October Book Discussion Group:
The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro.
The discussion will take place from 6:30-8:00, on Wednesday, 10/29.
Copies will be available for pickup beginning on Tuesday, 10/2.
From the New York Times:
Isabella Stewart Gardner was decidedly eccentric. She walked lions, not dogs; drank beer, not sherry; and bathed opposite improving maxims rather than wallpaper patterns. (Some were more ominous than others: “Secret of two, secret of God; secret of three, secret of all.”) Such behavior made her reputation, though it was her magnificent art collection, assembled with the help of the young Bernard Berenson, that won her lasting fame. In 1903, Gardner opened her Venetian-style gallery — then called Fenway Court — to the city of Boston, enriching generations to come.
Today, alas, her name is associated with less savory exploits. In March 1990, two men dressed as police officers looted 13 works from her museum, including Rembrandt’s only recorded seascape, Vermeer’s “Concert” and several lesser sketches by Degas. B. A. Shapiro’s nimble mystery “The Art Forger” revisits this unsolved theft when, more than two decades on, one of Gardner’s paintings seems to resurface.
Shapiro’s present-day heroine, Claire Roth, typifies the fictional artist: attractive but disheveled, talented yet struggling. It’s Claire’s sideline that distinguishes her. To pay the bills, she paints commissioned reproductions, mostly after Impressionist models. (These are, she tells herself, copies that simulate the originals, not forgeries.) At 31, despite her raffish allure, Claire spends lonely nights on the floor-hugging mattress she’s occupied since breaking up with her boyfriend and fellow artist, Isaac Cullion, who has since died.
Enter Isaac’s former dealer, Aiden Markel, with an intriguing offer: copy an undisclosed picture and Claire will receive much-needed cash and her own one-woman show at his trendy gallery. The painting in question? On arrival, it bears an uncanny resemblance to a Degas masterpiece stolen from the Gardner Museum. (Titled “After the Bath,” the work is Shapiro’s invention, based on four related canvases of the 1890s.) Is it the lost original? Has Claire been asked to copy or to forge? Does it matter?
Shapiro’s brisk narrative takes the reader through Boston’s art world, the logistics of forgery and the perils of attribution, shuttling between the present and three years earlier, when Claire lost Isaac and first straddled the line between copying and fraud. Interwoven are letters from Gardner to a fictitious niece, Amelia, tracing the obscure circumstances under which she acquired the Degas. (The real-life Gardner burned all her correspondence. If, as in Shapiro’s imagining, she acknowledged replies with “Thanksissimo,” perhaps it’s just as well.)
Shapiro writes with assurance, even if she stumbles over the odd phrase or detail. Never mind that Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, whose painting is scrubbed clean for Claire’s “Degas,” was one of the most celebrated artists of his day; nor that Bernard Berenson, Gardner’s adviser and agent (not “dealer”), whom Shapiro’s fictional curator invokes as the last word, was fallible, some of his authentications for Joseph Duveen having later proved unsound. A few plot threads are slenderer than others, including Claire’s volunteerism and the baldly expository diary of Amelia’s artist beau, Virgil. Shapiro’s art world blather may verge on caricature: “He’s working with cobblestones. Very ingenious.” Sadly it’s not entirely inaccurate.
For those willing to forgive the occasional misstep, “The Art Forger” will reward their forbearance and, through its engaging premise, their intelligence. Is black-and-white authenticity paramount or are there acceptable degrees of attribution? Aiden and Isaac see subtler shades; Claire isn’t so sure. In the end, with plots uncovered and deceptions laid bare, Shapiro’s abiding mystery lies not in the act of forgery itself but in its elusive morality. As Claire reminds us, people see “what they want to see.”