Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Life Studies: Stories.
Susan Vreeland's novels about art and artists have always been moving and compelling stories about how art has the power to transform someone. Her collection of short stories, Life Studies, is no exception. Each of these short works is a fictional account of either an artist or a person whose life has changed through art. Life Studies is divided into three sections: Then, which covers the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods and deals with the lives of the artists; Interlude, which is a story of two rustic Italians who travel to Rome to experience art; and Now, the stories of average people who are affected by art in extraordinary ways.
"Then" is a section of stories featuring well-known artists in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Cézanne, and the Italian artist Modigliani. These stories feature mistresses, family members, and townspeople, never actually approaching art from the perspective of the artists themselves. In “Winter of Abandon,” Alice Hoschedé describes watching her sister, Claude Monet’s wife, die, and the grief that the artist struggles with as he watches her slip away. In dealing with her own grief, and trying to comfort Monet, Alice reveals her love affair with him and the guilt she carries. In “The Yellow Jacket,” a young man gains new insight about himself when he sees his portrait painted by van Gogh. In “Of These Stones,” a young boy who at first mocks Cézanne gets to know him and discovers his genius. These stories, and all the others in this section, give unique insight into the lives of these artists: how they were viewed by outsiders, friends, and family, and how they responded to the world around them with passion and wonder. Each of these stories, though fictional, lends a humanity and grace to these artists whose work is familiar to most people but whose personalities are not.
An interesting difference in Vreeland’s stories emerges in “Interlude,” which only contains one story – “The Adventures of Bernardo and Salvatore, or, The Cure: a Tale.” In this section, there is a shift of time, place, and subject. It is the 17th century, and Bernardo, a Tuscan cobbler, is seriously ill. His only cure is to travel to either Florence or Rome to see religious art, because he wants to accomplish his one wish before he dies. His friend Salvatore, a cheese maker, goes with him, and they end up in Rome, where the things they see change their lives and gives them hope for Bernardo’s future.
In the “Now” section, the focus is on modern life and its meeting with the art world. In “Respond,” a bored housewife answers an ad to pose nude for a sculpting class, a spontaneous decision that triggers a re-awakening in her and newfound compassion for her workaholic husband. In “Their Lady Tristeza,” a high-school student’s sketch of Matisse’s Blue Nude on a dry-erase board in his English class takes on a life of its own. In “Tableaux Vivants,” a self-conscious middle-aged single mother discovers her own magnificence when her son talks her into participating in a stage production as a woman in Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Jatte. These stories and the others in this section demonstrate the healing power of art.
Vreeland has always had a special appreciation and understanding of the art world, and Life Studies is a gallery with an interesting variety of pieces. While some of her stories are better than others, each one, like a work of art, is worthy of contemplation and scrutiny. The beauty of Vreeland’s stories is that they show how important art is to life, and how important life is to art. This is a worthy read if you are a fan of Vreeland’s novels.