Novelist Cooke (Still Life, 2016, etc.) explores the relationships of six famous male painters and their lovers, and the art that their passions and partings inspired.
This book is more of an art appreciation than a formal art history text; by Cooke’s own admission, she wrote from “a genuine love for the works in question.” In her selections here, which include accounts of the tenuous affair of Pablo Picasso and Marie Thérèse Walter and of the one-sided devotion of Pierre Bonnard to Marie Bousin, she attempts to capture the variety of ways that a relationship can bring (or hold) two people together. The prose style of each section differs in order to better fit its theme—a particularly arresting passage, for instance, addresses readers in the second person from the perspective of Auguste Rodin’s future mistress, Camille Claudel—and the changing narration keeps the book’s formula fresh. The relationships also serve as nice introductions to each artist and effectively chart their artistic styles: one can watch, for example, as Amedeo Modigliani’s tortured marriage to Jeanne Hébuterne slowly distorts his representations of others, himself, and finally her. Cooke punctuates the developing stories of painters and their muses with brief quotations on the painters’ artistic practices, philosophies, and subject matter, and they successfully give readers a general sense of each artist. However, the tales might have been better served by the inclusion of letters between the pairs of lovers; it’s confusing to see only the painters represented in the quotes when the book’s aim seems to be to give voice to the women who worked and lived with them. By contrast, Cooke’s descriptions of the act of painting prove to be apt, as she doesn’t get caught up in the blurred mysticism of most art writing, but still manages to keep some of its poetry, as in her description of Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore: “All is sadness in this barbaric luxury of a painting, drenched in color.” Although the historical research sometimes feels a bit light, the book works well where it should, skillfully glossing the emotions embedded in oils and canvas.
An earnest artistic exposé that gives an old topic new life.