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Category Archive for 'Biography'

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was already recognized as one of the most important impressionist painters in the world by the time this study of his work begins in 1914. At seventy-four, he still worked outdoors, painting in his garden at Giverny, his rural home forty miles northwest of Paris. He was impatient to keep working, with many more paintings to go, many more milestones to reach. The word “impressionistic,” a pejorative term when it was first applied to the work of Monet and others at their group exhibition in Paris in 1874, refers to their seemingly spontaneous and unstructured style, a marked contrast to the smooth, elegantly formal paintings of the Salon of Paris, the official style of the French Academie des Beaux Arts. The impressionists’ light-filled paintings and their ability to achieve a new depth and immediacy in their work by superimposing colors upon colors in short brush strokes, gradually won over patrons, and over the next twenty-five years, artists like Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt became both famous and successful. Concentrating on the last years of Monet’s life, as he begins his massive “Grande Decoration,” a series of fifty water lily paintings, each one measuring fourteen feet by six-and-a-half feet, the reader shares Monet’s frustration and even anger as he must also deal with serious vision problems.

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Marian Evans, the author known as George Eliot, is sixty years old as this biographical novel opens in June, 1880, and she is on the train to Venice for her honeymoon with new husband, John Walter Cross, a handsome young forty-year-old. Hiding her face behind a white lace mantilla so that she will not be pestered by fans of her books begging for autographs, she believes that the mantilla, “though not completely hiding her face…distracted from it, from her large nose and broad jaw, and she welcomed this because she believed that she was homely.” She had lived happily with philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death in 1878, and though she called herself Mrs. Lewes, they had never married. Lewes, already married, had an “open marriage” in which his wife ultimately had four children by another man, all of whom Lewes supported, and he was legally unable to get a divorce. As the train bearing the newlyweds heads toward Venice and a new life, Evans has reason to be alarmed by her new husband’s behavior – “It was as if he were drifting away from her, going farther and farther into his own world, and she didn’t know why.” He’d been frantically making plans for the wedding and their house in London; he hadn’t been sleeping; and he’d hardly been eating. Though he’d been as attentive to her needs as always, he was now hyperactive, operating at a level of speed and intensity she had never seen before, constantly moving and unable to relax. Author Smith’s research makes much of this novel come alive, providing both realism and excitement to this biography as she recreates the life of this intelligent scholar/author and how she became a success as a novelist.

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Author Nellie Hermann’s recreation of two years in the life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) breathes with Van Gogh’s earnest attempts to live a productive life while he is also burdened by crushing sadness and isolation. Depicting Van Gogh before he became an artist, she focuses on the years of 1879 and 1880, when Van Gogh was living in a coal mining village in the Borinage mining area of southwest Belgium, near the French border. The young twenty-seven-year-old son of a Dutch Reformed preacher had worked for several years in the Goupil & Cie gallery and its showrooms in the Hague, London, and Paris, before studying theology to become a minister and missionary, like his father. His letters to his younger brother Theo, used as resources by the author, provide intimate glimpses of his life in the Borinage, including the misery he shared with the miners and their families, which his own depression may have exacerbated. Throughout the novel Vincent’s own life develops in great detail, and readers interested in his biography will have plenty to keep them involved and intrigued here. His references to existing paintings that epitomize what he himself is seeing and to scenes which he himself eventually brings to life in his own paintings will please art historians. He puts so much heart into his actions, giving up everything he can from his own life so that the miners can benefit, that he becomes emotionally ill and spiritually at loose ends, and requires intervention from his father and family. A dramatic and insightful novel of a man whose sensitivity exceeded what his heart and mind could bear.

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In this remarkable and insightful novel, author Danielle Dutton recreates the life of Margaret Lucas (1623 – 1673) from her teen years until her death years later. From her exile in France with the Queen of England to her marriage to William Cavendish, an older widower who patiently accepts her unusual views of life and, eventually, her growing need for independence, Margaret shines here as a modern woman, one with whom the reader identifies because she feels so familiar, so modern. Despite the fact that as the Duchess of Newcastle she and her husband associate with kings, queens, philosophers, artists, and writers, Margaret is shy and vulnerable enough to make a modern reader hope for her success, despite some of her disastrous missteps and chronic inability to put herself into the shoes of others and to see herself as others see her. The history of the period, which the narrative wears lightly, focuses clearly on Margaret and her personal goals, and as the chronology slides smoothly from the civil war to the Restoration and eventually to Margaret’s career as a writer, the reader recognizes that it would actually be possible for a woman like Margaret to become an iconoclastic feminist recognized for her talent in the world in which she lived almost four hundred years ago.

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In this dramatic and illuminating fictionalized biography of author Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928), Christopher Nicholson recreates a period in which Hardy experiences his highest personal excitements and his most bitter disappointments. At age eighty-four, Hardy is regarded as the wealthiest writer in England, but he is unable to focus on a new book and seems able to write only poems, most of which leave him unsatisfied. Living in Dorset in a house that he himself designed in England’s rural south, where he grew up, Hardy has remained in touch with the characters who people his novels, rural people living close to the land, far from hidebound London with its frustrating elitism. An iconoclast whose novels were often shocking to his readers, Hardy depicted ideas and values that were in sharp contrast with those of the Victorian period – including issues of sex, marriage, and religious doubt, which, not surprisingly, reflected some of his own conflicts. Now in the winter of his life, Hardy wants to grasp a kind of happiness that has so far eluded him.

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