The Muse by Jessie Burton: An Artist’s View

Art makes for great stories. Because there’s always a story behind the making of art.

In The Muse by Jessie Burton (HarperCollins 2016), there isn’t just one, but two interwinding stories – set 30 years apart – about a mysterious painting. One story is set in a 1960s London art gallery, the other in a beautiful Spanish villa at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

the muse















Spain, 1936. A Viennese art dealer and and his family have recently arrived at a dreamy villa on the warm southern coast of Spain. Their daughter Olive has just been admitted to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but doesn’t know how to ask her father for permission to go. He wouldn’t approve. He doesn’t think women should paint.

So instead of confronting her parents, Olive sneaks upstairs to the attic in order to paint in secret. Her new canvases are infused with the passion and inspiration she feels for her new home – the heat, the sun, the landscape, the orchards, but especially, the dark, handsome villager named Isaac Robles who has stirred up something new and deep inside her. Isaac is an artist too, but mostly he’s a young revolutionary intent on organizing and agitating for his cause.

In the middle of this lush and provocative setting, Olive creates a painting that sounds just gorgeous: a loose, surrealistic view of the villa (they call it a “finca”) from the bottom of the orchards, with fields painted in “ochres and grasshopper greens, the folkloric tenderness of russet furrows and mustard browns.” Olive even surprises herself:

She never knew she was capable of such work. She had made, for the first time, a picture of such movement and excess and fecundity that she felt almost shocked.

Olive hides The Orchard under her bed and works on sketches of her muse Isaac (Isaac Chopping Wood, Isaac with Coffee Cup) until she is inspired to try an even more complicated painting.

Isaac and his sister have told Olive about a old Spanish legend in which two sisters, Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, become Christian martyrs. (It’s a real story, but I’d never heard of it before so of course I had to Google it.) Two sisters are persecuted for their Christian beliefs during the Roman Empire. After breaking a pot with a pagan image of Venus, one sister is thrown down a well and the other is thrown to the lions.

Somehow, Olive figures out a way to paint it. She calls it Santa Justa in the Well.

The new piece was a surreal composition, colorful, disjointed to the gaze. It was a diptych; Santa Justa before her arrest and after, set against a dark indigo sky and a shining field. . . .

The left half of the painting was lush and glowing. Olive had used ordinary oils, but had also experimented with gold leaf, which glinted in the light as she held the painting up. . . .

In the middle of the healthy land on this left-hand side stood a woman, her hair the color of the crop. She was carrying a heavy pot with deer and rabbits painted on it, and its centre was the face of the goddess Venus. Both the faces of the woman and Venus looked proud, staring out at the viewer.

I tried to imagine what this painting might look like. I can definitely see The Orchard in my mind’s eye, but not this one. There’s sky and crops and the full figure of a woman and a pot so detailed you can see the little deer and rabbits and the face of Venus. And then the other side of the diptych it gets even more complicated.

On the right half of the painting, the crop was deadened and limp. The woman appeared again, except this time she was curled inside a circle, hovering over the crop. This circle was filled with an internal perspective to make it look as if it had depth, as if the woman was lying at the bottom of a well. Her hair was now severed and dull, her pot had smashed around her, a puzzle impossible for anyone to piece together. Around the rim of the well, full-sized deer and rabbits peered down, as if set free from the broken crockery. Venus had vanished.

My goodness, what a difficult project for Olive to take on as a beginning painter. As I say to myself sometimes when I’m struggling with a difficult painting: “maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew with this one.” Olive has had no formal training – not that’s the only route to artistic genius, but it sure helps. And how quickly did she paint it? This complicated a composition would take days, weeks, even months. And how did she keep her act of painting so secret? What about the strong smell of oil paint (which her father the art dealer would’ve recognized)? Apparently Olive’s parents were quite distracted during this part of the book.

The Muse relies heavily on the myth of original genius. It makes a good story. An untrained but inspired young woman creates a breathtaking piece of art without any training, instruction or advice. It sounds lovely, but I don’t happen to believe in it.

That’s not to say the subject would have been impossible to paint. Other famous Spanish artists have taken their turn with the legend of Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, including Valasquez, de Goya and Murillo.

From Jessie Burton's Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya's "Santa Justa y Santa Rufina" (!817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid Spain

From Jessie Burton’s Pinterest Board: the author standing in front of Francisco de Goya’s “Santa Justa y Santa Rufina” (1817), oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Old Master Paintings Sale Sotheby's, London - July, 4 , 2007 Velazquez (1599 - 1660) Saint Rufina Estimate: 6,000,000 - 8,000,000 Copyright in this image shall remain vested in Sotheby’s. Please note that this image may depict subject matter which is itself protected by separate copyright. Sotheby’s makes no representations as to whether the underlying subject matter is subject to its own copyright, or as to who might hold such copyright. It is the borrower's responsibility to obtain any relevant permissions from the holder(s) of any applicable copyright and Sotheby’s supplies this image expressly subject to this responsibility.

