Rating:

pen and the brush book coverReviewed by Poppy Johnson

The Pen and the Brush by Anka Muhlstein is full of surprises. Apparently, – and unbeknownst to me – nineteenth-century French novelists were best buds with the painters of their era. The novelists turned out to be the front line critics of those famous painters–and those edgy painters were a big influence on the famous novelists of their time as well.

This story is more of an outline of the painters and novelists of the nineteenth century, and offers a snapshot into their lives and influences. The chapters in the book include discussions on Balzac’s paintbrush, the painter and society, ambitions, Emile Zola and his painters, writers and the painters they reviewed, repercussions, Proust’s master, and the painting used as the tool of the novelist. There is a natural progression to how the author introduces each artist and novelist being reviewed, and luckily for the reader, the names will be well-known enough to follow along.

We forget that before the Cultural Revolution, masterpieces of art were not available to be seen by the masses, but this information is noted in the book. For example, The Louvre opened its doors in 1793 as the Central Museum of Art, and allowed the people to see great works for the first time ever. The looting of art was frequent during these times, and continued for many years. The author notes that in 1824 in London, The National Gallery opened to rave public reviews. Many writers of this time, such as Hugo, Balzac, Dumas and Gautier, developed close relationships with the painters of the era, spending time in literary groups and painter studios interchangeably.

One premise of the book is that once art was noted to belong to the masses, the great changes in both art forms took seed. The author focuses on five central writers: Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant and Proust. Each writer is reviewed carefully to offer stories, vignettes, and personal accounts. Here the book is highly technical, and it is easy for the reader to become lost with period details, creative idiosyncrasies of the artists and details of the artistic process. The writer Zola is the definite star of the show. Zola wrote about the painters and their influences, as well as other writers of the time.

I would recommend the book to art or writing critics of this period–it is not light bedtime reading by any means. The book reads like a dissertation, but does have its interesting facts and careful analysis of the subject matter. The book also has black and white photographs of world famous painters like Monet, Manet, Delacroix, Botticelli, Renoir and Whistler. And there are reference pages at the end for further research or reading on the topic.


After a decade of working in several NYC law departments and teaching, Poppy decided she enjoyed writing full-time. She currently works as a freelance writing consultant, and lives with her husband and sons on the East Coast.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Other Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.