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The Literary Vermeer
For hundreds of years, artists have taken their inspiration from literary works. Often, such art works actually served as illustrations for the various books which inspired them. I wrote not long ago about the powerful illustrations accompanying Dante's Inferno and their influence upon Portuguese artist, Paula Rego. The Pre-Raphaelites also drew heavily from fiction, in their case that from the Medieval period. Likewise, the Bible, the greatest literary work in the history of mankind, has served as an endless source of inspiration for artists of every ilk. But it's not often that it works the other way around. There is, of course, no end to books written about art, but when it comes to literary works inspired by great art, then the list dwindles significantly.

Recently, for some strange reason, one particular artist seems to have inspired more than his share of printed fictional verbiage. One might expect him to have led a colourful life such as did Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, or perhaps Rembrandt. And of course, all these men have been written about to some extent. But in this case, the artist was not at all colourful. In fact he wasn't even particularly prolific...at painting at least...he did have eleven kids however, so he was prolific in some areas. His paintings are not exciting in the Baroque sense of Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or any of their followers. His work, what there is of it, is striking in its apparent simplicity, dramatically lit, endlessly fascinating, always pleasant, and in a quiet sort of way, quite beautiful. For years, speculation has abounded regarding his use of optical devices in rendering his quiet interiors, particularly the camera obscura. And many of his domestic scenes featuring young women going about their daily routines, do have a certain sameness to their lighting and compositions that would suggest this working technique. Most even appear to have been set in the same room.

Johannes Vermeer (often called Jan) was born in Delft, Holland, in 1632. He died in 1775 at the age of 43. Only about forty of his paintings are known to exist, which may explain to some extent the fascination present day writers seem to have found in him. And it seems to be mostly a female thing. Vermeer currently has at least four novels in print about his life, times, and work. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring seems to be the most popular, but there's also Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever, and Katherine Weber's The Music Lesson.

However at least one male writer seems to have caught the bug, not in writing a novel, but an opera. Entitled Writing to Vermeer, the 100-minute opera premiered recently at Lincoln Center in New York having previously been staged in Amsterdam last year and Australia in March of 2000. It was written by film writer Peter Greenaway with music by Dutch composer, Michael van der Aa. Vermeer himself is not a character. The letters are fictional epistles penned ostensibly by Vermeer's wife, his mother-in-law, and a female model while the painter was away from home, living in The Hague around 1672. As might befit an artist of Vermeer's domestic tranquillity, the letters and the opera are about the harmony in Vermeer's life, juxtaposed against the backdrop of economic crises in the tulip market, a fatal explosion at an armoury in Delft, street riots between Catholics and Protestants, a killing by a mob, and the deliberate flooding of Holland to drive out an invading French Army. And though the letters themselves deal with quite mundane matters such as the best place to by ultramarine, the price of canvas, and (not surprisingly) raising children, with a backdrop as violent and unstable as that, who needs domestic crises. Do you suppose someday writers will pour over our letters (and e-mail) in search of literary inspiration? I think I'll destroy all of mine; make them write their own as Greenaway did. I'm sure they'd be more interesting.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
12 July 2000

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