Art Historian and Novelist Anita Brookner Dies at 87

The Booker Prize winner specialized in the French Romantics.

Anita Brookner.
Image: Courtesy of YouTube.

Prominent British novelist and art historian Anita Brookner died March 10 at the age of 87.

Born in London to Jewish immigrant parents from Poland, Brookner dedicated her life to her work. “That’s why I write. Because I have no children,” she told the Telegraph in 2009. She didn’t have much time for parties, either. “I ration myself strictly with regard to social life. I try not to give offense and I am never brutal, but I do say no,” she told the Paris Review in a 1987 interview.

A graduate of King’s College London and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, where she studied under art historian Anthony Blunt before he was revealed as a Soviet spy, Brookner specialized in French artists, publishing works on Jean-Baptiste Greuze (the subject of her doctorate), Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Jacques-Louis David.

At Cambridge University, she was hired as the Slade chair of fine art in the 1960s, the first woman to hold the post. She retired from academic life in 1988, and was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990.

Brookner turned to fiction writing in the 1980s, publishing her first novel, A Start in Life, at age 53 in 1981. Her career as a novelist took off, and she was awarded the Booker Prize for her fourth effort, Hotel du Lac, in 1984.

Widely considered autobiographical, Brookner’s novels have a very different tone than her earlier academic works. “Though Brookner’s art histories bubble with the delight of discovery and joyful exposition,” wrote the Guardian‘s Michael McNay in her obituary, “her novels tend to describe a gray milieu of enervated, stranded and tentatively hopeless women.”

“It was an exercise in self-analysis,” said Brookner of her first foray into fiction to the Paris Review. “I tried to make it as objective as possible—no self-pity and no self-justification. But what is interesting about self-analysis is that it leads nowhere—it is an art form in itself.”

Her most recently released book was the 2011 e-book At the Hairdresser’s. Though Brookner’s later years focused on fiction, she did continue writing occasional article for specialist journals, and published Romanticism and Its Discontents, an examination of the works of eight French Romantic artists and writers, in 2000.

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