By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
What are the best short stories about painters, artists, and the world of art? From Gothic pioneers like Edgar Allan Poe to realist writers like Edith Wharton, masters of the short story have often touched upon the subject of art and painting, using the short story form to explore not only the world of great art but also other themes, including desire, love, and death.
Below, we introduce some of the best short stories on the theme of art.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’.
The short story ‘The Artist of the Beautiful’ by the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) has a curious claim to fame: it’s thought to be the first short story to contain a robotic insect.
Owen Warland makes watches, but he becomes side-tracked by a secret project which consumes his time and attention. He loves Annie, but she is encouraged to marry Robert, a practical-minded blacksmith. Owen achieves his ambition to create something beautiful: a tiny clockwork butterfly, which he presents to Annie as a belated wedding present.
As so often in Hawthorne’s work, this tiny mechanical butterfly represents something much greater: in this instance, the artist’s pursuit of ‘the beautiful’.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Oval Portrait’.
This 1842 story is one of the shortest tales Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote. In just a few pages, he offers a powerful story about the relationship between art and life, through the narrator’s encounter with the oval portrait of a young woman in a chateau in the Appenines. The story repays close analysis because of the way Poe offers his story as a subtle commentary on link between life and art.
We have analysed this story here.
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’.
The Irish author of Gothic novels and tales, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-73), based this 1839 story on the darkly lit paintings of the Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken. A version of the ‘demon lover’ trope in Gothic fiction, ‘Schalken the Painter’ is about an apprentice artist who falls in love with the beautiful ward and niece of his master.
Although she returns his love, her uncle agrees to marry her off to a rich and ghastly figure who appears one night in a terrifying visitation …
O. Henry, ‘The Last Leaf’.
The stories of the US short-story writer O. Henry, real name William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), are characterised by their irony and by their surprise endings, which became something of a signature of a good O. Henry short story. The 1907 story ‘The Last Leaf’ is among his most famous.
The story focuses on two female artists. The women are named Sue and Joanna, who is known as ‘Johnsy’. They live in Greenwich Village in New York among a ‘colony’ of artists who reside in the area. One particularly cold winter, Johnsy falls ill with pneumonia and she predicts she will die when the last leaf falls from the tree outside her window. Her friend Sue enlists the help of another artist-friend to ensure that doesn’t happen – using art to save her friend …
Edith Wharton, ‘The Moving Finger’.
To whom do great works of art really belong? ‘The Moving Finger’ is a 1901 short story by the American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937).
The story is about an artist who paints a portrait of a friend’s wife; when the wife dies, the husband asks the artist to alter the portrait so it reflects how his wife would look as an older woman, if she had lived. It’s a story about beauty, possession, and who ‘owns’ works of art, among other themes.
Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’.
Published in 1922, this is a short story by the Czech author Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The story is about a hunger artist in a circus who sits in a cage and fasts for weeks on end. However, after forty days have passed, the impresario who runs the circus always puts an end to the hunger artist’s period of fasting.
‘A Hunger Artist’ is partly about the figure of the artist, and the challenges any artist faces when trying to practise their art and gain recognition for it. The impresario in the story forces the hunger artist to end his performance after forty days, regardless of whether the man can continue beyond that point or whether he wishes to.
J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Leaf by Niggle’.
Although he’s universally known for two novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also wrote shorter works. ‘Leaf by Niggle’, written shortly after the publication of The Hobbit in the late 1930s, is perhaps Tolkien’s most famous short story, and is often interpreted as an allegory for Tolkien’s own struggles as a writer.
Niggle, a painter, is constantly thwarted in his artistic ambitions by those around him, who insist he perform menial labour, ask for his help, or otherwise prevent him from painting his beautiful leaves. Although Tolkien disliked allegory (he was critical of his friend C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books for this reason), this story is widely viewed as an allegory for Tolkien’s own life.
J. G. Ballard, ‘The Lost Leonardo’.
Let’s conclude this selection of classic short stories about art with a tale from one of the late twentieth-century masters of the short story form: J. G. Ballard (1930-2009), who is often regarded as a ‘science-fiction author’, although this description is too restrictive for such an original visionary as Ballard.
This 1964 story is part detective story, part retelling of the myth of the Wandering Jew: when a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci is stolen from the Louvre, an art director becomes involved in the search for the missing artwork, discovering that this is merely the latest in a long line of art thefts involving artistic depictions of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew condemned by Jesus to live forever and wander the earth in search of redemption.
The story shows that, as with so many other things, J. G. Ballard got there first – here, prefiguring the Dan Brown school of conspiracies involving Da Vinci paintings in fiction by more than forty years!