The best books on why art matters (in our lives)

Maggie Humm Author Of Radical Woman: Gwen John & Rodin
By Maggie Humm

Who am I?

Like many readers, I am fascinated by strong creative women in the past and how their lives can inspire women today. As an academic, before my Creative Writing Diploma and transformation into a creative writer, I taught historical novels of many kinds. I now enjoy devising fascinating women whose lives have significance for today’s issues. To talk about my favourite writer Virginia Woolf and favourite artist Gwen John, I have enjoyed invitations from book festivals, galleries, and universities from around the world, including several in the US and Europe as well as Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, and Norway. BBC Radio, France Culture, and Turkey TRT television also featured my writing.

I wrote...

Radical Woman: Gwen John & Rodin

By Maggie Humm,

Book cover of Radical Woman: Gwen John & Rodin

What is my book about?

Shortlisted for a Page Turner Award 2022, Radical Woman Gwen John & Rodin is a fictional autobiography about the artist Gwen John and her tumultuous affair with the sculptor Auguste Rodin. Gwen enjoys the creative ferment around Bloomsbury and the Slade at the turn of the twentieth century. We travel with Gwen across France open to adventures until her growing obsession with Rodin in Paris. She longs to be more than a mistress, yet her relative solitude in sparsely furnished rooms, left her free to paint the wonderful portraits and self-portraits that are the defining images of her period. ‘Gwen springs from the page in all her brilliance’ Annabel Abbs prize winning author of The Joyce Girl, Frieda, and The Language of Food.

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The books I picked & why

To The Lighthouse

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of To The Lighthouse

Why did I love this book?

To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf’s most autobiographical novel.

Ostensibly set in Scotland, Woolf is describing her own childhood holidays in Talland House, St Ives Cornwall which gave her intense happiness. The story is of the Ramsay family and their friends (who stand in for Woolf’s family) on vacation.

Lily Briscoe, an artist is painting Mrs Ramsay’s portrait which Lily completes after Mrs Ramsay’s sudden death; and Lily has her ‘vision’. Beautifully evocative of Cornish landscape, Woolf captures the inner feelings of characters impressionistically and movingly.

I took Woolf’s Lily Briscoe as my heroine in my novel and depict her emotional journey in becoming a professional artist and solving the mystery of Mrs. Ramsay’s suspicious death. In 2022, after my four-year campaign, I unveiled a plaque to Woolf on Talland House, St Ives. Like Lily, I had my vision.

By Virginia Woolf,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked To The Lighthouse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Radiant as [To the Lighthouse] is in its beauty, there could never be a mistake about it: here is a novel to the last degree severe and uncompromising. I think that beyond being about the very nature of reality, it is itself a vision of reality.”—Eudora Welty, from the Introduction.The serene and maternal Mrs. Ramsay, the tragic yet absurd Mr. Ramsay, and their children and assorted guests are on holiday on the Isle of Skye. From the seemingly trivial postponement of a visit to a nearby lighthouse, Woolf constructs a remarkable, moving examination of the complex tensions and allegiances of…

Book cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Why did I love this book?

The only novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was first published in 1890 but its gothic horror has never lost appeal.

Dorian is an extraordinarily beautiful young man being painted by artist Basil Hallward. The completed painting is hung in an attic and gradually ages as Dorian retains his youth, until the painting is destroyed. Basil’s infatuation with Dorian gives the novel a homoerotic frisson and places the novel in turn-of-the-century decadent arts.

All of us worry about growing old, losing our youthful appearance and the novel plays on these fears. The novel also teaches us not to engage in any Faustian pact-like Dorian!

By Oscar Wilde,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Picture of Dorian Gray as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A triumph of execution ... one of the best narratives of the "double life" of a Victorian gentleman' Peter Ackroyd

Oscar Wilde's alluring novel of decadence and sin was a succes de scandale on publication. It follows Dorian Gray who, enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his depravity. This definitive edition includes a selection of…

The Goldfinch

By Donna Tartt,

Book cover of The Goldfinch

Why did I love this book?

Carel Fabritius’s seventeenth-century Dutch painting The Goldfinch gives the novel its title and plot.

Starting with a powerful scene of an art gallery bombing which kills thirteen-year-old Theo Decker’s mother and he steals the painting, the novel depicts Theo’s journey through the US criminal underworld. With amazing characters and thrilling suspense, The Goldfinch is a novel about loss, love, and obsession.

I too am obsessed by a Dutch painting, in my case Vermeer’s View of Delft. My mother, who also died when I was thirteen like Theo, had a cheap print of the painting which now hangs in my dining room reminding me of her.

By Donna Tartt,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Goldfinch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014 Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and a reckless, largely absent father, survives an accident that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. He is tormented by an unbearable longing for his mother, and down the years clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, strangely captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld. As he grows up, Theo learns to glide between the drawing rooms of the…

Letters to Gwen John

By Celia Paul,

Book cover of Letters to Gwen John

Why did I love this book?

Letters to Gwen John is the artist’s mixture of memoir and fictional letters to Gwen John the artist.

Once a partner of the much older artist Lucian Freud, Paul’s life resembles Gwen’s love for the older French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Paul’s fictional letters provide moving insights into Paul’s life, Gwen’s life, and the role of art.

Uncannily Paul’s letters resemble Gwen’s to Rodin in their shared simplicity and devotion to art.

I just wish Paul’s book had been published before I wrote my book because Paul has so many insights into art techniques. 2023 is definitely Gwen’s year with the opening of the major exhibition of Gwen’s work at Pallant House Gallery, UK.

By Celia Paul,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Letters to Gwen John as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With original artworks throughout, an extraordinary fusion of memoir and artistic biography from the acclaimed artist and author of Self-Portrait.

Dearest Gwen, I know this letter to you is an artifice. I know you are dead and that I’m alive and that no usual communication is possible between us but, as my mother used to say, “Time is a strange substance” and who knows really, with our time-bound comprehension of the world, whether there might be some channel by which we can speak to each other, if we only knew how.

Celia Paul’s Letters to Gwen John centers on a…

The Marriage Portrait

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Book cover of The Marriage Portrait

Why did I love this book?

Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara married aged sixteen to Duke Alfonso, is certain that he intends to kill her. Before Alfonso can carry out his sinister wish, he commands painters to paint a marriage portrait of Lucrezia.

One painter, a mute, as well as Lucrezia’s maid, guess Lucrezia’s danger. Will their knowledge save their mistress?

The Marriage Portrait is a gripping read and a wonderful portrait in itself of the world of 1561 and Italian art. Having written two historical novels about artists, I am in awe of O’Farrell’s ability to recreate the atmosphere and imagery of the past.

By Maggie O'Farrell,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Marriage Portrait as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION FINALIST • REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK • NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • The author of award-winning Hamnet brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable fictional portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de' Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court.

“I could not stop reading this incredible true story.” —Reese Witherspoon (Reese’s Book Club Pick)

"O’Farrell pulls out little threads of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station...You may know the history, and you may think you…

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