By Susan Vreeland
Viking, 292 pp., $24.95
In Susan Vreeland's collection of stories, ''Life Studies," a character ponders ''The Pageant of Masters" -- a series of staged reproductions of two dozen famous paintings and sculptures, with real people representing their famous figures. It is ''a bizarre illusion of life imitating art which originally imitated life," the character muses, in a line that could speak to the concept of Vreeland's entire book.
Vreeland has fashioned a career of writing about art and artists, conveying their lives by combining facts and fiction in the novels ''The Forest Lover," ''The Passion of Artemisia," and ''Girl in Hyacinth Blue." In ''Life Studies," the painters and sculptors themselves do appear as characters, but their roles defer to those of the people in their everyday, prosaic lives: Berthe Morisot's wet nurse; Claude Monet's gardener; Édouard Manet's courtesan model.
The first half of the collection is devoted to these characters and their time, spanning 1876 to 1939, with the latest, ''In the Absence of Memory," addressing Jeanne Modigliani's search for the truth about the parents she never knew. She discovers that her father was an often-drunk brute and that her pregnant mother, in the immediate wake of his death, committed suicide. Visiting their resting place at Père Lachaise Cemetery, ''she let the snow collect until the letters filled in and the tomb was covered cleanly, until all that lay before her was a smooth rectangular plain, a patch of the earth not even marked with their having been here."
Vreeland's commitment as author is to avoid such a fate for the artists and the work she chooses to celebrate in ''Life Studies," the stories in the second half of which take place in our own time, rendering the experiences of people we might know, as they are affected for good or ill by what lies on a canvas or pedestal.
From the perspective of men and women, in the first person and in the third, Vreeland examines the relationships among spouses and lovers, parents and children, teachers and students, in the context of one or more pieces of well-known or obscure art. For instance, in ''Their Lady Tristeza," a teenager named Eddie, who attends a broken-down school in New Mexico, draws Matisse's ''Blue Nude" on the whiteboard one day. No matter how many times the image is erased, it returns, even showing a blue teardrop, which the locals take to be a miracle. Their teacher is skeptical, until she lifts a finger to the teardrop and tastes salt. The implication is that the teacher, who has been crossing off the days until she can leave her one-year contract at the ''underfunded, forgotten border town" school, might reconsider and stay where she is needed.
Not all of the art in the book belongs in a museum. In ''Gifts," a man visiting his wife in prison hires a non-speaking girl on the bus to draw a sketch of him, so he can give it to his wife. ''When they stopped at the gatehouse and the driver said, 'Women's compound,' he stood up and felt the stiffness of the picture there in his pocket, like a bandage over his heart. There was nothing but unowed kindness to guarantee that she'd want it."
And in ''Crayon, 1955," a third-grader who has been watering the plants of her next-door neighbor sketches the neighbor after the woman's return from an archeological dig. The girl, Jenny, who at first scorned Miss Haskin, comes to respect and admire her as a result of what she learns by snooping around the house, and she even wonders what it would be like to be related to the woman she used to refer to as ''the gray old maid next door."
Some of the stories in the first half of ''Life Studies" feel slightly strained, although this may be the effect of more formal writing intended to reflect the era. Vreeland is so skilled, however, that the poignancy she achieves transcends any occasional stiffness. In ''Winter of Abandon," she recounts the death of Monet's wife, through the eyes of Alice, a woman who shares quarters with the Monets, was the artist's lover, and tends, most devotedly, to the dying Camille. Alice observes: ''How powerful a thing love is, that one loves past death, past regret, past all logic, and feels purified by that loving." Readers will find this element of passion in all of Vreeland's stories; it is her trademark and her talent, to immerse us in the complex hearts and psyches of characters both ordinary and extraordinary for their creative genius.
One of her themes is the behavior artists get away with because of this genius. Jeanne Modigliani's aunt tells her that Jeanne's father ''lived a reckless life. He was overbearing, swaggering, and aggressive, controlling everyone around him. A disgrace to the family, and yes, a drunk." And in ''Olympia's Look," Manet's widow struggles with her feelings of jealousy as she wonders whether her husband was intimate with the many women who modeled for his work.
In her epigraph, Vreeland quotes John Berger in ''Ways of Seeing." ''The real question," Berger writes here, ''is: To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?" ''Life Studies" argues eloquently for the former.
Jessica Treadway, a professor at Emerson College, is the author of ''Absent Without Leave and Other Stories" and ''And Give You Peace."