Thursday, February 21, 2013

Art History Through Literature

I think that Tracy Chevalier has created a wonderful way to learn art history.  More specifically the art of Johannes Vermier.  You might remember him from such works as "The Milkmaid", "The Music Lesson" and most famously, "The Girl with a Pearl Earring".

In the novel by Ms. Chevalier, that shares a name with this famous painting, she creates a work of historical fiction that chronicles an intense emotional affair between the famous painter, and his beautiful new housekeeper Griet.   She is a 17 year old girl who has been forced to provide for her family since her father lost his sight in a workplace accident.  She begins as a simple maid with the unique task of cleaning the studio of her master Johannes Vermeer.  He takes a liking to her and soon she is mixing paint and working as an apprentice to the famous painter in secret.  In a fun way, the novel comes to life because many of Vermeer's paintings depict characters in the novel.  For example the Milkmaid depicts the head housekeeper Tanneke from the novel, and as you might expect, the face in the title painting is meant to be the young housekeeper Griet. Even though most of the characters in the novel are fictional creations and have very little correlation with the actual people pictured in Vermeers painting, the images still breath life into the novel. Additionally many of the images depicted in Vermeer's paintings are set in the corner of his studio and are lit from a window in that corner.  This allows the reader to visualize a small part of the world depicted in the novel. 

Overall I really enjoyed this novel, and I also enjoyed the film adaptation starring Scarlet Johansson, which basically followed the book with very little deviation.