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Alison Gibbons Painting the Past(s) with Words: Brian Howell’s The Dance of Geometry, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, and Susan Vreeland’s Girl In Hyacinth Blue
Cindy Sherman Breaking the Mould


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Alison Gibbons

Painting the Past(s) with Words:

Brian Howell’s The Dance of Geometry, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, and Susan Vreeland’s Girl In Hyacinth Blue


              Art-Historiographic fiction is an emerging sub-genre of the 21st century. These novels, written as a form of narrative ekphrasis, are preoccupied with painting as a theme, often featuring artists as central characters in their tales. Despite their fictionality, they are grounded in history (of an artist, or a painting) and comment upon the process of artistic creation, be it that of writing or painting.


It is not possible for you to describe the beauty of it in words: all painting is dead in comparison; for here is life itself, or something more noble, if only it did not lack words.
(Constantijn Huygens qtd. in Howell 83)


              In the aesthetic field, literature and art have often been considered to be sister-subjects, maintaining a rich and developing relationship through their use of allusion, symbolism, allegory, representation, and mimesis, as Stephen Greenblatt (157) indicates. Virginia Woolf attests, “painting and writing have much to tell each other; they have much in common. The novelist after all wants to make us see” (Virginia Woolf qtd. in Meyers, Introduction 2). It is hardly unexpected, then, that these two subjects should continue to interrelate into the twenty-first century. While Meyers demonstrates that fiction reflecting upon works of art has been in existence some time, writers have recently shown a renewed interest in the province of art. This resurgence has resulted in the formation of a literary sub-genre, which may be called “art-historiographic” fiction. These works typically centre upon a particular artist or painting, speculating and inventing the world of their chosen focus. In other words, “Fiction fills in where history leaves off” (Vreeland qtd. in Rowlands 35). Furthermore, they advance the merger between the two disciplines to produce a synergy of writing and visual art. Three novels of this sub-genre are Brian Howell’s The Dance of Geometry, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, and Girl In Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland. All three novelists concentrate upon Jan Vermeer, the popular seventeenth century Dutch painter, admired for his attention to light, hue, and detail. In 1861, the Goncourt Brothers praised him thus:

A confoundedly original artist, Vermeer. One might say that he represents the ideal sought by Chardin: the same milky paint, the same touch with little dabs of broken colour, the same buttery texture, the same wrinkled impasto on the accessories, the same ‘stippling’ of blues, of bold reds in the complexions, the same pearl-grey in the background.     (The Goncourt Brothers qtd. in Meyers, Vermeer 113)
 These three novels are by no means alone in placing Vermeer within a literary context. An explosion of interest in the painter, his “extraordinary reputation in our own time” (Meyers, Vermeer 112), is verified not only by the accumulation of critical reflection on his work, but in the growing volume of fiction and poetry collections dedicated to his life and art.

              Howell, Chevalier and Vreeland arrange their novels around Vermeer in different ways. In The Dance of Geometry, Vermeer features twice: as a young boy learning his trade and finally on his deathbed. In between these sections, the author places the journal of Balthasar de Monconys who encounters Vermeer as a successful artist, and the ‘Copyist’s Manuel’, notes written by a man employed to copy a Vermeer painting. Chevalier’s narrative is written from the vantage of a protestant girl, Griet, who becomes a maid in Vermeer’s household, and divided into four yearly portions; 1664, 65, 66 and concluding with 1676. Vreeland builds her story around the life of a fictional Vermeer painting, tracing its journey through its owners back to its creation. Despite different narrative structures, the form of each book not only thematizes painting, but also formulates it as a trope for the writing process. The third part of Howell’s novel, ‘Reconstruction’, fulfils this role as the copyist lists and describes the tasks and techniques of copying ‘The Music Lesson’. He begins with a description of the original piece, with which he succeeds, “Is it not poetry? Read it enough times with that painting in mind, and it is” (Howell 161), making an instant analogy between (a visual description of) the work of art, and creative writing. Moreover, the descriptions of each task redirect the reader’s attention to the creation of the novel. For instance, when discussing the painting of the mirror in the picture, the copyist instructs, “You have outlined the ebony frame. Now you’ve got to imagine…” (Ibid. 170). Since The Dance Of Geometry is divided into four distinct sections, the reader may easily link this to the way in which Howell defined a frame for each part of the tale before inventing and designing the fictional details of its story. The anonymous copyist also insists, “in Vermeer almost everything is framed a second time, within the conventional physical frame” (Ibid. 164), just as each fictional segment provides a second casing within the overarching frame of the book’s covers. In Vreeland’s text, every chapter is narrated by a different character, each a one-time owner of the piece, presenting the reader with their feelings towards the painting. These varied viewpoints are woven together at the novel’s close when Magdalena, the subject of the picture, realises that her image will come into contact with individuals for years to come: “People who would be that close to her, …a matter of a few arms lengths, looking, looking, and they would never know her” (Vreeland 180). As the novel testifies, the multiple interpretations speak more about the narrators’ subjective worlds than Magdalena’s. Thus, the narrative structure participates in a discourse about interpretation that can be applied to art and literature. Significantly, Vreeland uses a thin black centred line within chapters to imply shifts in time or location. Lines create frames and borders, yet the text overspills, resuming on the other side. Likewise, “a painting is within a frame but the audience looking at the painting will see beyond the edge of the frame” (Grigely 133), demonstrating that a “frame is simultaneously a physical border and a permeable membrane” (Ibid. 134). Consequently, not only do text and art resist the inscription of definitive meaning, refusing to be confined semantically, they parallel this visually.

