08/02/2013 07:25 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

The Art of Putting Artists in Literature

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how worthy are thousands of words about literary characters who draw pictures?

Yes, some fiction includes protagonists who are painters, cartoonists or other kinds of artists. It's a tricky proposition for authors, because the works artist characters create can only be described, not seen (unless the book is illustrated, or a graphic novel).

But there are advantages to having artists in literary roles. Those characters are of course creative, and they can also be quirky, bohemian, groundbreaking, pretentious, frustrated, low on money, etc. -- traits and situations that all have strong dramatic potential.

The idea for this post occurred to me while I recently read Don DeLillo's Underworld, an ambitious novel (about the second half of the 20th century) whose large cast of characters includes artist Klara Sax. Parenthood and other things make it hard for Klara to reach her full artistic potential until she becomes famous in her 70s for decorating former warplanes. Underworld (recommended by commenter "JoeyDee2") also features an African-American artist named Acey who has some success navigating the "white" art world.

Then there's Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, which features middle-aged feminist painter Elaine Risley looking back on her life when she returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work.

There's also Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, whose protagonist Tod Hackett sees himself as a serious artist but works in Hollywood doing stuff like painting movie backgrounds and designing costumes.

Back in the 19th century, one of the quintessential artist novels was Emile Zola's The Masterpiece. It stars Claude Lantier, whose attempt to be a nontraditional painter partly explains why popular success eludes him. So he ends up as one of those obsessed, "tortured" artists seemingly losing his mind. Does he recover with the help of (stereotype alert) his ever-patient wife Christine? You won't regret reading this page-turner to find out.

Lantier was said to be partly based on Zola's friend Paul Cezanne, though Cezanne was a more successful painter and a more "together" person than Lantier. Whatever the similarities or differences, The Masterpiece ended that long Zola-Cezanne friendship.

Another novel featuring artists loosely based on real-life artists is Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, whose cartoonist protagonists Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay were inspired by the lives of "Superman" creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Then there are historical novels that include actual real-life artists. One is Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which contains extended scenes with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue is more about a (fictional) Vermeer painting than about Vermeer himself, but the painting is practically a character as readers follow it back in time to its inception.

Speaking of earlier centuries, Michael Gruber's The Forgery of Venus features a modern-day painter named Chaz Wilmot who seemingly inhabits the body of 17th-century master Diego Velazquez.

And there's Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, which co-stars paper-sculpting artist Clare Abshire.

There are also many novels featuring characters who aren't artists per se, but draw and paint on the side. Those books include Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, whose title character has some artistic talent; and Pete Hamill's Forever, whose very long-lived protagonist Cormac O'Connor spots a sketch in 2001 that he himself drew during New York City's Great Fire of 1835!

What are your favorite novels with artist characters in lead or supporting roles?


In the partly humorous memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional, Dave Astor recalls his 25 years as a magazine journalist meeting and covering cartoonists, columnists and other notables such as Charles M. Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, "Dear Abby," Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. He also recalls experiencing huge changes in the media, a family tragedy and more. Contact Dave at if you'd like an inscribed copy of this small-press-published book -- which includes a preface by columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others.