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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Literary Vermeer

Tracy Chevalier's 2002
Girl with a Pearl Earring
For hundreds of years, artists have taken their inspiration from literary works. Often, such art works actually served as illustrations for the various books which inspired them. I wrote several months ago about the powerful illustrations accompanying Dante's Inferno and their influence upon Portuguese artist, Paula Rego (04-17-12). The Pre-Raphaelites also drew heavily from fiction, in their case that from the Medieval period. Likewise, the Bible, the greatest literary work in the history of mankind, has served as an endless source of inspiration for artists of every ilk. But it's not often that it works the other way around. There is, of course, no end to books written about art, (my own included) but when it comes to literary works inspired by great art, then the list dwindles significantly.

Susan Vreeland's 1999
Girl in Hyacinth Blue

During the past several years, for some strange reason, one particular artist seems to have inspired more than his share of printed fictional verbiage. One might expect him to have led a colorful life such as did Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, or perhaps Rembrandt. And of course, all these men have been written about to some extent. But in this case, the artist was not at all colorful. In fact he wasn't even particularly painting at least. He did have eleven children, however. His paintings are not exciting in the Baroque sense of Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or any of their followers. His work, what there is of it, is striking in its apparent simplicity, dramatically lit, endlessly fascinating, always pleasant, and in a quiet sort of way, quite beautiful. For years, speculation has abounded regarding his use of optical devices in drawing his quiet interiors, particularly the camera obscura. And many of his domestic scenes featuring young women going about their daily routines, do have a certain sameness to their lighting and compositions that would suggest this working technique. Most even appear to have been set in the same room.

Deborah Moggach's
1999 Tulip Fever
Johannes Vermeer (usually called Jan) was born in Delft, Holland, in 1632. He died in 1775 at the age of 43. Only about forty of his paintings are known to exist, which may explain to some extent the fascination present day writers seem to have found in him. And it seems to be mostly a female thing. Vermeer currently has at least six novels in print about his life, times, and work. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring (top, right), seems to be the most popular, but there's also Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue (above, left), Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever (right), and Katherine Weber's The Music Lesson (below, left).

Katherine Weber's 1999
The Music Lesson
Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid,
1670-72, Jan Vermeer
However at least one male writer seems to have caught the bug, not in writing a novel, but an opera. Titled Writing to Vermeer, the 100-minute opera premiered at Lincoln Center in New York in 2001 having previously been staged in Amsterdam and the year before in Australia. It was written by film writer Peter Greenaway with music by Dutch composer, Michael vanderaa. Vermeer himself is not a character. The letters are fictional epistles penned ostensibly by Vermeer's wife, his mother-in-law, and a female model while the painter was away from home, living in The Hague around 1672. As might befit an artist of Vermeer's domestic tranquility, the letters and the opera are about the harmony in Vermeer's life, juxtaposed against the backdrop of economic crises in the tulip market, a fatal explosion at an armory in Delft, street riots between Catholics and Protestants, a killing by a mob, and the deliberate flooding of Holland to drive out an invading French Army. And though the letters themselves deal with quite mundane matters such as the best place to by ultramarine, the price of canvas, and (not surprisingly) raising children. With a backdrop as violent and unstable as that, who needs domestic crises? Do you suppose someday writers will pour over our letters (and e-mail) in search of literary inspiration? I think I'll destroy all of mine; make them write their own as Greenaway did. I'm sure they'd be more interesting.
A scene from the 2010 Lincoln Center opera production Writing to Vermeer.

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