Elizabeth Hickey’s Lives of the Artists

When I got word of Elizabeth Hickey’s second novel, The Wayward Muse, I was intrigued—I knew that Hickey’s first novel, The Painted Kiss, had looked at the relationship between Gustave Klimt and Emilie Flöge, and now here she was tackling the romantic triangle between Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Burden, and William Morris. How, I wondered, had she come to focus on the lives of artists as a recurring theme for her fiction? Fortunately, I’m in a position to get answers to those kinds of questions…It’s funny that she mentions Irving Stone, because he was actually one of the names I was prepared to invoke regarding her work.

elizabeth-hickey.jpgThe truth is that I’ve been unintentionally training for this particular niche my entire life.

Fall 1977, Louisville, Kentucky: The first day of first grade at St. Matthews Elementary. Since I can already read, the teacher sends me to the library, where I ask the surprised librarian where the biographies are. I read about Florence Nightingale, Jenny Lind, Helen Keller, Babe Didrikson Zaharias—the few women who are considered important enough to have biographies written about them. Later, I graduate to adult biography and my new heroines are Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott and Marie Curie. Marie Curie, I learn, kept her husband Pierre’s brain in a jar in her room. Even then I had an eye for the curious detail.

Summer 1983, Northwest Harbor, Maine: I am twelve, and my vacation reading is The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. I fall in love with Michelangelo. I fall in love with sculpture. I fall in love with Italy, with the Medici, with the artist’s romances. I can still picture Vittoria Colonna’s pale, lovely face.

Spring 1988, Louisville Kentucky: I take my first painting class. The teacher is a New Jersey transplant with candy floss hair and a jarring accent. I’m completely smitten by her dissonance at my very Southern school, an out-of-placeness that echoes my own. Our assignment is to copy a famous painting and then write a report about the artist. I turn to the Armand Hammer exhibition catalog, which my grandparents brought back from Dallas and which I’ve been studying for years. I dismiss my favorite painting, by John Everett Millais, as too difficult and settle instead on one by Edouard Vuillard.

Fall 1989, Williamstown, Massachusetts: I start classes at Williams College and discover that it has one of the best art history programs in the country, as well as two spectacular museums—the Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art. (A third, MassMoCA, has since set up shop in nearby North Adams.) I assume I’ll major in English, but then I take a Beckett and Pinter class and find myself at a loss when it comes to literary theory. In European painting, however, I receive one of my only As. My boyfriend is an artist and I spend time at the studio, but mostly as a groupie; my own attempts with charcoal and “non-traditional lines” are unsuccessful. I write stories about girls with no self-esteem and my creative writing teacher likes them.

Spring 1994, Louisville, Kentucky: A sales rep at the publishing company where I work sends me a birthday card with a Klimt painting on the front. “Mrs. Klimt sews a patchwork quilt,” it says, under the image of a pregnant woman wrapped in a colorful blanket. Who was Mrs. Klimt? I wonder idly. Then I have to process some expense accounts, and I forget all about it.

Summer 1994, Louisville, Kentucky: I’m working at an independent bookstore and taking some writing classes, preparing to apply to graduate school. The store lets its employees check out books. I remember Mrs. Klimt and borrow a basic biography of the artist. I discover his mysterious relationship with Emilie Flöge, and file it away in the same part of my brain where I keep Marie and Pierre Curie.

January 1997, New York, New York: My collection of “linked short stories” (translation: I have no idea what I’m doing) has not been well-received by my workshop instructor at Columbia, and I’m running out of time to turn them into a passable thesis. Instead, I write about Emilie. She first appears to me as an older woman during World War II, when she flees Vienna for her family’s summer home in the Lake District. Her plight seems to encapsulate all the emotion I want to invest in the story: her personal grief at the loss of Gustav, the collapse of the glory that was Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, loss and nostalgia and fear and pride, all tumbled together. This becomes the opening chapter of The Painted Kiss.

Spring 2004, Portland, Oregon: “What next?” my agent asks. I say I want to write a nine-book saga about the decline and fall of the Southern aristocracy. There’s a long pause. Just kidding! I break the silence, and start to tell her about my obsession with William Morris. I begin work on The Wayward Muse the next day.

FacebookTwitterTumblrGoogle+Blogger PostRedditEvernoteSlashdotDeliciousStumbleUponEmailShare/Bookmark

28 May 2007 | guest authors |