As Sir Walter Scott famously wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” and in B.A. Shapiro’s convoluted but fascinating novel, “The Art Forger,” we discover that, in the dark underbelly of the art world, deception takes many forms. Although its cover blurb describes “The Art Forger” as a literary thriller, I see it as more of a morality tale masquerading as a mystery story that examines, among other things, our perception of reality and the lengths people will go to in order to achieve what they desperately desire.
As more and more writers are doing these days, Ms. Shapiro divides her story into three alternating strands, two of which are narrated by a young artist, Claire Roth, a terrific painter who is also a talented and certified copyist. In the first of many present-day segments, we see Claire camping out illegally in her studio where she ekes out a living by painting meticulous reproductions of famous paintings for a firm called Reproductions.com because, as she says, “It beats waitressing.” Claire’s desperate desire is to get her career as a painter back on track.
The reason her path to artistic success has been derailed becomes clear in the second plot strand (unaccountably printed in bold-face), which consists of a series of flashbacks covering events that occurred three years earlier. We discover that Claire, an M.F.A candidate, is the lover and muse of her former teacher, Isaac Cullion. When Isaac is unable to fulfill a commission from a curator at the Museum of Modern Art due to bouts of depression and “painter’s block,” Claire tries to help him by creating the painting for him, with minimal instruction from Isaac on how to replicate his style. Isaac signs his name on Claire’s painting, and MoMA exhibits, then purchases “4D,” as the painting is called. Claire is content to go along with the deception because she loves Isaac, but when he leaves her to return to his wife and refuses to tell MoMA that she painted “4D,” Claire exposes him. Despite the fact that she convinces an art authority that the painting is her work, MoMA denies her claim. When Isaac later commits suicide, the resulting scandal makes Claire a persona non grata in the world of fine art.
I won’t go into detail about the present-day plot, except to say that it revolves around the actual unsolved theft in 1990 of 13 pieces of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Aiden Markel, owner of a prestigious Boston gallery, mysteriously gets his hands on one of the stolen pieces and asks Claire to copy it so he can return the original to the museum and sell the copy as the real thing to an unwitting buyer. Although Claire understands it is perfectly legal to copy a painting, but illegal to sell that copy as the real thing, she makes a Faustian bargain with Aiden. She will replicate Degas’ “After the Bath” in return for a one-woman show in Aiden’s gallery. Ironically, Claire discovers the painting she is forging is itself a forgery.
Thus, the plot thickens, and thickens, and thickens, until even I — a very careful reader — got confused and lost in its tangles. Meanwhile, just to add another element, Ms. Shapiro brings in the third plot strand, told in the form of a series of (fictitious) letters written by Isabella Stewart Gardner in the late 1800s to her (also fictitious) niece, Amelia. Mrs. Garner, better known as “Belle,” was, in real life, a piece of work. Not only was she an avid art collector who founded the museum that bears her name, she also achieved a sort of notoriety by walking two leashed lion cubs on the streets of Boston and wearing a headband emblazoned with “Oh You Red Sox” to the symphony. The letters detail her relationship with Degas and describe her modeling for one of his paintings. Eventually, the story Belle tells in her letters will have a bearing on the events in the present-day story.
Although Ms. Shapiro’s intricate plotting sometimes stumbles, she doesn’t put a foot wrong when it comes to her description of the process Claire uses to forge the Degas so perfectly that it will fool the authenticators. To me, this was the most enthralling part of the book. Clearly, Ms. Shapiro has done a prodigious amount of research and she uses what she has learned to let us in on the methods Claire uses to replicate the old painting, including baking her copy in what amounts to a pizza oven. I couldn’t get enough of this behind-the-scenes look at the work of a consummate forger.
All this doesn’t make Claire seem like a very nice person, yet I found myself liking her anyway. For one thing, it’s hard not to admire her passionate love of Degas and her exceptional talent. For another, she comes across as very intelligent; she’s a great problem solver. She’s also pretty fearless and is doggedly determined to uncover the mystery behind the provenance of “After the Bath.” Although her decisions are sometimes morally ambiguous, at heart, she’s a decent person who wants to tell the truth.
The novel’s conclusion, which finds Claire having a wildly successful show at Markel’s gallery, may seem unrealistic. However, when I discussed the book with my daughter, an artist with a museum background, she assured me that Claire’s sudden rise to fame is precisely what happens in the art world. Once a prominent gallery owner or art collector endorses a more or less unknown artist, everyone else jumps on the bandwagon, eager to get a slice of the pie. Thus, ironically, the two forgeries Claire commits have very different outcomes. Although her reputation is horribly tarnished by the “4D” scandal, she is essentially rewarded for participating in the Degas hoax.
“The Art Forger” really made me think about how readily we tend to see what we expect or want to see, and also about the moral ambiguity of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Ms. Shapiro also reveals the lengths people will go to protect their reputations and to achieve their desires. In my mind, any book that entertains me, while making me think hard, is well worth reading.