Word Art: Anka Muhlstein on ‘The Pen and the Brush’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m overjoyed to share virtual space with Anka Muhlstein.

Anka is the author of the newly releases non-fiction title, The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels (Other Press). Anka has previously published biographies of Queen Victoria, James de Rothschild, Cavelier de La Salle, and Astolphe de Custine; studies on Catherine de Médicis, Marie de Médicis, and Anne of Austria; a double biography, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart; and most recently, Balzac’s Omelette and Monsieur Proust’s Library. She has won two prizes from the Académie française and the Goncourt Prize for Biography. Anka and her husband, Louis Begley, have written a book on Venice, Venice for Lovers. Though Paris-born, she now makes her home in New York City.

Author Anka Muhlstein.

Praise for The Pen and the Brush:

“It’s no secret that some of the prominent 19th-century French writers were fanatical about art and artists. Mulhstein (sic) probes the connection between author and artist by focusing on five writers: Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, and Marcel Proust, to consider the roles of painters and paintings in each of their stories. . . Readers interested in the history of art and literature will enjoy this crossover. Examining how these authors interpreted the art world provides new insight into 19th-century French culture.”—Library Journal, Starred Review

“With personable prose and erudition, Muhlstein (Monsieur Proust’s Library) reveals seemingly all there is to know about the relationship between 19th-century French novels and painting. . . Muhlstein’s extensive knowledge of art and literature make for a fascinating, instructive, and absorbing read.”—Publishers Weekly

“An enlightening exploration of the symbiotic relationship between art and literature.”—Kirkus

From the publisher:

A scintillating glimpse into the lives of acclaimed writers and artists and their inspiring, often surprising convergences, from the author of Monsieur Proust’s Library
With the wit and penetration well known to readers of Balzac’s Omelette and Monsieur Proust’s Library, Anka Muhlstein’s PEN AND BRUSH revisits the delights of the French novel. This time she focuses on late 19th- and 20th-century writers–Balzac, Zola, Proust, Huysmans, and Maupassant–through the lens of their passionate involvement with the fine arts. She delves into the crucial role that painters play as characters in their novels, which she pairs with an exploration of the profound influence that painting exercised on the novelists’ techniques, offering an intimate view of the intertwined worlds of painters and writers at the time.

Muhlstein’s deftly chosen vignettes bring to life a portrait of the nineteenth century’s tight-knit artistic community, where Cézanne and Zola befriended each other as boys and Balzac yearned for the approval of Delacroix. She leads the reader on a journey of spontaneous discovery as she explores how a great painting can open a mind and spark creative fire.


Now, Anka shares the origin story of her word art …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write The Pen and the Brush – and how did you endeavor to bring history alive for the reader?

Anka Muhlstein: I started thinking about the relation between XIXth century writers and painters when I was asked to give a talk at the Frick Museum on the occasion of a Renoir exhibition, the talk was to be centered on the literary society of his time. It is then that I first realized the extraordinary importance of painting in French literature. The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of fictional painters in novels of the time. Why was this not the case in other European literatures? As I tried to find an answer, the book took shape. My aim was to show that the founding of the Louvre, at the end of the XVIIIth century, encouraged an amazing interest in the arts in a whole generation of young writers and that the new school of painting (more precisely Impressionism) had an unmistakable effect on the style of novelists.

When it comes to bringing a story alive, you have a head start if you deal with novels. If novels are not entertaining, if they do not engage the reader, if they do not impart a certain knowledge, they don’t survive. And I was interested in some of the best authors of the XIXth century. Another aspect of my book was the establishment of the Louvre, the great French museum, and there again I was lucky because the beginnings of the museum were linked to some of the most dramatic moments of French history, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era.

JV: How did you select the five writers you chose to focus on – and when did you know that it was time to stop researching and start writing?

AM: I wanted to write about novelists I knew well and that I really liked. I also wanted them to be very different one from the other so that my book would not be repetitive (and boring). Balzac was an incontrovertible choice because he was so interested in painting and collecting. Not only did he create more than ten fictional printers but was also the first novelist to describe his characters by comparing them to different paintings. For instance, an old man looks like a Rembrandt, a young girl like a Raphael so paintings are truly incorporated in his novels. Before Balzac, novelists rarely described physically their characters.

Zola was a childhood friend of Cézanne and grew up among painters so his description of studios, of artists at work, his evocation of their way of looking at things is incomparable. He also strived to write like a painter: he was one of the first landscape writers of the time reveling in the use of light in his depictions. Huysmans’ writing owns a lot to symbolist painters and Maupassant shows how an ambitious man, eager to be accepted in high society, uses his collection of paintings precisely to gain that access.

My fifth writer, Proust, is not interested in a painters work or in his life: his interest lies in the fact that the painter even more so than a writer or a musician transforms what he sees: Proust wants to demonstrate, that it is not an artist’s life but how a great artist can half open the door to a new world for anyone who knows how to look, that is essential in the appreciation of art.

JV: Speaking of writing, tell us: how do you achieve a balance between entertaining and educating your audience, and in what ways does your personal (and personable) style heighten the work?

AM: When I write, I keep in mind an ideal reader who is curious, impatient of jargon and above all who is bored very quickly. So I do my best to keep him engaged. My secret weapon is my husband. I know I can count on him to tell him when I get too dull; I also notice that whenever he finds the going a bit tedious, he’ll fall asleep. So armed with this invaluable information, I rewrite and try to lighten things up.

JV: In your opinion, what is the influence between visual arts and the written word – and how do the stories you tell in this book support, or refute, that notion?

AM: The two forms of art have nourished one another for many centuries but the relation between them has evolved. For many centuries it was writers who to a large extent fueled the imagination of painters, with the obvious exception of portraitists. All the religious art of the Middle Ages—and especially manuscript illuminations, which constitute the most admirable manifestation of a close union between text and illustration —is based on a profound knowledge of the Bible. From the Renaissance onward there was a proliferation of paintings based on literary subjects. Painters not only continued to interpret the great events of the Old and New Testaments, they also drew on the wealth of themes from classical mythology. The abundant and accurate representation of figures, scenes, and symbols from the ancient world demonstrate that artists were well versed in Greek and Latin literature.  Painting, therefore, usually told a story, and did so until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Everything changed with the next generation, when painters took to spurning great subjects. They thought it pointless to justify their work with a legend, an event, or an anecdote. At the same time, drawn by the power of images, writers sought to establish literary equivalents of pictorial achievements by taking into consideration effects of light and color. The Romantics, and to a greater degree the realists, wanted to look at the outside world the way a painter does.  Painters were no longer narrating history, and writers took inspiration from the painters’ vision. They actually shared a great number of subjects.

JV: Do you feel that there is a similar affinity between artists and writers today? In what ways would you encourage scribes to consider other creative disciplines as a strategy to enhance their own work?

AM: I don’t know enough about contemporary art to put forward a reasoned opinion but it seems to me that the intimate intermingling of the arts has changed. The old partnership between writers and painters, their intimate union, the exchange of topics, the endless arguments among the different artists, the common language they used, which had been so striking in the period I have studied, has evolved into something completely different.


With thanks to Anka Muhlstein for her generosity of time and thought and to Esther Kim, Associate Publicist at Other Press, for facilitating this interview.


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