'I have written a whole novel about her, yet I still don't know what she's thinking. She is a song that ends on the second-to-last chord, and remains unrsolved. I think all the best works of art are - it's what keeps us coming back to look at them again and again.'
We had quite a debate in comments about Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier after I had written about Vermeer's Women, and when Tracy kindly offered to send me a copy of her book, a special edition with illustrations and an afterword by herself I accepted gratefully. And that may have been the end of it had I not enjoyed the book.
Tracy, by her own admission knows that not everyone will appreciate having life breathed into a painting that may be a favourite for many, and happily reveals that she received one letter from a reader who wrote to say if she were a descendant of Vermeer she would sue her. Interestingly the book sits alphabetically next to Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman, another book I have loved which imagines an artist and their life.
Perhaps it was because Vermeer's Women and an afternoon of complete immersion in the silence and quietness of the paintings, and the life of seventeenth century Delft had captured and primed my imagination, but I could only think that Tracy Chevalier had done what we all may do when standing in front of a painting and imagined a life into it. This edition has some reproductions of all the paintings that are mentioned too which added immeasurably to my enjoyment.
Did anyone else see Andrew Lloyd Webber's really excellent TV romp around the Pre-Raphaelites a while back??
I sensed Andrew doing exactly that same imagining as he stood in front of those magnificent paintings. And, having seen the exhibition of his collection at the Tate a few years ago, how much we have to be grateful to one man for indulging his love of the pre-Raphaelites, and doubtless ploughing back the profits from Jesus Christ Superstar onwards back into the most astounding art collection, and at time when the critics were dismissing them. He played some rock and roll on the piano, decorated by Edward Burne-Jones; a piano, he said, whose tone was just made for such music, and all 'neath the gaze of Rosetti's A Vision of Fiammetta who he liked to imagine would have enjoyed it too.
We saw that same painting and the piano in the 2003 Tate exhibition, the Stanmore Hall Piano, made at 35 Queen's Square, London in 1894, and it all captured my imagination so much that I walked around it and wrote down the William Morris inscription painted around the frame..
'O Sun now thou wanest come back and see amidst all that thou gainest how gainful are we thy blooms art thou bringing back ever for men and thy birds are a singing each summer again.'
Who can know what that's all about, or whether I started writing it down at the beginning, but I have a go at imagining life into a painting too, and can't ever really seem to translate those thoughts into any coherence. But I'm in no way averse to others trying.
Whilst little seems to be known about Vermeer beyond birth (1632), death (1675), name of wife (Catharina) , homes, eleven children and thirty-six paintings I was intrigued by the trail that Tracy Chevalier's imagination then took as she breathed life into the subject of the painting and her novel. A housemaid who she calls Griet is her imagined subject and the story woven around Griet's life and family felt like a real honouring of the painting to me and I enjoyed the book immensely. How interesting too that Tracy subsequently and much later discovers that the name Griet is derived from Margrite, and the Latin Margarita which means 'pearl'.
As Tracy Chevalier points out, we may know precious little about Vermeer's life, but we do know a huge amount about domestic life in the seventeenth century Netherlands, where a period of peace after the Thirty Years war led to the emergence of a solid middle class, and with it the demand for paintings that showed people 'going about their everyday lives'. If Tracy wanted to know what the meat market was like, or domestic interiors she only had to examine the embarrassment of paintings of that genre.
Add in a writer's imagination and the sights, sounds and smells of the Vermeer household and 17th century Delft itself quietly came to life for me sitting here in 21st century Devon, and it was the gentle pace of this book that segued so well with my mood after reading about the exhibition.
And another mention for the Vermeer's Women Secrets and Silence exhibition on at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge which ends this Sunday, January 15th ...has anyone been to see it yet??