Seventeen stories by Vreeland, known for her delicate fictional investigations of painters’ lives (The Forest Lover, 2004, etc.), explore the interpenetration of existence and art.
Eight of the tales (“firmly based in research,” declares the author) evoke incidents from the lives of Impressionist and other early modern painters. Renoir, Monet (twice), Manet, Berthe Morisot, van Gogh, Cézanne, and Modigliani are seen by, among others, a gardener, a wet nurse, a butcher’s child, a banker, and a daughter. “Mimi with a Watering Can,” though hardly more than a sketch, is bathed in the same warmth that floods Renoir’s paintings. In “Winter of Abandon,” Monet paints his wife immediately after her death, with love and artistic calculation entwined; years later at Giverny (“A Flower for Ginette”), he struggles with Water Lilies. The two standouts are “Olympia’s Look” and “The Yellow Jacket.” The former shows Manet’s devoted widow Suzanne dealing with his former models after his death from syphilis. In the latter, van Gogh paints an apprehensive military recruit in Arles and, through the brilliant élan of his coloring, hands the fellow a future. “The Cure,” an exuberant albeit hokey detour into the 17th century, sends two peasants to Rome to absorb art and religion. Moving into the present (and the entirely fictional), Vreeland demonstrates how art liberates in such tales as “Respond,” which depicts a neglected wife coming alive when she models nude for a sculpture class, and “Gifts,” which chronicles the transformation of a prison visit by a teenager’s drawing. Most strikingly, in “Their Lady Tristeza,” a student’s outline of a Matisse nude miraculously evolves into an image of the Virgin Mary that refuses to disappear. A construction worker on his first visit to a museum can’t handle his girlfriend’s lectures in “The Things He Didn’t Know,” one of a handful of overschematic stories. Cumulatively, however, the collection reminds us that the bountiful promise of art is everywhere.
Stimulating and enriching.