Almost twenty-five years after the infamous art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — still the largest unsolved art theft in history — one of the stolen Degas paintings is delivered to the Boston studio of a young artist. Claire Roth has entered into a Faustian bargain with a powerful gallery owner by agreeing to forge the Degas in exchange for a one-woman show in his renowned gallery. But as she begins her work, she starts to suspect that this long-missing masterpiece — the very one that had been hanging at the Gardner for one hundred years — may itself be a forgery. The Art Forger is a thrilling novel about seeing — and not seeing — the secrets that lie beneath the canvas.
(Novel synopsis from back cover of 2012 Algonquin edition)
The Art Forger by B. A. Shapiro was my October read for the Pi Beta Phi book club. The Art Forger is not a book that I would normally pick out for myself as I do not have much background knowledge about art, but that did not hamper my understanding and enjoyment of this novel. I found this novel to be an interesting combination of historical events and fiction. While many of the events revolved around the theft that took place at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the story itself was fictional – but there was a smooth blending of what was true and what was fictional.
The Art Forger focused mainly on our main character, Claire Roth, who is a young artist with a scandal that already plagues her. By not giving anything away, Claire’s scandal is the result of her relationship with her older professor – a cliche that we have seen in other stories, and one that does not garner any sympathy from its result. However, without the basis of this scandal that follows Claire around – Shapiro would not have been able to create the rest of the novel without some sort of forced explanation.
Claire has managed to develop a fairly decent living by painting excellent reproductions of world famous works of art and selling them (legally) through a website to allow the “common folk” the ability to possess a great piece of art. It is her talent for making such wonderful reproductions that draws her into a tough spot that could tie her to the great art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. With one scandal after another following Claire around, she must continue to fight to be recognized for her own talent and her own work within the art world.
Shapiro also ties in “letters” that she created from Isabelle “Belle” Stewart Gardner to her niece. While these letters are fictional, it adds a depth to the story line that is fascinating as the reader is drawn into the art world of the 1890s and early 1900s. These letters are enjoyable to read and there is truly a sense of a speaker different from Claire – Shapiro managed to capture, what could be, Belle’s personality in these letters.
As I mentioned before, I do not have much of a background that concerns art or art history, but Shapiro has created a definite page-turner with her much appreciated detailed writing. Even without background knowledge, Shapiro was able to create vivid pictures of the portraits being described without over-doing the sensory imagery. It was a great blend that this reader truly appreciated while also maintaining the mystery and explaining certain painting processes.
The Art Forger is truly a book for any type of audience. Shapiro manages to tie intrigue, history, forgeries, romance and struggle all together in this novel. The elements all work together to create a fast-moving novel that keeps you turning the page to find out what happens next. What actually worked in this novel, that I normally don’t like but it seemed fitting here, was the way that Shapiro ended the novel. I actually don’t want to give anything away as to what Shapiro did, so you will simply have to read the novel for yourself.