Claire Roth, though a talented artist, is a pariah in the Boston art world after an artistic scandal involving her former professor and lover tarnishes her still-fledgling career. Approached by the handsome and successful Aiden Markel a few years after the dust has settled, Claire accepts a “Faustian” bargain to forge a Degas painting in exchange for a show at his famous gallery, Markel G. What Claire discovers as she digs deeper into the history of the painting and of the art of forgery itself is that nothing, especially art, is ever as it seems.
Art is at the core of everything in Shapiro’s novel. It has the capacity to destroy people, communities and relationships, and though it can also inspire, this inspiration becomes obsession over and over again for the characters that people The Art Forger. As one explains, “Once a piece of art crawls into your heart, you’ll never let it go.” Through the artistic longings of her characters, Shapiro tangentially touches on the issues at hand in regards to great art – who can or should “own” it? Is that even really possible? Are the art collectors who horde their own private collections doing a disservice to the public, who are denied exposure to this art, or a service to artists, who rely on their money to create more art?
Moreover, I found the more central question of truth in The Art Forger to be very interesting. The title of the book sets up this friction from the get-go. Claire is a very talented artist who produces her own individual work, yet she makes her money working for Repro.com, a site that produces high-end “copies,” not forgeries (that semantic difference turns out to be very important). What is authentic here? What is legitimate? The question is ultimately even deeper than that put forth in an editorial in the novel -“Where does art’s value lie?” Really Shapiro invites us to ask “What is art itself?” The twists and turns of this novel, rather than giving us an answer, further muddies these waters. So much goes into a piece of art, especially Degas’ lovingly multi-layered masterpieces: the many coats of paint, the waiting, the infinitesimal corrections and care, but also(maybe most importantly) the perceptions of the painter and of the viewers. People in The Art Forger repeatedly see what they want to see, rather than seeing what is in front of them, and in the end I found myself unsettled by this book’s shaking of the foundations of reality.
Even though I find The Art Forger both interesting and thought-provoking, there are things I don’t like about this book. I think the characters are ironically one-dimensional compared to the complex art they love, and the dialogue often cheesy. I don’t mind some cheese, but it got so distracting by the end of the book that I felt it took away from the message of the plot. Nevertheless, I think this book is worth a read just for the conversations it generates.
Although the central Degas painting of the novel, the fifth in a series called After the Bath, is fictional, there are four real paintings in this series that you can take a look at to get a feel for what you are reading about.