an arm across her husband's shoulders and sit down to listen to him anew.
Vreeland, who also is author of The New York Times best seller Girl in Hyacinth Blue, clearly has a detailed understanding of art and artists, and in Life Studies she succeeds in making the mystery of artistic creation as humanly palpable as the emotional turmoil that often boils in its wake.
MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL
A master's vision
Vreeland's stories splash color on canvas
Reviewed by Jackie Loohauis
Susan Vreeland writes in a number of media: watercolor, oil and egg tempera. She's already captured success with her multi-hued novels about artists and their hidden lives and the lives they have touched (Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia). Now she turns in a collection of sketches in the same mode in Life Studies.
Again, Vreeland paints scenes that exist just off the masters' canvases in those areas of the past usually ignored. Vreeland groups her short stories into three sections: Then, Interlude, and Now, spanning a period starting in the latter part of the 19th century. Because she has based much of this fiction on her own research, anyone who hasn't taken both Art History 101 and 102 may want to reach for a few books to fully appreciate Life Studies.
In the first segment, Vreeland works in watercolors, her stories awash with sunlit rural French gardens and Parisian streets. We meet--almost incidentally--some of the greatest artists of all time, from van Gogh to Cézanne.
In "Mimi with a Water Can," the protagonist is not Pierre Auguste Renoir, but Jerome, merely a well-to-do 1876 Parisian. The short story is a study in ennui. Jerome has become immersed in boredom and depression; he would rather "choose some dead book in a stuffy room" over picnicking in the grass or even making love to his wife. It is only when Jerome's little butterfly of a daughter flutters into Renoir's vision that the dark veil lifts. Mimi almost literally opens her father's eyes to art and rekindles his joy in the world.
More sunlight, but deeper shadows in "Cradle Song." In 1879, something is not right in the house of Eugene Manet, nor in his relationships with his artist wife Berthe Morisot and his famous brother Edouard. Even their wet-nurse can sense it. Monsieur Eugene "gets terrible headaches," she notes. When tragedy strikes, the wet-nurse realizes what revelations art can hold, when one dab of paint reveals the greatest of family secrets.
Vreeland switches to tempera in other Life Studies, her pictures sharper and richer. In "The Yellow Jacket," a strange Dutch painter who loves sunflowers and wears a straw hat advises the lovelorn Armand to see the world with new eyes. "In Tunisia," the Dutchman tells him significantly, "don't forget to look at the stars at night."
Then Vreeland breaks out the oils, layered and dark. "In The Absence of Memory" follows a young girl's desperate search for the artist father she never knew. Answers lie in an old chest, but when it is opened, she finds within it strength, not love.
And in the semi-autobiographical "Crayons," another girl finds her dying grandfather still has lessons he can teach. He instructs her about the beauties she can uncover in every form of art from modern to pre-Columbian. But it is an inquiry that she ultimately must undertake on her own.
Vreeland paints her scenes as well as any master. Her eye for detail and nuance is acute, as is her heightened sensitivity. With the extensive research she's completed, Vreeland now lives and creates within the artists' universes. Her skills make these studies enlightening, and sometimes even inspiring.
Within the frame of this canvas, Vreeland has created a remarkable work. Her search for the hidden impact of art is so passionate her readers can't help but go off searching, too.
Inside the Crucible of Artistic Creation
In Susan Vreeland's collection of stories, "Life Studies," a character ponders "The Pageant of Masters"--a series of staged reproductions of two dozen famous paintings and sculptures, with real people representing their famous figures. It is "a bizarre illusion of life imitating art which originally imitated life," the character muses, in a line that could speak to the concept of Vreeland's entire book.
Vreeland has fashioned a career of writing about art and artists, conveying their lives by combining facts with fiction in the novels "The Forest Lover," "The Passion of Artemisia," and "Girl in Hyacinth Blue." In "Life Studies," the painters and sculptors themselves do appear as characters, but their roles defer to those of the people in their everyday, prosaic lives: Berthe Morisot's wet nurse; Claude Monet's gardener; Édouard Manet's courtesan model.