Diego Valasquez, Saint Rufina (circa 1630-1635), oil on canvas, Foundation Focus-Abengoa, Seville, Spain


Murillo, Santa Justa

Bartolomé Murillo, Santa Justa (c. 1665), oil on canvas, Meadows Museum, Dallas,  Texas. In fact, there is an interesting side story about this Murillo painting and its companion piece, Santa Rufino. When the Meadows Museum initiated provenance research in accordance with the recent effort to identify Nazi era looted art, it was discovered that these two paintings had indeed been stolen from the Rothschild family during World War II. The Monuments Men Foundation is currently researching whether or not the paintings had been  properly restituted  before they were donated to the Meadows Museum.



Juan Barreto, Justa y Rufina (1989), oil on canvas, University of Seville, Spain

Fortunately, I was able to put aside my misgivings about how Olive’s paintings came to be, because the story soon becomes a fascinating mystery. The Spanish Civil War intervenes with its tales of danger, tragedy, loss and confusion, and we’re not quite sure what’s become of Olive’s secret paintings, much less Olive’s family and friends.

London, 1967.  Odelle, a young Caribbean immigrant with dreams of becoming a writer nabs a typing job at a fancy London art gallery. She stumbles upon a long-lost painting that her professional colleagues attribute to a Spanish artist named Isaac Robles, who is rumored to have died in the Spanish Civil War decades earlier. (Remember that hot young revolutionary, Olive’s muse? Yes, him.)

The gallery prepares for a show announcing its exciting new discovery and highlighting Isaac Robles’ short but apparently brilliant career. Odelle digs deeper into the painting’s provenance and makes an unlikely ally. As Odelle uncovers the truth behind the painting, she find the inner fuel to pick up her own neglected journals and return to her dreams of becoming a writer.

In the end, it turns out that Odelle has encountered a muse of her own. As Odelle says in the last wonderful line in the book, “in the end, a piece of art only succeeds when its creator – to paraphrase Olive Schloss – possesses the belief that brings it into being.”



And that, friends, is how you write a terrific book. Art makes for great stories, doesn’t it?  Oh, and by the way, the author Jessie Burton has a fabulous Pinterest Board for The Muse. Check it out!



The Muse by Jessie Burton. Highly recommended.





Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War And Memory in Paris

In the novel Pictures At An Exhibition, (Knopf Hardcover 2009, Vintage Paperback 2010) Sara Houghteling tells a captivating story of the Nazi looting of art in occupied Paris during World War II. Told through the eyes Max Berenzon, the son of a highly successful art dealer in Paris, this exceptionally researched and beautifully executed book is about lost paintings, lost love, the art of survival and the power of the imagination.

Max’s father is a leading Jewish art dealer with a gallery on Rue La Boetie in the 1920’s and 30’s. The gallery represents such artists as Picasso, Matisse, Manet and Morisot. In a wonderfully imagined scene in the book, Max’s father would pass by Picasso’s studio, just a couple of doors down from the gallery, and Picasso would raise his canvases up to the window for his dealer’s friendly thumbs-up.

Max grows up with artwork on his walls and and in his veins. Max’s father makes Max memorize the paintings of the wall at one of their exhibitions, in the exact order in which they appear. They are etched into his memory, a lesson that will prepare Max for the tragic mission that lies ahead.

Anti-semitism is building in Paris and Max’s family finally realizes the true danger and scope of the Nazi threat. They leave their gallery and artwork behind as they escape to a small village in southern France. Max’s youthful sidekick, Betrand Camondo, the grandson of Count Moises de Camondo, tries to stay in Paris too long and sadly becomes of les absents.

After three years in hiding, Max returns to liberated Paris and finds his father’s gallery completely looted. Max stumbles through Paris, searching for his friend Bertrand and hunting down his father’s lost art in the shady world of black market galleries and tight-lipped collaborators. Max seeks out his father’s former gallery assistant, Rose Clement, for whom he has long had unreciprocated feelings.

Rose is modeled after the real-life Rose Valland, who earned the French Legion of Honor for her work as a spy and gallery assistant in the Jeu de Paume during World War II. Valland covertly tracked most of the 20,000 pieces of the stolen art, enabling the Monuments Men to follow the front lines and rescue the art from Hitler’s private collection or secret hide-outs deep in the mountains of Germany.  In 2005, the French government placed a plaque on the outside of the Jeu de Paume to commemorates her heroism.

I enjoyed this book so much that I followed it up with Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholson. In addition, fans of old movies might enjoy watching The Train, a hyped-up version of the Rose Valland story starring Burt Lancaster and Jeanne Moreau. For Rape of Europa is also available as a documentary film, which I highly recommend.

I can’t wait to sign up for a Paris During the Occupation walking tour. In the meantime, I took a short walk down Rue La Boetie to find the site of the Berenzon’s fictional gallery and Picasso’s former art studio. Because Sarah Houghteling has a Master of Fine Arts and researched the book while on a Fulbright scholarship to Paris, I wouldn’t be surprised if the addresses are based on historical fact. I really hope so. On my own visit, I sat down inside 21 Rue La Boettie (in what is now a Pomme et Pain restaurant) and enjoyed some hot vegetable soup, right in the spot where Picasso would have raised his canvas in a salute to  Daniel Berenzon.

I give my own salute to Sara Houghteling and Pictures At An Exhibition. Highly recommended. This would be a great book for a book club to read along with a trip to their favorite art museum. Or better yet, a trip to Paris!

23 Rue La Boetie: Berenzon Gallery

21, Rue La Boetie, Picasso's Studio

Rose Valland Plaque at Jeu de Paume