12 Books that Illuminate the Long Road to Becoming an Artist

Antonia Angress, author of "Sirens & Muses," recommends Künstlerromans, novels about an artist coming into maturity

The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter, 1789 by Marie Victoire Lemoine
The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter, 1789 by Marie Victoire Lemoine

The Künstlerroman is having a moment—at least according to novelist Erin Somers, who earlier this year published an essay in Gawker examining the “resurgence of a [German] word for a specific kind of novel, a novel about an artist coming into maturity.” This was welcome news to me, as both a lover of the genre and a debut author publishing my own Künstlerroman: Sirens & Muses, about a group portrait of four artists who are drawn into a web of rivalry and desire, first at an elite art school and later in New York City. 

I’m the daughter and the wife of visual artists, and I’ve long been fascinated by the creative processes of people whose work involves material: paint and canvas, wood and cloth, ink and charcoal. For years I’ve hovered on the outskirts of that world: after a childhood surrounded by my mother’s art, I went to college next door to the famed Rhode Island School of Design, whose students awed and intimidated me. As an undergraduate, I worked at my college’s art gallery and as a figure drawing model (the latter paid much better, though it admittedly involved being nude). And over the course of our decade-long relationship, I’ve had a front-row seat to my husband’s artistic and professional development, serving as his critique partner, sounding board, and occasional model.  

When I set out to write Sirens & Muses, I wanted not only to capture the hothouse art school environment that I’d avidly observed from afar but also to dramatize artmaking and creativity—to take what is for most people a quiet, profoundly interior, often nonlinear undertaking and turn it into a story with extrinsic stakes and forward momentum. While working on my novel, I leaned on the Künstlerroman as a literary genre, studying many different interpretations of the portrait of the artist. These are some of my favorites. Though a Künstlerroman may portray any type of artist, I have focused here on books centering visual artists. 

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok 

In this classic novel from 1972, a prodigiously gifted Hasidic boy pursues his obsession with painting at the cost of his relationship with his family and the cloistered, deeply religious world of his upbringing. This is a gorgeous and heartbreaking story that vividly illustrates the agonizing conflict between tradition and individualism—a conflict with which Potok, whose Orthodox Jewish parents discouraged his pursuit of fiction and painting, was intimately familiar. 

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner 

Set in the New York art world in the 1970s, this novel follows a young woman known only as Reno who moves to the city in the hopes of becoming an artist. There, she falls into a relationship with Sandro Valera, an Italian motorcycle scion and sculptor in the mold of Donald Judd. A rich, capacious meal of a novel, The Flamethrowers traces a young artist’s sentimental, political, and creative education at the hands of her older lover and the denizens of a bygone art scene. 

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt 

The heroine of this novel is Harriet Burden, a middle-aged artist whose brilliance has long been ignored by the art-world elite. Tired of being sidelined and diminished, Harriet enlists the help of three male artists to present her work as their own, a scheme that results in terrible consequences. Structured as a posthumous collection of interviews, diary entries, letters, newspaper reviews, and academic articles, The Blazing World is a cerebral, harrowing, and utterly engrossing portrait of an artist—and an indictment of the cruel gender bias that destroyed her.

Self-Portrait With Boy by Rachel Lyon

In this debut novel set in 1990s gentrifying Brooklyn, struggling photographer Lu Rile is scraping by and in danger of eviction when she accidentally captures a masterpiece: an image of her neighbor’s child falling to his death outside her window. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Lu is drawn into a friendship with the boy’s grieving mother and faces an increasingly painful dilemma: the photograph could jumpstart her career, but at what cost? This is an addictive, spellbinding exploration of sacrifice and the moral cost of ambition. 

Old In Art School by Nell Irvin Painter

An eminent historian, Painter is best known as the author of The History of White People. But after retiring from teaching at Princeton, the aptly named writer embarked on a second career as a painter, pursuing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. This smart, funny, and candid memoir chronicles her journey from academia to art, proving that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Old In Art School is at once a critique of racism, sexism, and ageism in the art world, an ode to the Black artists who influenced Painter’s work, and a moving portrait of an artist coming into her own. 

How To Be Both by Ali Smith 

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this genre- and gender-bending novel traces the linked narratives of Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa and George, a modern-day 16-year-old girl mourning the sudden death of her mother, an art historian who was deeply influenced by Francesco. Smith is incredibly adept at capturing the vagaries of artmaking, its inherent spontaneity, its improvisational nature, and its resulting emotional highs and lows. Her descriptions of characters in the act of creation are poetic and playful: her prose quickens, then meanders, languorously, before stuttering to a stop, and parentheticals pop up with the insistence of a sudden idea that refuses to be ignored. How To Be Both is also unique in its structure: two different versions of the novel were published, one beginning with Francesco’s story, the other with George’s. 

Luster by Raven Leilani

The breakout debut novel of 2020 may be a sexy, incandescent social satire about a young Black woman who falls into a white couple’s open marriage, but it’s also the story of her development as a painter. When the novel opens, Edie is a frustrated amateur who can’t even afford materials; by its close, she is slowly beginning to give voice and vision to the creative impulses roiling inside her. Leilani is herself a gifted visual artist, and Luster contains some of the most evocative descriptions of painting I’ve ever read.  

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker 

Mel and Sharon meet during their first week at art school and quickly become inseparable, forging a friendship and creative partnership that culminates, years later, in a critically acclaimed animated film. But with success comes trouble, and soon their partnership is threatened by addiction, self-doubt, and long-buried resentments. In recent years there’s been an Elena Ferrante-fueled boom in novels about thorny female friendships, but The Animators adds another intriguing layer, exploring the dynamic between two women who are not only friends but also business partners and creative collaborators.  

Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser 

Speaking of thorny female friendships, here’s a debut novel featuring two very different women who form a toxic, obsessive relationship at an unnamed New England art school (Glaser, for the record, is a RISD grad, and I was delighted to recognize several Providence landmarks in her novel). Paulina & Fran is hilarious and scathing, skewering navel-gazing art students while poignantly capturing the strangeness and heartbreak of young adulthood—and the ways intense yet fleeting early friendships can follow us throughout our lives. 

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland 

In this atmospheric thriller, an unnamed painter is on the cusp of a career-making show when a studio fire destroys her entire body of work. Desperate to recreate her paintings in just three months without her gallerist’s knowledge, she begs her way into Pine City, an exclusive artist’s colony in upstate New York best known as the site of legendary performance artist Carey Logan’s suicide. Assigned to her former studio, the painter discovers that not all is as it seems at Pine City and begins to wonder what really happened to Carey. Fake Like Me stands out for being a twisty page-turner and a haunting meditation on identity, authorship, and authenticity.  

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

In this enigmatic novel set in post-World War II Japan, aging artist Masuji Ono reflects back on the course of his life, from his days as a painter of “the floating world”—a nocturnal realm of pleasure and entertainment—to his complicity in the imperial movement that led Japan to side with the Nazis (as a young man, Ono created propagandistic art for the far-right regime). Like Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, this novel is a masterclass in unreliable narration. 

So Much Blue by Percival Everett 

This novel follows Kevin Pace, a middle-aged abstract painter, through three interconnected storylines. In the present-day narrative, Kevin works on a new painting, one he won’t let anyone see—not even his wife and children. The two other storylines concern an affair Kevin had ten years prior with a young watercolorist in Paris and a trip to war-torn El Salvador that he took as a young man in the 1970s to search for his best friend’s brother, a drug dealer gone missing. So Much Blue is insightful, funny, and sad, and it is ultimately concerned with the sacrifices Kevin has made in the pursuit of an artistic life. 

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