Ten of the Best Books about Artists

Literature has ignited imaginations for centuries, while art has a similar ability to transport viewers away from the travails of daily life into a dreamy narrative beyond any fantasy or preconception. So, when the two are combined in books about artists in either fact or fiction, the possibilities are endless.

“If a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you” 

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Art and literature complement each other perfectly. In their own ways, both art forms can paint (literally and figuratively) a picture of the world we inhabit, transport you to another one entirely, or delve headfirst into art history. Artists have been fascinated by literature for centuries, as they have enthusiastically brought to life fictional characters in their work. Sir John Everett’s depiction of Ophelia (1851-2) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an obvious example of this.

Likewise, authors have long been enraptured by their paint brush-wielding compatriots. Whether it’s a roman à clef, or a peak behind the canvas to reveal more about an artist, words have long been used to paint a more detailed picture of an artist’s world.

Set across centuries and encompassing fact and fiction, thriller and romance, exotic locations and those closer to home, art’s role within the pages of literature has provided an indulgent mix of creativity. So, pull up a comfy chair, a good reading light, and maybe even a glass of wine if the book deserves, and prepare to transcend daily life with our selection of best books about artists.

Ten of the Best Books about Artists – Our 2022 List

Lust for Life by Irving Stone (1934)

Vincent Van Gogh: Chaumes de Cordeville à Auvers-sur-Oise.

Vincent Van Gogh: Chaumes de Cordeville à Auvers-sur-Oise. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Using more than 700 letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo as its foundation, Irving Stone’s Lust for Life follows the Dutch artist from his days as a London art dealer to his death in Auvers in 1890 at the age of 37. Unlike his subject, Stone’s biographical novel was a great success in his lifetime upon release. It became a multimillion-copy bestseller, and was even adapted into a 1956 Academy Award-winning movie starring Kirk Douglas. Stone’s semi-fictional re-telling of Van Gogh’s tormented life has a raw quality that seamlessly blends fact and fictionalised dialogue to great effect, to provide an in-depth insight into his art and philosophy in one a well-researched historical art biography.

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone (1961)

Irving Stone’s approach to historical biographies is immersive. Like Lust for Life, Stone worked from Michelangelo’s letters and records to paint a picture of one of the greatest artists the world has ever known. Beginning with Michelangelo as a young apprentice, the story delves into the artist’s ethics, perseverance, and genius. Authenticity was central to Irving’s work as he had 495 of Michelangelo’s letters translated from Italian and also collaborated with Canadian sculptor Stanley Lewis on Michelangelo’s carving technique and tools. Stone even relocated to Italy for the several years while working on the novel, which was adapted into the film, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood (1988)

Margaret Atwood-signed literature Cat's Eye.

Margaret Atwood-signed literature Cat’s Eye. Sold for $55 via National Book Auctions (January 2011).

The follow up to A Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye tells a haunting tale of a fictionalized Canadian painter, Elaine Risley, who returns to her childhood home for a retrospective show of her art. Charting Risley’s life from World War II to the late 1980s, Atwood’s novel explores the central character’s relationships and her world — not to mention her art. Delivered through reflections of haunting memories and abusive relationships, Cat’s Eye deconstructs the world from a feminine standpoint and explores the challenges of growing up, as well as the influence that someone’s past can have on their personal development. Written largely through a series of flashbacks, Risley relates descriptions of her art that mirror her childhood to create a rich atmosphere in a novel that was nominated for the 1989 Booker Prize.

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665.

Johannes Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)

Inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s novel takes readers to 17th-century Delft, Holland and the fictional story of Vermeer, the model, and the portrait from the Dutch Golden Age of painting. The 1665 portrait has come to define the Baroque painter and it’s the focus of Chevalier’s novel in which Vermeer’s housemaid models for the famous portrait, as their relationship becomes increasingly intimate. The novel was adapted into a 2003 film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Such has been the popularity of the book and film that the 2001 exhibition of Vermeer and the Delft School at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art attracted close to twice the number of visitors than the previous Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1996.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (2002)

The Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel. Image credit: Alex Proimos.