The first half of the collection is devoted to these characters and their time, spanning 1876 to 1939, with the latest, "In the Absence of Memory," addressing Jeanne Modigliani's search for the truth about the parents she never knew. She discovers that her father was an often-drunk brute, and that her pregnant mother, in the immediate wake of his death, committed suicide. Visiting their resting place at Père Lachaise Cemetery, "she let the snow collect until the letters filled in and the tomb was covered cleanly, until all that lay before her was a smooth rectangular plain, a patch of the earth not even marked with their having been here."
Vreeland's commitment as author is to avoid such a fate for the artists and the work she chooses to celebrate in "Life Studies," the stories of the second half of which take place in our own time, rendering the experiences of people we might know, as they are affected for good or ill by what lies on a canvas or pedestal.
From the perspective of men and women, in the first person and in the third, Vreeland examines the relationships among spouses and lovers, parents and children, teachers and students, in the context of one or more pieces of well-known or obscure art. For instance, in "Their Lady Tristeza," a teenager named Eddie, who attends a broken-down school in New Mexico, draws Matisse's "Blue Nude" on the whiteboard one day. No matter how many times the image is erased, it returns, even showing a blue teardrop, which the locals take to be a miracle. Their teacher is skeptical, until she lifts a finger to the teardrop and tastes salt. The implication is that the teacher, who has been crossing off the days until she can leave her one-year contract at the "underfunded, forgotten border town" school, might reconsider and stay where she is needed.
Not all of the art in the book belongs in a museum. In "Gifts," a man visiting his wife in prison hires a non-speaking girl on the bus to draw a sketch of him, so he can give it to his wife. "Why they stopped at the gatehouse and the driver said, 'Women's compound,' he stood up and felt the stiffness of the picture there in his pocket, like a bandage over his heart. There was nothing but unowed kindness to guarantee that she'd want it."
And in "Crayon, 1955," a third-grader who has been watering the plants of her next-door neighbor sketches the neighbor after her return from an archeological dig. The girl, Jenny, who at first scorned Miss Haskin, comes to respect and admire her as a result of what she learns by snooping around the house, and she even wonders what it would be like to be related to the woman she used to refer to as "the gray old lady next door."
Some of the stories in the first half of "Life Studies" feel slightly strained, although this may be the effect of more formal writing intended to reflect the era. Vreeland is so skilled, however, that the poignancy she achieves transcends any occasional stiffness. In "Winter of Abandon," she recounts the death of Monet's wife, through the eyes of Alice, a woman who shares quarters with the Monets, was the artist's lover, and tends, most devotedly, to the dying Camille. Alice observes: "How powerful a thing love is, that one loves past death, past regret, past all logic, and feels purified by that loving." Readers will find this element of passion in all of Vreeland's stories; it is her trademark and her talent, to immerse us in the complex hearts and psyches of characters both ordinary and extraordinary for their creative genius.
One of her themes is the behavior artist get away with because of this genius. Jeanne Modigliani's aunt tells her that Jeanne's father "lived a reckless life. He was overbearing, swaggering, and aggressive, controlling everyone around him. A disgrace to the family, and yes, a drunk." And in "Olympia's Look," Manet's widow struggles with her feelings of jealousy as she wonders whether her husband was intimate with the many women who modeled for his work.
In her epigraph, Vreeland quotes John Berger in "Ways of Seeing." "The real question," Berger writes here, "is: To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?" "Life Studies" argues eloquently for the former.
Having carved out a niche as an insightful and sensitive chronicler of artists' lives, Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) continues to consider the artistic impulse with fresh and imaginative fictional portraits. The first eight stories in this collection are based on biographical incidents in the lives of such artists as Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, though the painters themselves are not the protagonists but figures to the side, as it were, in the lives of other people. A wet nurse who cares for Berthe Morisot's baby daughter gradually becomes aware of the liaison between Morisot and her brother-in-law, Édouard Manet. At Giverny, Monet's gardener watches in anguish as the artist burns his water lily paintings. Vreeland herself has a painterly eye that conveys vivid sensory impressions of rural landscapes, city street scenes, and domestic interiors. The remaining ten stories revolve around ordinary people who are profoundly influenced by exposure to artistic creation. Notable is the semi-autobiographical "Crayon, 1955," in which a young girl of humble background is introduced to pre-Columbian figures and Picasso's paintings, which enable her to accept the death of the grandfather who encouraged her to see the beauty in differences. While some stories stretch the theme too far, the best of them have a luminous clarity that does justice to the author's intentions.
