Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two Novels about Vermeer: the Artist's Inspiration and the Art's Influence

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Deluxe EditionWhen my book club selected Girl with a Pearl Earring for our October meeting, I mistakenly thought it was another book about Vermeer that I had read about at Small World Reads Blog called Girl in Hyacinth Blue. If I had gone back and read her review, I would have seen that she recommended reading Girl with a Pearl Earring first, but I found the premise of Girl in Hyacinth Blue more appealing and read it first. I'm actually glad I did, because I liked Susan Vreeland's vignettes that traced a painting's history from the present to the time it was created much more than the emotionally charged, teen infatuation that drives the story of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Let me first say that I think that many of Vermeer's paintings are extraordinary, and it is fascinating to speculate about the circumstances that inspired the artist, particularly when the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is so strikingly different than his other works. However, I don't appreciate the trend that I have observed in several recent historical fiction works that make sexuality the framework through which we approach historical subjects. The historical subject matter is intriguing enough, and I would have preferred that poetic license be taken in a different manner. 

So, for a brief synopsis, Girl with a Pearl Earring imagines that the subject of the painting by the same name was a young maid in Vermeer's household. Griet, the daughter of a Delft tile painter, has an artistic bent herself, or at least an eye for color and form. When Vermeer notices her arranging of vegetables by color, Griet quickly assumes that an intellectual or artistic meeting of minds must indicate a romantic attachment. Henceforth, all her thoughts about and interactions with Vermeer, as she has the privileged position of cleaning his studio and mixing his paints, are seen through the eyes of her young infatuation. And while she imagines that Vermeer hides a mutual attraction, Griet finds that her beauty attracts the attention of a butcher's son as well as Vermeer's patron, the rich and demanding van Ruijven, who wants to "own" her and is only appeased by Vermeer's agreeing to paint her.

To her credit, Chevalier seems to have thoroughly researched 17th century Dutch life and offers vivid descriptions of the various levels of society and their interactions and expectations of one another. I found this aspect of the novel fascinating as we follow Griet from her humble home and struggling parents to Vermeer's busy home with many children, a contentious wife, and domineering mother-in-law, to the aisles of the markets and the ordinary lives of laborers and merchants. It may be that a simple change in perspective or narrator would have made all the difference for me, for just a little bit of distance from Griet's own thoughts and self-awareness of her allure might have given the perspective necessary to raise it from teen angst to great historical fiction. I'm sorry if my review seems uncharitable, but there was just so much that was gratuitous, even by implication, in the telling of this story - a story which had remarkable potential, in my opinion - that I was very disappointed.

Girl in Hyacinth BlueGirl in Hyacinth Blue is not without it's own gratuitous scenes, but the underlying tone in which they are presented at least seems consistent with the cultural expectations of the historical time period - those who disregard marriage vows, either before or after marriage, face consequences of one sort or another. Unlike Girl with a Pearl Earring, which focuses on a few characters, this story revolves around an imagined lost work of Vermeer's, one without signature or papers but which bears the artist's characteristics so strikingly that it must be a Vermeer. The painting's most recent journey brought it to America via the looting of Jewish homes in the Netherlands during World War II, and from that infamous beginning Susan Vreeland gives a collection of short stories that trace the painting's history over 300 years through the hands of Jews, Dutch merchants, French diplomats, common farmers, slave traders, and bakers to Vermeer himself.

The art itself is both the protagonist and antagonist of these tales, for the painting has its own significance and meaning for each owner and observer; it is the main "character" of the book, but also the catalyst that works upon the characters in each of the stories. The fictional accounts of Vermeer and his family, which finally reveal the authenticity of the painting, seem much more in keeping with what little is known of his personal life, for he is presented as a preoccupied artist who loves his wife and children and struggles to provide for their physical needs while furthering his artistic vision. In short, Girl in Hyacinth Blue depicts the enduring influence of fine art, a far more satisfying message than one girl's sensual influence on the men around her.


hopeinbrazil said...

I'm popping in to respond to your question about my Narnia book. My copy of the book did not have that great cover, but I used it because I liked it. My son tells me that all the covers from the newer editions are just fabulous. He wants them for Christmas.

Page Turner said...

Thanks for answering my question! I've been thinking about getting a set for my kids, so I'll have to check out the new covers.

Slow Reader said...

I want to read Stealing the Mystic Lamb (http://www.amazon.com/Stealing-Mystic-Lamb-Coveted-Masterpiece/dp/1586488007), about van Eyck's altarpiece at Ghent. I heard an interview or review on the radio. Apparently, this piece has been stolen numerous times throughout history. Napoleon took it. Hitler coveted it. I've always loved it myself, and I think this book would be fascinating.

Page Turner said...

Slow Reader, I love that alterpiece as well. That looks like a non-fiction book I would enjoy!

Marg said...

I loved both of these books for different reasons. I loved the idea of tracing the ownership back through time as presented through Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

When I read it years ago, I picked up The Girl with a Pearl Earring just to read a chapter or so and three hours later I had finished it. I was so absorbed in the world, and it must have just been exactly the book I needed at that time!

Slow Reader said...

Hi Heather! At first I thought it was weird that I got a notice about the spammy comment above, but then I was glad because I realized I hadn't gone forward with my plan to read Stealing the Mystic Lamb. Now it's on my Amazon wish list, so I'm grateful for the reminder.