I’m an art lover but never counted myself as a person interested in the ins and outs of how art is collected or curated. The Collector’s Apprentice opened up what I soon learned was the fascinating world of artists, agents, collectors for me.
Set in the 1920s in Paris and Philadelphia, the book makes use of many true facts about the world-renowned Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania– widely considered one of the most important catalogs of modern art in the world. Barnes was a visionary who saw the value of modern artists we accept as masters today but who were mocked in their hearly careers: Matisse, Picasso and others. —Both a museum and educational institution, the Barnes has also been the focus of controversy over its nearly 100-year history.
In B.A. Shapiro’s novel, the Barnes becomes the “Bradley” and Dr. Barnes becomes Dr. Bradley. The institution’s struggles also take the stage while main characters are thinly veiled versions of their real-life counterparts. A good number of the book’s events are only barely altered from life. Real individuals such as Matisse, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway also make appearances.
The plotline centers on protagonist Pauline Mertens/Vivienne Gregsby who runs from the scandal and ruin she brought upon her wealthy Belgian family and then reinvents herself as apprentice to Dr. Bradley. But Vivienne finds herself in the midst of more scandal as his right-hand woman. The Collector’s Apprentice has sex, scams and murder all of which make for tantalizing reading but these were not the most thrilling parts of the book. Instead, seeing giants of modern history with all their human foibles rather from behind a velvet museum rope beyond which their work is hung, was exciting and inspired me to read and learn more about their world. The Collector’s Apprentice will appeal to art-lovers, aficionados of the Roaring Twenties, modern art mavens and anyone who likes a good story.