Three years ago, Barbara Shapiro’s writing career took off with the publication of The Art Forger (Algonquin), a novel inspired by the still-unsolved 1990 heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This mystery and meditation on art became an indie bookseller favorite and has sold 325,000 copies to date.
This November, Shapiro will follow it up with The Muralist (Algonquin), another novel about the art world, featuring real-world painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock as well as fictional ones. She will appear at Heartland, NAIBA, NEIBA, and SIBA to promote the book. The Muralist opens on the eve of World War II. Under the patronage of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, young New York artist Alizée Benoit experiments with abstract expressionism while painting murals for the Works Progress Administration. As Hitler’s armies march across Europe, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration refuses to allow many Europeans fleeing the Nazis to settle in the U.S., including Benoit’s relatives, who live in occupied France. In the midst of the political turmoil of 1940, Benoit vanishes. Her artist friends in the U.S. and her family in France don’t know what happened to her. Seven decades later, Danielle, her great-niece, investigates Benoit’s disappearance and the disappearance of her WPA murals.
The Muralist, says Shapiro, was inspired by her desire to write a novel about art set during the Great Depression. While doing research—at the main branch of the Boston Public Library and in New York City—she discovered that Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in creating the WPA’s Federal Arts Program. She also learned that Roosevelt’s “greatest regret in her life was not having saved more European refugees” from Hitler. Shapiro, who is Jewish and who lost members of her family in the Holocaust, says that this discovery, plus her great admiration for the first lady, inspired her to create a plot thread about the plight of those refugees.
Ever since Shapiro traced her relatives’ journey through various Nazi camps before they died at Auschwitz, she has wanted to write about the lives of Jews during the period. “But how many Holocaust books are there?” Shapiro asks. “This gave me the opportunity to write about it without writing about the concentration camps.”
An internal memo written in 1940 by Breckinridge Long, F.D.R.’s assistant secretary of state, also had a significant impact upon Shapiro and the shaping of her novel. In it, Long instructed his colleagues on blocking refugees from entering the U.S. “He really wrote this? He put this down in writing and sent it around?” Shapiro recalls thinking when she first read it. “Oh my God, what kind of man does that?” She now had her “bad guy.”
Shapiro acknowledges that The Muralist delves into issues that still arouse controversy in this country. She insists that she didn’t intend to make a political statement with this novel, and that she was primarily interested in the evolution of abstract expressionism—“and the idea that people initially rejected it.” But, she admits, “when you tell a story that touches you, you end up making a statement without meaning to.”
Author Barbara Shapiro will appear at Heartland, NAIBA, NEIBA, and SIBA.