cover image The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels

The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels

Anka Muhlstein, trans. from the French by Adriana Hunter. Other Press, $18.95 (

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. She cites the Louvre’s open access policy, spurred by the French Revolution, and art’s robust presence in French life as influences on the emergence of “the visual novel.” The authors covered in this rich and detailed analysis include Honoré de Balzac, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, and Émile Zola. While discussing their work, Muhlstein forms a new lexicon of literary devices used in the 19th-century French novel. She refers to Zola as the first “landscapist writer” because he drew from the Impressionists’ use of light, and regards Proust’s use of works of art to describe character traits as creating “pictorial allusions.” Muhlstein shows how specific paintings—Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” or Giotto’s “Idolatry”—served as a foundation for visual descriptions or moved plot forward. She also explores the personal lives of the writers, adding fun tidbits about Zola’s career as an art critic and friendship with Paul Cézanne. Muhlstein’s extensive knowledge of art and literature make for a fascinating, instructive, and absorbing read. (Jan.)