Pragmatic Historian
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Teasing Out the Real History in Historical Fiction

Cover of the book "The Art Forger" by B.A. Shapiro.
Cover of the book “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro.

Note: This post contains spoilers for the novel “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro.

I finished reading “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro this week. The novel reminded me of the movie “National Treasure.” “The Art Forger” would lend itself well to being turned into a movie because of the action and intrigue. (Though there are other movies about art forgers, I could not find one based on this book.)

In it, we are treated to the story of professional art copier Claire Roth, who is asked to paint a replica of Edgar Degas’ After the Bath. She has been told the original that she is copying from will be returned to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where it had been stolen in a 1990 heist. The heist remains unsolved to this day.

Within the story, the author treats the reader to a description of the process of copying or, not to put too fine a point on it, forging a painting. Past forgers, like Han van Meegeren and Virgil Rendell, are mentioned. The author also explores the relationship between Edgar Degas and Isabella Stewart Gardner through letters.

There are plenty of historical details in “The Art Forger.” My husband and I watched a show not long ago on the unsolved heist at the Gardner Museum and Shapiro does a convincing job of working details of the theft into the novel. In fact, Shapiro is so convincing at historical details that it was difficult to determine which were drawn from real life and which were made up in service to the novel.

I wanted to jump online and start looking up some of these historical details to see which was which.

I already knew something about the heist at the Gardner, so that wasn’t the first thing I wanted to look up. Instead, I was curious about the past forgers mentioned, particularly Han van Meegeren and Virgil Rendell. Van Meegeren was the real deal, a Dutch artist who forged Johannes Vermeer’s work. He was finally caught when one of his works was purchased by the Nazis and he had to admit he forged it rather than face prison for selling Dutch cultural property. Shapiro included this story in the novel.

Virgil Rendell, however, was purely fictional, which I discovered by reading “A Note on the Research” in the back of the book. Shapiro used this section to discuss what was fiction and what was non-fiction within the book. This is a lesson on not skipping the back matter in a book, although it took some of the fun out of doing the research myself.

Shapiro also reveals that though Isabella Stewart Gardner and Edgar Degas travelled in the same circles at around the same time, there isn’t evidence available to suggest they ever met, so this part of the story is fiction.

The biggest surprise to me was that Shapiro invented the version of Degas’ After the Bath painting in the book. Degas did create a number of versions of paintings called After the Bath, but the one in the book doesn’t match any of these. During the Gardner heist, five of the thirteen works taken were indeed works by Degas, but none were his After the Bath paintings.

It’s a fascinating exercise to pull apart historical fiction and try to figure out what is based on accurate history and what has been invented to move the story forward. If this is an exercise you want to try, maybe skip reading the end matter until after you’ve done your own research on the details you are curious about.

I had to pay a visit to the website of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s website after reading this book. Turns out they have a page about the theft that includes images of the works that were stolen and mentions the $10 million reward being offered for the return of the works. That so many pieces of art were taken so long ago that still have not turned up makes this a mystery worth pondering.