Who says you have to outgrow picture books?
Visual art is full of rich subject matter for literature, and artists themselves have served as muses (and authors) for the books below — their personalities, their subjects, their lives, and the process of artmaking.
Because it’s that time of year, we’ve gathered 22 titles you can load into your suitcase, or on your Kindle, for your summer reading. (And yes, some of them have pictures.)
Books by artists
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo
- The artist: painter Frida Kahlo, Mexico
- The short version: See what Kahlo wrote, drew, and painted in her notebook (with English translations in the back). Less a memoir or autobiography than a series of snapshots of the artist’s consciousness, which may inspire you to break out your own notebook more often.
A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford
- The artist: painter David Hockney, U.K.
- The short version: Presented as dialogues between the artist and the author, an art critic, this is one recent document (2011) with the thoughts of a knowledgeable and open artist (he also has an autobiography and several documentaries, for the Hockney fans). Gayford has also published a firsthand account On Sitting For a Portrait By Lucian Freud.
The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
- The artist: ceramicist Edmund de Waal, U.K. (author) and Japanese netsuke artists (subject)
- The short version: This story starts with the artist’s inheriting a collection of 264 netsuke — small Japanese carvings that were originally used as garment ornamentation. As in other art stories, the story of the objects tells a larger story. (Also check out the illustrated edition and the author’s story of porcelain in last year’s The White Road.)
Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs by Sally Mann
- The artist: photographer Sally Mann, U.S.
- The short version: This is a 2015 memoir by a Virginia photographer who is famous for her photos of family members, particularly her children. Mann touches on her own childhood, family, home, and artistic endeavors in her own voice — and, of course, with photographs.
Nonfiction books about artists
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White
- The artist: painter Johannes Vermeer, Netherlands
- The short version: Written by a poet, this memoir is about the author’s attempts to heal, post-divorce, by searching out Vermeer paintings. White has also written a book of poetry based on Vermeer paintings, Vermeer in Hell.
Breakfast with Lucian by Geordie Greig
- The artist: painter Lucian Freud, U.K.
- The short version: The book’s U.S. release got the subtitle “The Astounding Life and Outrageous Times of Britain’s Great Modern Painter” — hinting at the sometimes insightful, sometimes gossipy details about this famous portrait painter, who died in 2011.
The Art of Rivalry by Sebastian Smee
- The artists: Painters Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, France; Henri Matisse, France, and Pablo Picasso, Spain; Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, U.S.; Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, U.K.
- The short version: Set to be released in August 2016, and with outstanding advance reviews, this tells the stories of the four pairs of “artistic rivals” listed above.
The Vanishing Velázquez by Laura Cumming
- The artist: painter Diego Velázquez, Spain
- The short version: An entry in the subgenre of the “art history mystery,” this tells the story of a bookseller in the 19th century and his “obsession” with Velázquez.
Off the Wall by Calvin Tomkins
- The artist: painter Robert Rauschenberg, U.S.
- The short version: From the publisher: “Off the Wall chronicles the astonishingly creative period of the 1950s and 1960s, a high point in American art.” The focus is on Rauschenberg, the inventive American painter and printmaker.
Da Vinci’s Ghost by Toby Lester
- The artist: the multi-talented Leonardo da Vinci, Italy
- The short version: Lester, a historian, explores the story of the famous Vitruvian Man image and the endlessly fascinating da Vinci.
de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
- The artist: painter Willem de Kooning, U.S.
- The short version: More than just a biography: “the upheaval in American art in the middle of the 20th century comes into clearer focus,” writes the New York Times. (Note that this book is about Willem, not Elaine, de Kooning.)
Fictional books about real artists
The Painter From Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein
- The artist: painter Pan Yuliang, China
- The short version: In real life, Pan was famous for painting in the Western style. The book imagines her life as a female artist and as a woman in pre-revolutionary China.
Girl Reading by Katie Ward
- The artists: six historical and one fictional portrait artists
- The short version: The author takes her cue not from the artists, but from their common subject, women reading — and imagines the lives of the models for seven such images throughout history.
I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton De Trevino
- The artist: painter Juan de Pareja, Spain
- The short version: Juan de Pareja was born into slavery, served artist Diego Velázquez, and was later freed and became a painter as well. This is the story told from his perspective.
Madame Picasso by Anne Girard
- The artist: painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso, Spain
- The short version: Picasso’s muse Eva Gouel — and their romance — serve as the inspiration for this novel.
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman
- The artist: painter Mary Cassatt, U.S.
- The short version: This is another novel inspired by an artist’s muse, in this case her sister. The five real-life paintings of Lydia Cassatt are reproduced in color pages.
As Above, So Below by Rudy Rucker
- The artist: painter Peter Bruegel, Netherlands
- The short version: A novelization of Bruegel’s life imagined through the prism of his paintings, which are pictured before each chapter.
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
- The artists: The artists of the Hermitage
- The short version: An elderly Russian-American woman fighting Alzheimer’s remembers her youth working at the Hermitage during World War II.
Books about fictional artists
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The artist: Masuji Ono, Japan
- The short version: The artist narrates his life during and after World War II, and his changing understanding of Japanese culture. You may recognize the term “floating world” from the Japanese genre of ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world.”
The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
- The artist: Gulley Jimson, U.K.
- The short version: The artist and narrator is a down-on-his-luck roguish painter struggling through the end of his career, and who describes the things he sees in a painterly, poetic way. Technically part of a trilogy, but can be read on its own.
The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith
- The artist: Sara de Vos, Netherlands
- The short version: This recent release follows the story of the fictional artist’s 1636 painting At the Edge of a Wood, which in 1957 is her only surviving work. And it’s been stolen!
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
- The artist: Elaine Risley, Canada
- The short version: Preparing for a retrospective, the artist returns to her hometown of Toronto and her memories of childhood there. This is Atwood’s followup to The Handmaid’s Tale.
What’s on your summer reading list? Let us know in the comments!