B.A. Shapiro’s fiction is firmly grounded in the real world of art

The author of “The Collector’s Apprentice” talks about visiting Paris and researching real people like Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein to write a historical novel about art.
Published November 1 2018

Writing her new historical novel, The Collector's Apprentice, took years of research, B.A. Shapiro says. Because some of the story is set in Paris in the 1920s, she had to spend time in the City of Light.

“Sometimes,” she says, tongue firmly in cheek, “you have to make a sacrifice for the sake of the book.”

The novel is based on the lives of wealthy Philadelphia art collector Albert Barnes and his assistant, Violette de Mazia. Shapiro changes their names to Edwin Bradley and Vivienne Gregsby and fictionalizes their story, but many of the book’s other characters — Henri Matisse and Gertrude Stein among them — were real people, and many of the events and art works included are real as well.

Shapiro, who lives in Boston and Naples, is also the author of The Muralist and The Art Forger. She talked about her new novel by phone between book tour stops in Kansas City and Wichita. She will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 17.

What was the spark for The Collector's Apprentice?

Thirty-five years ago I first went to the Barnes Foundation (the school, later a museum, that Albert Barnes founded to house his art collection). I walked into those open galleries and saw all those paintings by Matisse and Picasso and Cezanne, and I was stunned. I fell in love with the post-impressionists.

My cousin worked there, and he started talking about Albert Barnes, how he was this irascible bully, but also how he saw into the future of art. And there was Violette de Mazia, his assistant, who was very mysterious. And I thought, I’d love to write that story. It only took me 30 years.

You created fictional characters that parallel Barnes and de Mazia, but how do you develop characters based on real people, like Matisse and Stein?

Matisse was a very cool guy. My version is not all that different from the way he really was. He was this driven artist, and he was a man of his time, very focused on himself. But there was also this very kind, loving part of him. And Gertrude Stein, oh, she was a hoot. She’s always dispensing all this wisdom.

I do as much research as possible on the real people. Then I put them in a scene and try to get inside them, like an actor, maybe. I put them in a scene with my fictional characters to see how they’d act in that situation.

Can you talk about the character called George Everard (and many other names), the con artist who at the beginning of the novel has completely ruined the life of its young protagonist, Vivienne? Is he based on a real person?

No, he’s my invention. I just love him. The inspiration for George was a friend of mine who got conned by somebody like him. This is a New York Times bestselling author, mind you, so she’s no dummy. But I wondered, how do smart people get conned?

I read Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door to see what makes these people tick. I’ve written 12 or 13 novels, published and unpublished, and George is my favorite character. The Collector’s Apprentice is a double title. (Vivienne) is Edwin’s apprentice, and also George’s.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.