Joyously described as, “a legend-busting, richly detailed account of the four-year making of the Sistine Chapel frescos” in a 2003 review by Kirkus Reviews, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King explores the fascinating story of those extraordinary years following Pope Julius II’s commission of Michelangelo to paint the 12,000 square feet of the newly restored Sistine Chapel in Rome. Set against a backstory of war, politics, and personal rivalries in early 16th century Italy, King discusses a number of myths about the world famous ceiling, including the process and completion of the frescoes. The fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola, the great Dutch scholar and Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus, and the Protestant Reformer and father of Lutherism Martin Luther all feature to offer a fascinating insight into the connection between art and history.

The Andy Warhol Diaries by Andy Warhol (1989)

The Andy Warhol Diaries.

The Andy Warhol Diaries. Sold for €35 via Palácio do Correio Velho (June 2022).

These diaries of the most famous and popular artist of the 20th century offer a peak behind the star-studded screen prints and reveal the daily life of Warhol’s memoirs. Published two years after Warhol’s death, the artist had dictated his diaries to long-time friend and collaborator, Pat Hackett over the course of 11 years (from 1976 until five days before his death in February 1987). They reveal the ups and downs of the celebrity painter and the shoulders he rubbed up against, including famous names from the art world like Jean-Michel BasquiatFrancis BaconSalvador Dali, and Keith Haring. A man of few words in person, Warhol had something to say about everyone in his memoirs, claiming Jackie O, “thinks she’s so grand she doesn’t even owe it to the public to have another great marriage to somebody big.” Expect a new army of Warhol fans following the release of a six-part television documentary series on Netflix.

Carel Fabritius - The Goldfinch.

Carel Fabritius – The Goldfinch. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)

Donna Tartt made fans wait 11 years for a follow up to The Little Friend, but her story of 13-year-old Theodore Decker and the aftereffects of a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art would elevate her to worldwide fame and earn her the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story follows Decker and his life after the attack which left his mother dead and him clutching Carel Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch. The small painting is one of the few remaining works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius, as his others had been destroyed in the Delft Thunderclap of 1654, which also killed the artist. The Dutch Golden Age masterpiece comforts the young Decker as it reminds him of his departed mother, but draws him into the underground art world in a story full of suspense and mystery.

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies by Ross King (2017)

Monet's water lilies in the Musée de lOrangerie.

Monet’s Water Lilies in the Musée de lOrangerie. Image credit: Adrian Scottow.

Claude Monet’s Water Lillies is one of the most famous and well recognized series of paintings in the world (constituting over 250 paintings), but the dramatic story behind it less so. Ross King’s Mad Enchantment tells a fascinating story of adversity, as the horrors of World War I edged ever closer to Paris and Giverny. King recounts how a 73-year-old Monet had retired his brushes as his eye sight was weakened by cataracts and his Impressionist crown was under threat from a new wave of artists like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. But, despite ill health, self-doubt, and advancing age Monet overcame adversity in one of the greatest examples of artistic achievement in King’s intimate and revealing portrait of an iconic figure in world culture.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

Revolving around a portrait of Dorian Gray painted by the fictional painter, Basil Hallward, Oscar Wilde’s only novel tells the story of a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth, while the painting ages in his place. Examining the relationship between art and reality, Wilde’s chef-d’oeuvre highlights the dynamic between artist and subject in a novel that attempted to free art from becoming a tool for moral enlightenment. Presenting a must-read cynical masterpiece that has become one of the most compelling studies of vanity and hedonistic selfishness, The Picture of Dorian Gray was initially derided for its mawkishness and homoeroticism, but today stands as a classic.

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (2007)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party. I

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Narrated by the imagined voice of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and seven of the models in his iconic painting, Susan Vreeland’s fourth art-related historical novel sets another seat at the table of one of his most acclaimed paintings. Depicting Renoir’s friends enjoying a summer Sunday beside the Seine river, the novel illuminates the excitement, hedonism, and art of La Vie Moderne (where Renoir had had his first solo exhibition) and brings to life the loves and conversations of the characters within to provide an engaging reconstruction of the bohemian Parisian lifestyle at its peak.

Writers ignite the imagination; artists transport viewers away from daily life. So pull up a chair for ten of our favourite combination: books on artists.