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Book Review: The Art Forger blends art history and mystery

The Art ForgerIn 1990, two men disguised as policemen broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole Edgar Degas’ Impressionist painting After the Bath. The theft sets in motion the backdrop for Barbara Shapiro’s new novel, The Art Forger, part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction–but all-around entertaining.

Shapiro’s 2010s-era heroine, Claire Roth, is a struggling painter with a talent for reproducing Impressionist paintings. Claire works for “Reproductions.com” as a day job, making high-end copies of famous works for collectors. Exiled by the Boston art community because of an incident in her past, Claire is thrilled when renowned gallery owner Aiden Markel asks to see her work. Aiden, however, shows up at her studio with the Degas piece, After the Bath, which was famously stolen from the Gardner Museum decades ago. Aiden convinces Claire to make a forgery of After the Bath for him to sell, in exchange for a chance to show her own art in the Markel Art Gallery. It sounds enticing at first, but their business plan is complicated when the two become romantically entwined.

The plot is delivered in three alternating points of view, starting with Claire’s present day when she’s painting the Degas forgery and navigating the dangerous world of art replication. The second point of view is Claire’s not-so-far-past, which reveals her history with her former boyfriend (also an artist) and the circumstances that exiled Claire from the art world. The third perspective is conveyed through letters concerning After the Bath between none other than Degas himself and his lover, Isabella Stewart.

All three points of view deliver strong episodes, but Claire’s present-day voice provides the most engaging story by far and contains the author’s most successful writing style. By contrast, Isabella’s letters to Degas are awkward interruptions to what is otherwise an interesting plot; they come across as forced and inauthentic. Admittedly, however, creating an authentic voice for Degas, the iconic artist that he is, is a nearly impossible mission.

Some critics have faulted Shapiro for her inconsistencies regarding the politics of the art world, such as curatorship, authentication, and historical accuracy.

“Shapiro writes with assurance, even if she stumbles over the odd phrase or detail. Never mind that Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, whose painting is scrubbed clean for Claire’s ‘Degas,’ was one of the most celebrated artists of his day; nor that Bernard Berenson, whom Sha¬piro’s fictional curator invokes as the last word, was fallible, some of his authentications for Joseph Duveen having later proved unsound…Shapiro’s art world blather may verge on caricature,” writes Maxwell Carter, Christie’s Associate Vice President and Impressionist Art Specialist, in his recent review of the novel for The New York Times.

Though perhaps not precisely correct in every detail, it is clear that the book handles the moral implications of forgery particularly well.

“Although billed as a thriller, the novel succeeds best in its more meditative stretches…Shapiro delves successfully into the moral and emotional dimensions of forgery,” writes Art Taylor of The Washington Post.

The Art Forger is not to be confused with an art history text or a work of non-fiction; it is rather a thoughtful meditation on the origins of art and what we consider a masterpiece. It addresses the question of the importance of authorship in a painting’s value, and Shapiro also calls into question our long-held assumptions about what constitutes a “forgery.” The Art Forger will certainly cause you to think twice the next time you walk past a famous piece at an art museum (Is this really a Picasso?). As Shapiro’s protagonist notes, “the best forgeries are the ones hanging on museum walls; only the bad forgeries get caught.”

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