Made-up tales about artists and their works
by Kelly Jane Torrance
"Artist fiction" has become immensely popular the last few years. With Americans hungry for reality in other forms of entertainment, authors have been quick to provide it in fiction, too. Books like Tracy Chevalier's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (made into a film) and Susan Vreeland's "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," both about the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, easily became bestsellers.
Men also got in on the action -- Will Davenport's "The Painter" imagined Rembrandt's "lost" year. By now, it seems a tired, overworked genre. Which makes Susan Vreeland's new short story collection all the more surprising. Ms. Vreeland is certainly no stranger to the field. Besides "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," she has found success with "The Passion of Artemisia," about post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and "The Forest Lover," about Canadian artist Emily Carr.
The first eight stories "Life Studies" involve 19th-century artists, mostly Impressionists, and are based on her research into their lives and loves -- many of the words coming out of those artists' mouths they actually said, although not always in the contexts Ms. Vreeland places them. The other 10 stories are almost all set in the present day, and take for their subject the effect that art can have on our lives.
In this collection, Ms. Vreeland moves beyond her previous work of tales centered on the artists themselves to give us a fuller picture of art's power to make us love, hate, comprehend, and break out of our often small lives. In an Afterword, Ms. Vreeland even gives citations for many of her quotations and situations. And on just the first page, there are so many references that one thinks she did not want to waste any of her library time.
But she quickly gains confidence, shedding the need to show off her knowledge, immersing herself -- and us -- in another world. It is a world almost familiar. For Ms. Vreeland, at her best moments, has the uncanny ability to bring a painting to life. It is unfortunate that none of the paintings that form the basis of many of these stories are reproduced in the book. You will not always get the intended effect without them at hand.
The protagonists here are the artists' daughters, gardeners, nurses, and other virtually unknown figures. This allows her to approach the material in a sometimes startlingly original way. In the small story, "Flower for Ginette," Ms. Vreeland cleverly chooses as her focus the gardener who helps make the magic of Monet's flower garden and lily pond. In "Cradle Song," the longing of a wet nurse for her own child mirrors Impressionist artist Berthe Morisot's longing for the Manet she didn't marry.
That shared feeling is complicated by the nurse's moral outrage on discovering Manet's sexually charged portraits of Morisot: "She lay like this for him. That isn't one of the sofas in the house. She went somewhere else and lay like that. I shiver at the thought."
We remain fascinated by artists because they are some of the clearest manifestations of genius we have seen. We cannot help but try to comprehend the incomprehensible. "Olympia's Look" is told from the perspective of Manet's recent widow, Suzanne, who still cannot get her husband's indiscretions out of her mind:
"She took up reading Vasari again to occupy her mind, although if she admitted the truth, it was really to discover just how frequently artists made their models into lovers." Of one of her husband's most famous paintings, she thought only that "Olympia had mocked her with that barefaced impudence every day of her married life." We see a beautiful, nude woman; she saw a rival.
We also get a fresh look at the artist through the eyes of those coming at them for the very first time. "Why did you paint the same flowers so many times?" a postmaster's son asks van Gogh. On seeing a painting of a chair, the boy wonders, "What kind of man would paint what was already in the room?" Those are certainly questions few of us would think to ask, but Ms. Vreeland gets inside many different heads.
A common, and weighty, theme of many of the stories, both historical and present day, is the effect that art can have on ordinary people. "Mimi with a Watering Can" tells the tale of the creation of a famous Renoir. Jérome has that all too familiar disease -- malaise caused by modern life: "Was a man to resign life or die bitter because he only had two days of every seven to call his own?"
But an artist's eye helps him to see the beautiful in the everyday. Looking at his daughter anew after Renoir expresses the wish to paint her, "He saw her then with a frame around her, adorable and full of life, with that silly watering can as ineffective as a thimble of water against a field in drought. A painting would make her immortal, not only the girl immortal, but this day when his three-pointed kingdom was of one accord, in one place."
