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For some fans, the story behind a famous work of art is as intriguing as the painting itself. Although the titles below do not feature similar narrations, they all probe the genesis of great works of art, depicting the characters—artists, models, and more—and the society that produced the art. The skill of these narrators gives listeners an insider’s view of the creation of these masterworks, as their reading enlivens the story of the paintings and their history.
The Anatomy Lesson. By Nina Siegal. Read by Bruce Mann and others. 2014. 9hr. Books on Tape, CD, $35 (9780804190619).
In the preface to her imaginative historical novel, Siegal states her goal: to “read” Rembrandt’s famous painting The Anatomy Lesson and uncover its secrets. A measured pace and dark tone set the stage, as multiple narrators read separate sections, dramatizing the lives of the characters and setting the tale firmly in the society of seventeenth-century Amsterdam. Steve West’s thoughtful Rembrandt ponders his task, while Peter Altshuler’s pompous Dr. Tulp preens as he pontificates and performs the dissection. As the criminal-cadaver and his pregnant girlfriend, Bruce Mann and Emma Jane Appleyard demand sympathy for their downtrodden characters, while Gildart Jackson reveals curio-collector and cadaver-provider Jan Fetchet’s roguish charm in his portrayal.
The Art Forger. By B. A. Shapiro. Read by Xe Sands. 2012. 10hr. HighBridge, CD, $73 (9781611749298).
Recent art-school graduate Claire Roth supports herself by reproducing the works of Edgar Degas for an online company. When she’s offered a show of her own work if she copies a Degas stolen from Boston’s Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum, she accepts, only to make a surprising discovery. Shapiro offers fascinating details of the art of forgery, but she also imagines the creation of a Degas. Although the painting itself is fictional, the well-researched background offers insights into how Degas worked and intriguing details of Boston and Paris society in the late nineteenth century, as well as insider comments on the art world of today. Sands enlivens the large cast, past and present, in Boston, French, and aristocratic accents. She depicts Claire’s naïveté through soft-spoken tones and a childlike syntax with occasional bursts of academic artspeak. A clever twist on the creation of a masterpiece.
I Am Madame X. By Gioia Diliberto. Read by Lorna Raver. 2004. 11hr. unabr. Blackstone, CD, $72 (0-7861-8936-3).
While some novels focus on the artist, this one tells the story of the artist’s model and her glamorous life. John Singer Sargent’s painting of a woman with a low-cut gown and powdery white complexion caused a scandal at the 1884 Paris Salon and damaged the reputations of both artist and model. This fictionalized autobiography of Virginie (“Mimi”) Gautreau, the beautiful and notorious Creole expatriate who modeled for that portrait, reveals the complex woman behind the “professional beauty.” In the mature voice of an older woman looking back with fondness and regret, Raver breathes life into Mimi’s experiences in Louisiana and France. In a flawless French accent, she re-creates the art world and society of Belle Époque France and dramatizes the struggle between the famous artist and his model.
The Lady and the Unicorn. By Tracy Chevalier. Read by Robert Blumenfeld and Terry Donnelly. 2004. 8hr. Penguin, CD, $34.95 (0-14-280034-1). BBC, CD, $74.95 (0-7927-3113-1).
Chevalier offers fascinating insights into the history of the six famous unicorn tapestries, which Harry Potter movie buffs will have seen gracing the walls of the Gryffindor common room. They were actually woven in fifteenth-century Brussels for a Frenchman, a nouveau riche social climber. Blumenfeld and Donnelly alternate chapters, as they portray the disparate lives of the major characters: the French artist who designed the tapestries, the daughters of the house who inspired him, and the Belgian weavers who carefully executed the design to create these prized works of art. The narrators deftly navigate the multiple first-person viewpoints and portray characters’ emotions and lives, which are seamlessly woven into the social, cultural, and artistic history of the era. The authentic details and fully realized characters provide insight into the creation of these enigmatic masterpieces of medieval textile art.
Luncheon of the Boating Party. By Susan Vreeland. Read by Karen White. 2007. 17hr. Books on Tape, CD, $100 (9781415939734).
Vreeland bases her historical novel on the famous painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, by French impressionist artist Auguste Renoir. The painting, which depicts a group of Parisians on a restaurant terrace along the Seine, seems to capture a moment in time. However, the novel reveals the painstaking planning that went into the composition. White’s French-accented reading introduces listeners to a range of characters—the artist, his paid models, his family, and the artists and others with whom they interact. Her warm, melodious narration allows listeners to savor the rich descriptions and late-nineteenth-century French culture while learning the story behind one of Renoir’s most famous paintings.
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