“Often I have gazed at that painting…”

Books are supposed to be about the words. However, we know – and we ourselves are inevitably party to this – we are drawn to their visual appeal more than we may want really to admit. Covers are important to us as potential buyers probably more so now than ever before in our relentlessly photographed and “Instagramed” social media world.

My modern “new adult” trilogy has covers that are mostly from my personal 35mm photography collection of the 1990s. I went that route so they would be reflective of the times and locations and, most of all real. Also as 100 percent mine there would be no copyright issues.

[Passports (2013), Frontiers, (2014), Distances, (2015). Photos by me.]

I deliberately avoided using faces on Passports, and stayed with that approach with the sequels. (Although the back paperback covers on the sequels do have people, their faces are obscured.) So a reader would never see cover models and in her or his mind’s eye picture any character(s). Moreover, to be blunt I could not stand any template covers with nameless models that I had seen; they all made me cringe. I had not written it (or the sequels) as a sappy “Hallmark Channel” – American readers in particular probably know what I mean there – style romance, yet those sorts of cover templates were all I could seem to find if I went anywhere near the word “romance.”

The subsequent historical novel I realized would require period 18th century artwork. What to do? Employing an artist was out of the question. (Good ones were naturally not cheap; and I also did not want to get into “rights” issues, and royalties, and the “hassle” of working with someone else, etc.)

Obviously I had also not been wandering around London or Paris in the 1790s (well, not that I recall in this life anyway😂) with a 35mm camera as I know I was 200 years later. I searched and searched until I found some “lesser known” public domain artwork (so again, no copyright issues), both portraits and landscapes. I decided once again against using faces, while I also wanted the cover to make the novel “look like” a “classic” – not as if it had been written in 2017, but perhaps in “1817.” (I had in mind those Penguin Classics book covers we see.) Given the storyline and main location I felt this one was PERFECT, so part of this painting became the front cover for Conventions: The Garden At Paris:

[Attributed to Alexandre-Jean Noël (1751 or 1752-1834. A View of Place Louis XV. Painted between 1775-1787. Public Domain.]

That is a painting of a pre-revolutionary Paris square, Place Louis XV – named after King Louis XV. By the early 1790s, it would be renamed Place de La Revolution, and in that same square would stand a guillotine that would murder thousands. Today we know it as the Place de La Concorde – an 1800s renaming that was an effort at post-revolution reconciliation.

When I realized I would write another novel of that era, I decided to try something of a “gamble” for that next novel: I would this time put faces on the cover(s). Learning more now about readers, I suspected, from what I had been seeing, that readers liked and gravitated to faces on book covers.

But employing an artist was again out of the question. In any case I had noticed time and again that when it came to period characters on covers that are drawn today looking back to “then,” that if not done very well they too may look rather “cartoon-ish” and even “cheesy.” What I was again writing was serious and not “fluff,” so I did not want an “unserious” cover.

I remembered all of that period art I had already, uh, uncovered for Conventions and I went plowing back through I don’t recall how many dozens and dozens of those portraits I had found a year or so earlier that had been made DURING the era of 1775-1815. I finally settled on three – two for the front, and one for the back cover for the paperback version only (the Kindle not having a back cover). These were not modern “imaginings” of people from back then, but were painted as contemporary subjects back then:

[Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1803. “Passer Payez.” (A family crossing a plank – with payment demanded by the plank owner – over a muddy Paris street.) Public Domain.]

First: An 1803 painting of an affluent Paris family crossing a muddy street. It was common practice for poorer Parisians to place planks down across muddy streets and charge a “toll” for anyone who crossed on the plank. They knew that a perfect “customer” was a well-to-do gentleman escorting a long-dressed lady – most men willingly coughed up some coins so his lady could cross the muddy street with her dress unsoiled. Notice the mother in the painting lifting the hem of her dress as she crosses the plank. The gentleman has on a “top hat,” which was by then replacing the “cocked hat” – the three-cornered hat. He is still, however, wearing breeches, which remained popular among the well-to-do until around 1820. A fantastic example of “ordinary” Paris life in the era. (A bit of extra related fashion trivia: the last U.S. president to wear breeches would be James Monroe, president from 1817-1825. I tend to think of the end of breeches as the real end of the 18th century. LOL!)

[Merry-Joseph Blondel, 1808. “Portrait of Félicité-Louise-Julie-Constance de Durfort, Maréchale de Beurnonville (1782-1808).” Public Domain.]

Second: Now we begin to get very “facial” and “personal.” The resplendently named Félicité-Louise-Julie-Constance de Durfort was quite real. She was the wife of one of Napoleon’s generals, painted here the same year as her (sadly early) death. I was stunned by that painting. Her overall look – particularly her dress (especially its high waist), hairstyle, and even shoes – is firmly representative of a woman of a higher social standing given what we know of the France of the early 1800s. (And if you read the novel, uh, in it, about her… well, I’ll say no more here.😊)

[George Romney, 1787.
“Miss Constable.” Public Domain.]

Third: Probably my favorite of the four period paintings: “Miss Constable,” by English portraitist George Romney. (An ancestor, yes, really, of U.S. politician Mitt Romney.) Given the story begins really in “1787” and features a then “17” year old English young lady of the gentry, she is almost too good to be true: an English young lady of 1787 painted in 1787, and she is adorable. As of this writing insofar as I’m aware we don’t know who she is beyond her name – assuming that is even her real name. (Art historians have long been trying to figure out her identity.) Often I have gazed at that painting as I was writing, paused, and wondered: “Who were you?” Which I suppose makes me an historian… and a romantic. The “Miss” indicates she is unmarried, and she looks older “teen-like,” so she is probably about 17/18. Her dress and bonnet indicates she is a daughter of landed gentry. If it were instead, say, “1813,” “Miss Constable” might well have been a friend of “the Bennet sisters.” You may notice I simply had her mirrored on the Tomorrow The Grace front cover.

In the end, I got what I wanted for both of those romantic historical novels. For tales set in those years, the cover artwork was created during those same years. They freeze examples of the time, the fashions, and people who had then lived.

Will the last three paintings in particular help the latest book sell? I don’t know. But I do believe at least they are NOT “cheesy,” so readers need not be embarrassed to be seen reading the paperback! LOL!

Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂

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