I've just finished reading a book that cleverly interweaves fiction and art history within an 18th century setting. I'm talking about Barbara Ewing's novel The Fraud.
Without spoiling the plot too much, the story revolves around a Bristol painter who goes to Italy and assumes the persona of a Florentine artist: Filipo di Vecellio, an in-joke. Returning to Bristol, he rescues his sister Grace from poverty, and sets her up as a housekeeper in his fashionable town house in Pall Mall. Here's the catch. Grace must renounce her former life and identity and pretend to be his sister Francesca. The main thread running through the novel is that Grace/Francesca is actually the better painter, a fact that her brother cannot come to terms with. So fact is coated over with layers of deception. Filipo paints portraits for illustrious clients by day; Francesca paints at night in her room.
Ewing is excellent at evoking the sink or swim world of Hogarth's London; the painter makes a cameo appearance earlier in the story. Also present are Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, the former presiding over the 'on the line' RA exhibitions; the latter offering sympathy and advice to the embroiled Grace/Francesca. Our heroine also learns about chiaroscuro from Mr. Joseph Wright of Derby; this provides Ewing with a excellent metaphor- the woman paints from a darkness within her.
The novel also falls into the art crime genre too: at an advanced stage of the narrative, we're given an object lesson in faking a Rembrandt and aging it to fool the academicians.
Ultimately, fakery on the artistic and social level is difficult to sustain. Exposure becomes the only solution for Grace; but Filipo, despite the unraveling of his life's story, decides to go on living a lie.
Most art history in novel format doesn't succeed, but I think this does. Ewing's research is thorough and she blends art fact with art fiction adroitly. Add a dash of art crime and you've got all the ingredients for a great book. Recommended.