the art forger

the art forgerI heard about The Art Forger through Quail Ridge Books, the independent bookstore in Raleigh, N.C., where I used to live. I still get the store’s weekly emails, which have great book recommendations from the owner and its staff, as well as from other independent booksellers. I go back and spend too much money whenever I’m in Raleigh (which is sadly not too much these days, since my aunt and uncle moved away).

The book was published by Algonquin, a local company whose books Quail Ridge often highlights. The review caught my eye because the story, while fictional, is based around the Gardner heist.

In 1990, two men dressed as police officers bound and gagged security guards at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and made off with 13 works of art that are now worth more than $500 million. More than 20 years later, none has been recovered, and the investigation had pretty much hit a dead end. In the last six months, however, the FBI has announced that it knows the thieves’ identities and has renewed its publicity about the case in an attempt to get leads on the artwork.

I visited the Gardner during my first trip to Boston with my mom more than 10 years ago, and I was absolutely captivated by it. The eponymous owner was an art collector in the late 19th and early 20th century, and she built the museum, meant to emulate a 15th-century Venetian palace, in order to house her collection. Her will stipulated that the art was to remain as she had arranged it (which was not at all as a professional curator would today); after the theft, the rule was interpreted to stand, so empty frames hang in their places as a constant reminder of the crime.

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

the concert by Johannes vermeer, one of the works of art stolen from the gardner museum

The poignancy of the loss, combined with the eccentricity of the space and its founder, made me a little obsessed with the museum, and after my visit I read three or four books about the heist. Naturally I had to read this one, too.

It took me less than 24 hours (of course, it was Shabbat, so I didn’t have my usual phone/computer/Netflix distractions): It’s quite the page-turner — if a little hard-boiled and at times downright cheesy.

Because of a mistake in her past involving a former lover and fellow artist, Claire Roth is persona non grata in the Boston art world when she is approached by a local gallery owner to forge a painting — a Degas, and one of the masterpieces stolen from the Gardner Museum. Eager for her reputation’s rehabilitation, Claire reluctantly agrees in exchange for her own show at the gallery and the promise that the original painting will be returned to the museum where it belongs (the forgery will be sold as the original to an unscrupulous collector). In the process, though, she begins to suspect that the original Degas may itself be a forgery . . . and so the fun begins.

Part of the fun for me was that the story takes place in Boston, so I actually knew where most of the (fictionalized) action takes place. Plus, Claire volunteers teaching art at a juvenile facility — so my favorite topic of criminal justice policy gets a little shout-out — but this is less character development than plot device.

But even non-Bostonians and those who aren’t fascinated by the heist or by crime/criminal justice will likely enjoy this quick read. Check it out from your local public library!

becoming van gogh

van gogh’s basket with six oranges

At the end of October, my husband attended a nerd conference in Denver, so I tagged along for a bit of a vacation and to see my family that lives in the area. While there I went to see the awesome Van Gogh exhibit at the Denver Art Museum.

“Becoming Van Gogh” is really well done. The special exhibit, featuring more than 70 pieces from 60 different public and private collections, traces Van Gogh’s evolution as an artist during his 10-year career. I didn’t realize quite how brief of a time Van Gogh was active: He only decided to become an artist at age 27, after an unsatisfying start as a pastor and missionary to a working class mining community in rural Belgium. At 37, he died under mysterious circumstances, returning from painting in a wheat field with a gunshot wound. Though the internets claim that it’s “widely accepted” that he killed himself (despite the fact that a gun was never found), the exhibit suggested only that it might have been murder.

The exhibit included many of Van Gogh’s famous works — but alas not Starry Night. Since it’s probably Van Gogh’s iconic work and almost everyone recognizes it, I at first wasn’t that disappointed not to see it. However, I realized (and perhaps this should have been obvious) that there is nothing like seeing a painting in real life, especially Van Gogh’s. The picture of the painting above, for example, barely does justice to the overwhelming brightness of the whites, blues, and oranges in the painting itself. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.

landscape under a stormy sky

van gogh’s landscape under a stormy sky

And now I know that what’s odd about this is that Van Gogh, early in his apprenticeship, did not employ color much at all; his early works can only be described as drab — the palette related to his choice of subject, everyday working folk, whom he desired both to realistically portray and to ennoble as sufferers of the human condition. The Potato Eaters, which was included in the exhibit, is a good example of this early work. It was only after he studied color theory and became obsessed with Japanese woodcuts that his paintings began to evidence the bright hues that would later become his signature. One of my favorites from the exhibit (besides Basket with Six Oranges above) was Landscape Under a Stormy Sky.

I started this post almost two months ago and only just have been able to finish it — and now the exhibit closes in less than a month, and it’s apparently not traveling (not that very many people would/would be able to travel just to see an art exhibit). However, if you can, it’s certainly worth the trip. (And buy your tickets ahead of time! I wasn’t sure what my schedule would be, so I didn’t do so, and visits were sold out through my stay: I had to wheedle my way in, and I was only barely able.)

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