The Collector’s Apprentice: Mystery and Romance in the Art World

Art, history, romance, murder, and a cast of characters that includes Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Picasso propel B.A. Shapiro’s latest novel, The Collector’s Apprentice. The novel, set in the 1920s and early 1930s, tells the story of Paulien Mertens, who was jilted by her conman fiancé George Everard and left estranged from her family.

A lover of post-Impressionist art and daughter of a collector left broke by Everard, Mertens creates an alter-ego, Vivienne Gregsby, and ingratiates herself into the Paris art community eventually becoming an assistant to art collector Edwin Bradley. Bradley’s eclectic collection and the struggles to keep it private will have a familiar ring for anyone who knows the history of the Barnes Collection. The 2009 documentary “The Art of the Steal” examines the controversy surrounding the art collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, a millionaire who amassed a remarkable selection of significant works during the early 20th century and sought to keep his priceless pieces together in perpetuity as part of his foundation. The collection ended up in the hands of Art Institute in Philadelphia.

Using Barnes’ struggles as a loose model for her novel, Shapiro creates a scenario where a complicated love, heartless betrayal, and desire to possess beautiful art clash with harrowing consequences for Paulien/Vivienne and Bradley. Shapiro makes it clear in a short forward and author’s note that the story is fiction and that she has changed dates, places and legal requirements and developed dialogue and plot points to turn a fairly mundane legal matter into a richly dramatic tale.

The book begins in 1928 with Bradley dead from a supposed car wreck and Paulien/Vivienne on trial for Bradley’s murder. Then the story reverts to 1922 to describe Paulien/Vivienne’s betrayal by Everard and how she develops her alter-ego.

Shapiro paints a lush picture of the streets of Paris with its high fashion, cafes and boulangeries. Her mentions of famous art works are sure to send readers to Google for a mini-course in post-Impressionist art. Shapiro is as equally adept at describing the art as she is street life in this passage about Cezanne’s Leda and the Swan:

Those succulent blues against the yellow-orange of both the swan’s beak and Leda’s ringlets, the sexuality in every twist of their bodies, in every swirl of the fabric, the desire in the swan’s grasp of Leda’s wrist. She catches her breath.

The narrative weaves back and forth between the trial and Paulien’s struggle to reestablish herself in a positon that draws on her passion for and knowledge of art. She becomes Bradley’s assistant, takes part in the salons of Gertrude Stein and develops a romance with Henri Matisse.  Her peaceful life is shattered when George Everard returns on the scene. Chapters narrated by George and several of his alter-egos give readers a glimpse into a criminal that nonetheless has an enduring attraction to Paulien/Vivienne.

Paulien/Vivienne is Shapiro’s most intriguing character as she struggles with her desire to return art work to her father and against her enduring connection to Everard, who she despises. Her life is complicated by Bradley’s attraction to her, her affair with Matisse and her position as heir to the Bradley art collection. When Bradley ends up dead from an accident, Paulien/Vivienne is tried for his murder and faces life in prison. Her fate and the fate of the collection hang in the balance.

Shapiro ends her story with a final, satisfying twist.