Paintings in Four Novels

Every novel I read for a brief period recently seemed to contain references to paintings, were about eminent painters, or were inspired by particular paintings, or the plot turned on the art of the painting. Here is a selection of four, beginning with the best!

  1. How to be both by Ali Smith (2014)

160 How to be bothThis was one of my best reads of the last 12 months: judges of many prizes agreed, including Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize which it won in June this year. This novel draws on fresco painting techniques in its layering of stories, and in its exploration of ambiguity. The paintings are the frescoes in Ferrara, and in the National Gallery, St Vincent Ferrer by Francesco del Cossa.

You can read my review about the novel from March 2015 here.

  1. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)

190 Girl with coverThis book was a best seller, not least because of the film adaptation. The book tells the story of a servant girl, Griet, and the picture painted of her by the great Dutch painter – Johannes Vermeer. It is narrated in the voice of Griet, who is unfamiliar with the world of the artist, but learns how to mix his paints, pose for him and eventually to loose her innocence through her relationship with the painter.

Tracy Chevalier has made a speciality of highly researched historical fiction. The insights into the Delft household, and Dutch society in the seventeenth century are among the attractive details of this novel. Vermeer has become very popular since the book was published. Here is a picture of the crowd around another of his paintings at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  Girl with a Pearl Earring is in The Hague in the Mauritshuis.

190 Vermeer crush

  1. Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (first published 1997)

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black

142 R's whoreThis is novel also takes its inspiration from a Dutch artist. But it was written in French. As the title suggests, Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s housekeeper, is condemned by the Calvinist citizens of Amsterdam. She tells her story from her arrival in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, to the moment she dies of plague, after having given birth to a daughter.

The theme is the valuing of art and love over dogma and narrow-mindedness. The novel drew me into the life of Amsterdam and its people, as you can read in the longer review in December 2014, one of a group of novels I reviewed that were situated in Amsterdam.

  1. Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)

190 SUmmer in F coverThis novel draws, not from a single painting, but on a group of artists who congregated in Cornwall before the First World War. They were real people.

It concerns a love triangle. The larger-than-life figure – all performance and attention demanding – is AJ Munnings, who later as Sir Alfred Munnings became President of the Royal Academy. His rival in love is Captain Evans a rather staid, but open young man. The men are portrayed as complete opposites, but friends. The object of their affections is Florence Carter Ward. Florence’s character really irritated me: a fatally attractive woman, men are unable to resist her. She was the subject of Munning’s painting, Morning Ride, sold for nearly half a million pounds at Christies in 2000.

Florence married Munnings, and the story follows them until the tragic ending of the unhappy triangle. Was this novel more than a love story? Was it anything to do with painting? What was the influence of love on painting and of painting on the novel? And what was the role of that other artist Dame Laura Knight?

Of the four novels referred to in this post, this was the least convincing to me. But it is interesting how novelists use painting and painters in their writing.

What novels have you read that are influenced by painting or painters?

Related posts

How to be Both by Ali Smith

Amsterdam Stories


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

7 Responses to Paintings in Four Novels

  1. Kathleen Bethell

    The most recent such book I have read and would recommend is Still Life With Breadcrumbs, by Anna Quindlen. I think you may have included it in an earlier post concerning books with older women protagonists. It is about a photographer who, after the turmoil that great fame brings, isolates herself in a tumble-down cabin in the woods (which she takes based upon its picture on a postcard). The book is at once funny and thought-provoking, and I found it delightfully well worth reading.

    • Kathleen Bethell

      Oops. Still Life With Breadcrumbs concerns a photograph, not a painting. My mistake — I should only have read your blog post after I’d had my coffee!

      Instead, let me offer The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, as another book revolving around painting. I am only now on my first cup of coffee, so will not even attempt to describe the painting’s role in the novel.

      • Caroline

        Hi Kathleen,
        thanks for your comments. I am steering clear of The Goldfinch because I have heard that it it has rather too much in it! I did not enjoy The Secret History so I have avoided Donna Tartt ever since. Should I change my mind?
        Yes I did comment on Still Life with Bread Crumbs – a new genre of women going off on their own and meeting devestatingly attractive younger men, who found them devestatingly attractive ….
        I enjoyed it despite my scepticism.
        Please comment again before or after coffee!

  2. Hania

    Well I *did* enjoy the Goldfinch – although it should’ve been severely edited imo.

    • Caroline

      That’s not quite an unreserved endorsement for The Goldfinch, is it? Yes I have read other people say it should have been edited further.
      I’m waiting for someone to say I shouldn’t miss it.
      Thanks for the comment Hanla. Please come by again.

  3. Eileen

    I like paintings
    I like novels
    I like novels that feature paintings
    I like How to be both
    I like Girl with a pearl earring
    I like The Goldfinch
    I like Caroline’s blogs and replies to Caroline’s blogs
    I don’t like tea, I like gin

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