Continuing our coverage of the National Gallery’s refurbishment along with their current exhibition and season, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, senior staff writer Rory Codd attends ‘Tracy Chevalier in conversation’ to hear from the author who is “credited with the renaissance of public interest in Vermeer”
Tracy Chevalier, author of the bestselling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, recently visited the National Gallery for a Q&A session with Adriaan Waiboer, curator of the gallery’s current Vermeer exhibition. As well as being a major commercial success around the world, Chevalier’s book has been credited with revitalising interest in Vermeer’s paintings among modern audiences. The historical novel follows the fictional life of Griet, one of the servants of the Vermeer household, who reluctantly becomes Vermeer’s muse and model. Girl with a Pearl Earring may be a work of fiction, but Chevalier’s inspired imagining of the past has captured the attention of literary critics and art historians alike. It was fascinating to learn more about the background of the book and Chevalier’s own relationship with Vermeer.
Waiboer started off the evening by introducing Chevalier and asking her to discuss how she became inspired to write Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier shared how she was first introduced to Vermeer when she was nineteen. She came across a poster of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ in her sister’s bedroom and said that she “immediately fell in love with the painting.” She copied her older sibling by buying one herself the next day, and it has travelled with her ever since. Looking at the poster over time, Chevalier began to see more than just a painting with a beautiful girl. She told us that “one morning, [she] was lying in bed looking at it and [she] just wondered what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that.” There was a sense of recognition in the girl’s expression that Chevalier wanted to explore. When she realised that the girl was a complete mystery to the art world, she took it upon herself to create a story around her, leading to her successful novel.
Waiboer asked Chevalier why she chose to focus on the girl more than Vermeer since the novel is ultimately set in his world. Chevalier pointed out that although the girl was a historical mystery, Vermeer was not. She would have been in a constant battle with historical accuracy had Vermeer been her protagonist, something she did not have to worry about as much with the nameless girl. “I was really determined to ground [the novel] in reality as much as possible.” When creating a story for the girl, all Chevalier had to draw on was her facial expression in the painting, her apparent age, and the assumption that she was present in Vermeer’s daily life. Chevalier thought the painting too sensual for the girl to be Vermeer’s daughter, so she decided that the girl must have been a servant, and from there the character of Griet was born. Another reason why she chose to focus on Griet rather than Vermeer was because of the distinct lack of female protagonists in historical fiction, something she wished to challenge.
Later, the conversation turned to how the novel was received by the art world. “I was terrified art critics would hate it because it wasn’t footnoted,” said Chevalier, discussing her fear of backlash against the fictional elements of the story. Fortunately, she received praise and admiration from the art community for her dedication to Vermeer and historical integrity. Waiboer spoke about when he first read the novel, and how he fell in love with it. He was impressed that Chevalier had managed to write a book about Vermeer while also retaining a sense of mystery around the painter. He said that it made the book much more acceptable to art historians like himself, as she wasn’t trying to change the facts or make Vermeer into something he was not. Chevalier’s respect for art history was apparent throughout the evening, as she is well-versed not only with Vermeer’s paintings but also the work of his Dutch contemporaries.
Inevitably, the topic of the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, arose. Waiboer asked Chevalier how she felt about the big-screen adaption. She said her feelings on the film were summed up by a single word: “relief”. She did not want the film to be a disaster, as is often the case with adaptations from books. Luckily, it was a box office success, and well-received by critics. She lauded the cinematography of the film, saying that the aesthetic matched what she had created in her mind. She was critical of the film’s portrayal of her secondary characters, who didn’t have as much screen-time as she had hoped for, but conceded that the running time made it necessary to focus more on the relationship between Griet and Vermeer. Chevalier also felt that Johannson looked slightly too old to play Griet, though had no grievances with her acting performance.
Listening to Chevalier talk about Vermeer, it is undeniable that she has devoted much of her life to his art. Her enthusiasm for Vermeer’s paintings, as well as her knowledge of his techniques and inspirations, would motivate anyone to visit a gallery and see his work for themselves. Through her writing, she has managed to bridge the gap between the sophisticated art elite and the general public, allowing art to become more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Vermeer’s paintings have only grown more popular with time, and I have a feeling the same could be said for Chevalier’s literary interpretation of his world.
The National Gallery’s season of events and talks focusing on the work of Vermeer and his contemporaries continues, with tickets to the exhibition available here.