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!
- How to be both by Ali Smith (2014)
This 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.
- Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (1999)
This 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.
- Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (first published 1997)
Translated from the French by Tamsin Black
This 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.
- Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995)
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?
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