               On a more emblematic level, these lines could be construed as visual signifiers of perspective. Historically, art has used distance points to produce horizon lines that intersect, creating the desired perspective of the painter. In this case, the lines may play upon a double entendre, representing the artist’s technique, while simultaneously pointing the reader’s thought to the multiple character perspectives inserted by the author. Girl With A Pearl Earring concerns itself with Vermeer’s completion of paintings, such as the piece after which the novel is entitled.In accordance, the book’s final chapter, ‘1676’, puts the finishing touches to the story, tying up loose ends in the same way that last brush strokes are added to a nearly completed painting. Through these choices of literary form, Howell, Chevalier and Vreeland generate a similitude between the composition of a painting and the construction of a book. Such “Aesthetic analogies express this inherent relationship of the arts, and add a new dimension of richness and complexity to the novel by extending the potentialities of fiction to include the representational characteristics of the visual arts” (Meyers, Introduction 1).

              The fusion between art and literature is extended beyond the overarching shape of the novel. Since art is an optical subject, the visual becomes a predominant feature in this fiction, and along with it, the idea of looking. Berger states, “Seeing comes before words” (Berger 7), unmistakably privileging sight over language. In Girl With A Pearl Earring, the reader is bombarded with descriptions of eyes, looks, and observations, even from the opening pages. The novel begins: “My mother did not tell me they were coming. Afterwards she said she did not want me to appear nervous. I was surprised… Only my mother would notice the tightness along my jaw, the widening of my already wide eyes” (Chevalier 3). This first paragraph sets up a focus on appearance as subjective experience, using imagery that is continued throughout the novel. Certainly, in this scene alone, all four characters are described meticulously, with particular detail given to their eyes and line of sight. For example, Catharina has eyes like “two light brown buttons” (Ibid. 4), while Vermeer’s eyes are “grey like the sea” (Ibid. 5); Catharina made “a show of watching [Griet], but could not fix her attention” (Ibid. 4), whereas Vermeer watches Griet steadily with controlled authority. Chevalier’s eye motif foregrounds notions of perception, implying that looking locates us within our environment and articulates power structures between individuals. As Berger affirms, “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled” (Berger 7). Reading is an occupation requiring visual concentration. Chevalier’s immensely ocular writing stimulates both the reader’s physical and imaginative vision, illuminating the connection between language and image, fiction and art, to suggest that by adopting a coalescence of the two modes, a more vivid picture may be painted with words.

              The combination of language and visualization is believed by Ricci to be a necessity for the accomplished author. Speaking of the connection between these sister-arts, he elaborates:
Painting and writing… both imply the management and re-arrangement of the world to a particular vantage or perspective or color. Both operations interpret as they portray; both emphasize the internal visual dynamics which characterizes human thinking. Words and drawings give visible shape to the abstract cognitive patterns of experience. For the writer the imagination is irrevocably caught-up in a stream of words. This is neither desirable nor disdained – it is merely unavoidable. (Ricci 194-5)

The connection is inescapable. Barthes testifies, “Every Literary description is a view” (Barthes, S/Z 54; his italics). Yet this can be accentuated. Creating graphic imagery in prose requires a high degree of descriptive content, or what Ricci terms as ‘visual writing’ (Ricci 190). He continues, “Description is that faculty of the mind that reconstructs images and reproduces experience replete with verisimilitude, difference, abstraction and imagination” (Ibid. 195). Howell, Chevalier and Vreeland expertly display their skills in visual writing. Howell describes “knives glistening like lizards’ tongues” (Howell 5); Vreeland illustrates a character’s indecision in speech, explaining, “He didn’t say what he’d intended to, the words must have flown away like moths” (Vreeland 68); Chevalier sketches eyes that “came to rest on [Griet] like a butterfly” (Chevalier 45), and conveys Griet viewing her father’s confusion as watching “him struggle silently, like a beetle that has fallen on to its back and cannot turn itself over” (Ibid. 199). Howell’s choice of lizards, snake-like creatures, entices a sense of deviousness and threat, while Chevalier’s beetle simile harnesses the reader’s sympathy by its helplessness. Through these figurative depictions, the three authors create images that seem alive, filled with a sense of movement and mood. The pictorial quality of these novels is further enhanced with concrete attention to colour and shape. Howell achieves this through the vantage of the young Vermeer, observing his world as a training artist. In the bedroom of an inn, he finds himself in confrontation with a prostitute:

She, framed by a triangle of dark beyond the partly opening hanging of the canopy… Doubly framed as she was by the first, screening curtain and then by the canopy’s, she seemed to centre his being, while the objects around him made her stand out as if in relief, pushing her forward to him.                 (Howell 58)

