by Barbara Shapiro
Claire Roth is a struggling artist in one of the soon-to-be up-and-coming districts of Boston, though her work is well-known. Under the name of a few other artists. She gained notoriety as “The Great Pretender” when she began work painting indistinguishable copies of masterpieces using centuries-old painting techniques. She considers herself an expert in the life and work of Degas, and painstakingly recreates his works using layers upon layers of oil and varnish, which leads a local art broker to offer her the opportunity to recreate a rare and treasured piece – Degas’ After the Bath. This is a unique opportunity for Claire not only because it has been one of her beloved works of art since childhood, but it is also the piece that was stolen from the museum almost 20 years ago and has been missing without any leads since then. Could this possibly be the piece that was stolen from the museum? Or is she copying a copy? Her questions about the origin and authenticity of the work lead her on a desperate search for any information she can find about the museum’s founder, Isabella Stewart Gardener. The answers, and lack thereof, lead to even greater mystery, controversy, and intrigue.
“The Art Forger” by Barbara Shapiro explores the world of art from the perspective of an insider on the outside. Claire’s “Great Pretender” status gives her a unique the ability to comment on the hierarchies, social norms, and taboos that are otherwise ignored by those on the inside of the art world. Her training in reproducing classic works of art gives her a more holistic and objective perspective in determining the authenticity of a work of art, whereas the experts in the field are caught up in the image and prestige of the field, which more often than not leads them to see what they want to see rather than what is really in front of their eyes. As a character, Claire stands firm in her truth, even when it causes problems for her and everyone in her life. Shapiro grounds this story in reasonably thorough art history and technique, providing context and detail for Claire’s artistic work and her investigations into After the Bath. Shapiro generally balances this information such that she provides enough structure for the story without getting losing the reader in inscrutable jargon, leaving everything with a bit more knowledge about art and art history.
Kudos to Shapiro for writing a book that makes me want to look at classical paintings! I felt that she jumped into too much technical detail with painting techniques early in the book, but eventually I caught on to what she was talking about. The plot also provided another pleasant surprise. I thought I knew where the story was going, but there were enough unexpected elements to keep me engrossed through the end of the story. Occasionally vapid, but generally enjoyable, I would recommend this book if you stumble upon it. It was a nice change of pace from my regular reading.