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Picturing a World

Goblin Market

Writing historical fiction calls for focus, research, and deliberate decisions, but it also inevitably draws on whatever lurks in the writer’s mind. The English pre-Raphaelites have long been a part of my life because my husband, John, studied them in graduate school. When it came time dramatize a winter’s afternoon in Amy and Sonja’s studio, for some reason Christina Rossetti’s line about “It snows and blows and you’re too curious, fie” floated up into my consciousness. Perfect for the weather and for Emily.

When I began the project, I intended Emily to exemplify the sort of weak art student who fell by the wayside in tough competition. Instead, she turned strange and became far more interesting to me as the book went along. I came to imagine her in future painting melancholy, obsessive, dense fairy pictures,  Read More 
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Red Rose Girls

After Saturday's blog alert on moving pictures, here's a still that tickled me while I was writing Where the Light Falls. Although I wanted events in my novel to be accurate to 1878–1880, not everything that inspired me came from that period. The camaraderie, humor, and tensions of a shared studio as well as the fruitfulness of women’s friendship were exemplified by the three women artists shown in this photograph. Jeanette's somewhat younger contemporaries, they began living together in 1899 and called themselves the Red Rose GirlsRead More 
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Hot stove in a studio

I loved this picture when I came across it early in my research—it was so specific and full of workaday details. Here was what the gray walls artists wanted for neutral light looked like, along with a chair for a sitter, a paintbox, a palette. Bazille’s studio is not exactly how I later imagined Sonja and Amy’s—oh, but look at that hot, hot stove! Coal supplied by Count Witkiewicz! And now that I look at the picture again, I see it as one of Jeanette’s empty rooms as a portrait.

For a very similar painting, see Gustave Caillebotte’s Interior of a Studio with Stove.  Read More 
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Studio omelettes

As I said in an earlier post, my editor teased me about how often my characters eat. In a scene that got dropped from “Winter’s Cold,” Jeanette demonstrates breaking two eggs at once (a trick my college roommate, the writer Elaine Fowler Palencia, taught me) and  Read More 
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Blue-and-white teacups

When Edward goes to Sonja and Amy’s studio to see the portrait medallions Sonja has sculpted for him, Amy serves the gathered friends tea in chipped blue-and-white porcelain. I got the idea for chipped china from Massachusetts artist Eleanor Norcross, who  Read More 
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View from a studio window

An artist about whom I read a lot at the beginning of my research was Cincinnati-born Elizabeth Nourse (1859–1938)), Jeanette's almost exact contemporary. She, too, studied at the Académie Julian (beginning in 1887) and made her career in Paris, where she lived with her sister. This view from her studio window fell in with my own (and Jeanette's!) love of pictures painted or photographed out of upper-storey windows. I gave Mabel Reade a studio on the Rue d'Assas because of this very image and had Cousin Effie talk her way into a studio more expensive than Amy and Sonja could afford for the same reason. Read More 
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Charlie Post

I’m not sure which came first, seeing Hovenden’s Self-Portrait or imagining Charlie Post. Like Charlie, Hovenden here seems to me pugnacious, introspective, dissatisfied, brooding, wistful, though his self-confidence is of a different stripe from Charlie’s obsessive belief in his work.

This self-portrait also points to a motif that could have been part of the novel but wasn’t, namely how musically accomplished many of the artists of this period were (including Carolus-Duran and John Singer Sargent). Notice how the scroll above the Hovenden’s violin peg box just touches the edge of the picture on his easel, symbolically joining the two arts. Similarly, in Marie Bashkirtseff’s self-portrait of 1880, the harp behind the painter just touches her palette. Read More 
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Sonja's Studio

I can’t find the photograph of super-cheap studios in an industrial district on the Left Bank that inspired Sonja’s studio, but this Marville photograph with its sign, “Sculpture at the back of the court,” tickles me as a substitute. It even has the wet gutter!

Click on the photo to reach the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Zoom feature, which makes enlarging the picture almost like moving down the alley. When you reach the handcart on the right, you'll see that if it were decorated with crepe paper, it would fit right into Chapter Twenty-One, “Moving Day.”

For a wonderfully informative website that plots Marville’s photographs on a map alongside present-day shots of each location, click hereRead More 
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Académie Julian

This photo gives an idea of how many women crowded into Rodolphe Julian's highly successful art classes, and the drawings mounted on the wall shows how good the best of them were. Notice how they are posed so that not everyone is staring straight ahead at the canera. That was a 19th C convention for group photographs. It is artificial, but it does enliven the composition—just a little prod toward the historical novelist's goal of imagining them as separate individuals, each with her own story.

For Jefferson David Chalfant's informative painting of one of the men's studios, click here.  Read More 
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The Tenth Street Studios

The cars tell you that this photograph of the Tenth Street Studio Building was taken in the 20th Century, but the picture gave me enough information to imagine the street as Jeanette, Effie, and Mrs. Palmer would have seen it. Notice how big the windows are compared to those in the building next door—an unmistakable sign of an art studio.
Artists with studios in the Tenth Street Building were nothing like the Romantic artist starving in his garret. These men wanted to entice and impress clients, to strut out as the accomplished professionals they were, as you can see here. For the sumptuousness of William Merritt Chase's studio, see this painting.  Read More 
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