              Instead of providing the reader with information about the prostitute, Howell’s account of Vermeer’s view pays acute attention to its arrangement, giving the impression of an artistic composition with depth and structure. This fictional Vermeer is sensitive to colour too. In his father’s tavern, he notices, “The soldier’s red jacket seemed to dominate everything else in the inn” (Ibid. 12). In Chevalier’s novel, references to colour appear continually, as part of paintings or their creation and as descriptions of actual objects. Griet and her master, Vermeer, discuss the complexity of painting colours. Griet, who has been monitoring the progress of the picture, is confused as Vermeer appears to be painting the “wrong colours – none was the colour of the thing itself” (Chevalier 115). In explanation, Vermeer questions Griet about the colour of clouds, which, through the course of the conversation, are discovered not simply to be white, but a combination of blue, yellow, green. Griet exclaims, “I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time that moment” (Ibid. 117). Over forty colour-adjectives appear within this scene. Chevalier’s novel, like Howell’s and Vreeland’s, is opulent with images that stimulate the visual imagination of the reader, injecting the fiction with graphic intensity. The linguistic markers and optical prose in the texts become equivalent to Vermeer’s brush strokes, producing a literary sub-genre that holds the expressive beauty and promise of both art and fiction.

              Evident in its label, art-historiographic fiction is compiled of two main components: art and history. This is an unsurprising correlation since art is “an image subject to the scrutiny of an analysing intelligence, and capable of producing that precious and exhilarating insight when the past is recaptured in the present” (Meyers, Vermeer 122). Certainly, “Historians are aware that they establish a relationship between the past they write about and the present in which they write” (Hutcheon 67). Similarly, Howell, Chevalier and Vreeland launch a rapport between the (fictionalised) past and the reader’s present. Vreeland confesses, “I’m very much interested in the process by which a historical figure becomes a fictional character. Fiction is the process by which our time grasps the significance of a life in another time period” (Vreeland qtd. in Rowlands 35). Brian McHale discusses literature set in the past, suggesting that it always entails an overlap between internal, fictional, realms and external, real, world details (McHale 86), typically causing “some violation of ontological boundaries” (Ibid. 16). He explains:

Traditional historical novels strive to suppress these violations, to hide the ontological “seams” between fictional projections and real-word facts. They do so by tactfully avoiding contradictions between their versions of historical figures and the familiar facts of these figures’ careers, and by making the background norms governing their projected worlds conform to the accepted real-world norms.                                                                                                     (Ibid. 17)

               At first glance, these novels could be considered to be rather conventional; Chevalier’s particularly with its conflict between protestant and catholic religions, reference to the plague and notation of Vermeer’s dwindling finances. However, as in postmodernist fiction, there is “a tension between past and present, the material culture of the twentieth century having been superimposed on the [seventeenth etc.] to produce an impossible hybrid” (Ibid. 93). Howell and Vreeland foreground this tension by introducing pseudo-historical texts, writing in generic forms such as those used by historians to construe an account of the past. In The Dance Of Geometry, Howell places the ‘secret journal of Balthasar de Moncony’s’ to provide insight into Vermeer’s position within the Guild, and introduces the copyist’s narrative with the suggestion that it may be written for an art journal or literary magazine (Howell 159). Vreeland, too, inserts a feigned historical document, the ‘personal papers of Adrian Kuypers’, but also includes a chapter named ‘Hyacinth Blues’ that mimics the style of a nineteenth-century romantic novel, like Madame Bovary, and a narrator (featured in ‘Love Enough’) who is an art academic. These narrative segments thus imply that “we can only know [the past] today through its textual traces” (Hutcheon 75). Significantly, each narrative is written in the first-person, making them subjective renderings. Consequently, the authors point to the way in which contemporary historical knowledge is formed. “Knowing the past becomes a question of representing, that is, of constructing and interpreting, not of objective recording” (Ibid. 70). Interestingly, since all three novels focus upon the life and work of Vermeer, a slippage occurs between the details of each fictional world, resulting in numerous versions of a history that is ultimately revealed to be unstable and contextual.

              Howell’s The Dance of Geometry, Chevalier’s Girl With A Pearl Earring, and Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue contribute to a contemporary ‘re-writing’ of the past, utilisin the themes and conventions of the art-historiographic sub-genre to open readers’ eyes to a postmodern conviction in alternative, and unofficial, histories. Through form style, and motif, they create a synthesis of the visual and the written. In 1863, Baudelaire wrote that a “characteristic symptom of the spiritual condition of our century is that all arts tend, if not to act as a substitute for each other, at least to supplement each other, by lending each other new strength and new resources” (Charles Baudelaire qtd. in Meyers, Introduction 1). In the twenty-first century, the rise of art-historiographic literature exhibits an innovative approach to fiction, consciously fusing two disciplines to transcend the limitations of either in isolation. The striking effect is the creation of a poetics of visual writing, filled with an intensity of word and image that illuminates the literal white page of black type with evocative strokes of colour.





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Webber, Peter (Dir.) Girl With A Pearl Earring, Lions Gate, 2004.

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