The modern-day stories may not be as immediately attractive -- and it is true that they are not as engrossing -- but most of them are at least serviceable, and a few are quite lovely. Most involve ordinary people who are just starting to let art into their lives, with often remarkable results. A lonely housewife takes the astonishing step of becoming a nude model in "Respond," without telling her husband. Another wife, this one separated, also learns to free herself by taking her son's suggestion to become a part of art in "Tableaux Vivants." Readers can more easily relate to such tales, and they can even be inspiring.
"Life Studies" is, in the end, something of propaganda. The book is Ms. Vreeland's attempt -- and not her first -- to impress upon us the life-changing possibilities of art, great and amateur alike. There is something to what she believes, of course. Experiencing art is the closest many of us will get to experiencing something outside and above ourselves. It can teach us how to live, it can tell us what is important, it can make our lives better in myriad ways.
Ms. Vreeland has an enviable talent for prose, sometimes even great prose. But that stimulating style often seems wasted on stories that simply do not go anywhere. "Of These Stones" starts out as a promising exploration of the seeming (to the young boys who taunt him) madness of Cézanne, but ends abruptly, with no satisfying conclusion to the story of one of those boys. The mix of God and art that made the story so interesting turns out to have been to no effect.
The author's next novel is to be based on Renoir's famous "Luncheon of the Boating Party." It seems a work ripe for this kind of fiction, with its jolly depiction of 14 people, some famous, some not, in a scene to make us mortals envious. One hopes that Ms. Vreeland has not yet exhausted her subject. "Life Studies" is the work of a great talent, but one who, finally, may have to move on.Return to Review List
Seventeen stories by Vreeland, known for her delicate fictional investigations of painters' lives, explore the interpenetration of existence and art.
Eight of the tales ("firmly based in research," declares the author) evoke incidents from the lives of Impressionist and other early modern painters. Renoir, Monet (twice), Manet, Berthe Morisot, van Gogh, Cézanne, and Modigliani are seen by, among others, a gardener, a wet nurse, a butcher's child, a banker, and a daughter. "Mimi with a Watering can," though hardly more than a sketch, is bathed in the same warmth that floods Renoir's paintings. In "Winter of Abandon," Monet paints his wife immediately after her death, with love and artistic calculation entwined; years later at Giverny ("A Flower for Ginette"), he struggles with Water Lilies. The two standouts are "Olympia's Look" and "The Yellow Jacket." The former shows Manet's devoted widow Suzanne dealing with his former models after his death from syphilis. In the latter, van Gogh paints an apprehensive military recruit in Arles and, through the brilliant élan of his coloring, hands the fellow a future. "The Cure," an exuberant albeit hokey detour into the 17th century, sends two peasants to Rome to absorb art and religion. Moving into the present (and entirely fictional), Vreeland demonstrates how art liberates in such tales as "Respond," which depicts a neglected wife coming alive when she models nude for a sculpture class, and "Gifts, which chronicles the transformation of a prison visit by a teenager's drawing. Most strikingly, in "Their Lady Tristeza," a student's outline of a Matisse nude miraculously evolves into an image of the Virgin Mary that refuses to disappear. A construction worker on his first visit to a museum can't handle his girlfriend's lectures in "The Things He Didn't Know," one of a handful of overschematic stories. Cumulatively, however, the collection reminds us that the bountiful promise of art is everywhere.
Stimulating and enriching.
Twelve years in the making, Life Studies (Viking) by Susan Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia) offers a highly satisfying feast of extraordinary tales imagined out of the everyday lives and loves, families and children, patrons and servants of the great painters Caravaggio, Manet, Monet, van Gogh, and Picasso, alongside equally intimate stories about such contemporary characters as a schoolteacher, a cancer patient, a hard hat, and a young artist.
