With its intriguingly tangled plot and multiple timelines, The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro is an entertaining peek into a fictionalized Boston art world – contemporary artists, dealers, and collectors – as well as a glimpse back a century and a half ago when Impressionists were the hot new thing and Isabella Stewart Gardner was collecting the art that she would eventually display in her iconoclastic museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.
Living illegally in her small, untidy studio in the less-trendy end of the South End, Claire Roth is a painter still hoping to land a one-person show that will launch her career, after a scandal a few years earlier got her blackballed her with the art world’s gatekeepers. To make ends meet, she paints for a company called Reproductions.com, copying famous works that the company then sells to consumers looking for quality reproductions. Claire specializes in Degas reproductions, and is also researching and writing a book about Degas, but is mostly focused on creating her own work.
When owner of the most influential gallery in Boston, Markel G, asks to visit her studio, Claire thinks her big break may finally be looming, but she’s surprised when Aiden Markel seems more interested in her reproductions than her original work, and she is even more surprised when she finds out what he has in mind for her.
The Art Forger is loosely based on the actual history of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, especially the famously unsolved 1990 theft of several priceless masterpieces including a work by Degas, After the Bath, which figures prominently in the story. Isabella Stewart Gardner designed her home in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palace to be a museum, her own artistic legacy, displaying her extensive art collection in casual, homey style. Until she died in 1924, at the age of 84, “Mrs. Jack,” as she was affectionately known, lived on the fourth floor of the building, with the other three stories open to the public since 1903. Known as mischievous, fun-loving, and slightly eccentric, Isabella Stewart Gardner left the entire property to the public in perpetuity after her death, with the minor stipulation that the guardians of the museum never add, change, or remove anything. Ever.
To add to the sense of realism, the author of The Art Forger (who lives in Boston and teaches at Northeastern University) includes a fictional Boston Globe newspaper article and personal letters supposedly written by Isabella Stewart Gardner. The Art Forger’s fast-paced plot strikes me on the whole as extremely unrealistic and the characters are pretty sketchy; we learn a lot more about forgeries, Degas, and the minutiae of painting than about Claire herself, even though she narrates. But Isabella Stewart Gardner herself is supposed to have said “Don’t spoil a good story by telling the truth,” and The Art Forger is a good story – thought-provoking enough for a book club and entertaining enough for a casual read.
Disclosure: I received a free advance reading copy of The Art Forger, signed by author Barbara Shapiro, from the publisher during Book Expo America last June.