THIS WEEK, COLUMBUS, OHIO
Stories view artist through eyes of companions
by Christy Zempter
In "Of These Stones," a story in Susan Vreeland's new collection Life Studies, a boy asks Cézanne why he paints the same mountain again and again. He responds: "Why does man pray to God again and again? To know him better. I paint to know the mountain, the spectacle God spreads before our eyes. From every angle, in every season, in sunshine, in shadow, in every circumstance of our lives. It is never the same, yet it is always the same, and always good, like God the Father. Painters need to think of the world as their catechism."
The answer reflects Vreeland's own ideas about why she returns to the same subject repeatedly in her fiction -- art and artists. Her first collection of stories, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, focused on a painting by Vermeer, and she followed it with novels The Passion of Artemisia and The Forest Lover, which examined the lives of painters Artemisia Gentileschi and Emily Carr.
"Well, certainly, that's really my attitude, as well," Vreeland recently told ThisWeek. "And I was just so excited to find that Cézanne thought the same thing that I had to make a story where I could put forth that view, and not have it just a view that I held imposed on a painter.
"The beauties of the world are, I think, expressions of God, encouraging us to uplift our thinking and to see a mountain as he saw Mont Sainte-Victoire, or a tree, as an expression of an idea."
In the first half of her new collection, Vreeland studies the lives of several Impressionist and post-Impressionist painters from the perspective, not of the artists themselves, but of individuals close to them -- nursemaids, gardeners, models, lovers.
The method was prompted by the inspiration for one of the stories in the collection, "A Flower for Ginette."
"One of my earliest stories was "A Flower for Ginette," and I was just fascinated by this garden, so I began to imagine the gardener and then his relationship with Monet," Vreeland said. "And then I thought, 'That really works nicely, to have the artist not the main character.' I also had just finished two novels in which the artist is the main character. ... It was in the back of my mind during all of this writing of the other two novels that I like that oblique angle. It allowed me to show a painter the way his contemporaries saw him or her, and that seemed different and intriguing to me.
"It also allows me to tell -- and this maybe is the main reason -- to tell a story other than how this painter paints or how this painter succeeded or what he learned about painting, because I can only do that so many times. So this allowed me any number of possibilities for conflicts and issues of the people peripheral to the painters."
In the second half of Life Studies, Vreeland leaves the world of biographical fiction and peoples the stories with purely fictional creations. The inspiration for these characters sprung from a variety of sources, ranging from Vreeland's family to students she taught during a 30-year teaching career, to Mexican-Americans she witnessed making pilgrimages to various church shrines near Santa Fe, N.M., one Easter season.
Vreeland said there are benefits both to beginning with the basis for a character that historical fact offers and to having the freedom to create a character out of nothing.
"History gives me substance to deal with, it gives me a thread," she said. "Sometimes the stories have their origin in just a little detail -- Cézanne owning a donkey, or Manet writing that rather-too-loving letter to a model -- or a story might emerge from a particular painting, or, in the case of 'The Yellow Jacket,' a pair of paintings which are so different of the same sitter, of that same young man, Armand Roulin. So I love the spinning of a tale from something that I discover in an art history or a biography, but I also like having the free rein of doing one that comes from many sources and may not involve a painting or a painter."
One of the stories in the second half of Life Studies, "Crayon, 1955," explores Vreeland's own introduction to painting as a child. The story is based on her relationship with her step-great-grandfather, painter Herbert Henry Smithers, to whom the book is dedicated. Vreeland's maternal grandparents also painted.
"I also can recall my mother, who was very artistic although she wasn't a painter, teaching the colors," Vreeland said. "And she didn't just teach the color wheel -- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. She taught amethyst, emerald, tangerine, crimson, hyacinth. She had these exotic names for colors and she was very conscious of color, and I think that has enriched my life and it helps me to describe things."
Vreeland is at work now on another novel based on a painting, this one Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." And while art may provide the starting point for the work, she plans to explore a variety of areas through her characters.
"There are fourteen characters in that painting and I'm making up stories for them, and many of those stories have nothing to do with art," she said. "Some of those people are actresses, and some are journalists. So that novel is taking me away from art while the making of that painting is the framework for the novel."
THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN
Vreeland [has a] remarkable ability to portray with lyricism and intelligence the life of the artist both at its most practical and most sublime.