An Interview with Tracy Chevalier

With only 36 (37?) canvases to his credit, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer represents one of the great enigmas of 17th-century art. Only a few meager facts of his biography have been gleaned from a handful of legal document and yet Vermeer's extraordinary renditions of domestic life, with their subtle play of light and texture, have come to define a good part of the Dutch golden age. His portrayal of the anonymous Girl with a Pearl Earring has exerted a particular fascination for centuries, and it is this magnetic painting that lies at the heart of Tracy Chevalier's second novel.

August 1, 2003

The Essential Vermeer: In a past interview you stated that before you begin writing something new, you habitually choose with care the notebook used for your research. Will you describe the notebook you chose for "Girl with a Pearl Earring" ?

Tracy Chevalier: I chose an orange one, the size of my hand, with blank pages inside – I never write on lined paper. Inside the front cover I pasted a copy of the painting of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I know it must seem strange that the notebook was orange – you'd expect blue or yellow, the predominant colors of the girl's head-dress in the painting. But I wanted a vivid color that was not used in the painting. For some strange reason it just seemed right. And right that she should be pasted in the inside cover – I wanted to look at her a lot and not have her get all scuffed as she would on the outside. Also she was a bit of a secret then. I didn't want people to see her on the cover and guess what I was taking notes about.

Why did you imagine that the model who posed for the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" was a poor and illiterate young servant?

In the painting the girl's clothes are very plain compared to other Vermeer ladies, and yet the pearl is clearly luxurious. I was fascinated by that contrast, and it seemed to me that the pearl was not hers. At the same time, I also felt she knew Vermeer well, as her gaze is very direct and knowing. So I thought, "She knows him, she's close to him, but she's not well off. Who is she?" His servant. It just seemed right.

You have very meticulously adhered to the few certainties which are known about the life of Vermeer. For the rest, as would be expected, you have invented. In your novel Catharina Bolnes, Vermeer's wife, appears shallow and weakly tied to her husband. Why have you portrayed her so?

You have to remember that this book is told from the point of view of a 16-18 year old girl, and she is not necessarily a reliable narrator. Catharina feels threatened by Griet when she arrives in the household, as any older woman might by a fresh young girl, and Griet too is threatened by her, and sees her negatively. Catharina certainly has a strong physical tie to her husband or they wouldn't have 11 children during their marriage (!). On the other hand, as I have interpreted it, Vermeer holds her at a distance from his work – his art is his realm, the household is hers. (I decided he must have compartmentalized in this way in order to manage to accomplish anything. How else can someone paint such quiet, calm paintings with 11 children around?) I should think this would drive Catharina crazy, particularly when she is constantly pregnant and surrounded by chaos. So I don't think she's actually so shallow and weak. Instead circumstances have driven her to be as she is. One of the keys points of the book to me is at the end when she asks her husband why he never paints her.

Which was the first painting by Vermeer you saw directly and what was your immediate response?

I grew up in Washington, DC, where there are three Vermeers (A Lady Writing, Woman with a Balance, Girl in a Red Hat) in the National Gallery. I know I would have seen them as a teenager, as one of my teachers sent us there to see all the highlights of the gallery, and they are certainly highlights. But sadly, they didn't make an impression on me at the time. My first proper response was to a poster of Girl with a Pearl Earring that my sister had hung in her apartment. I looked at it and thought, "My God, she's striking." I went out the next day and bought a poster for myself.

Would you share with us some of your impressions of the 1995/1996 Vermeer exhibition? Which painting in particular captured your attention and for what reason?

I saw the exhibition at The Hague, and my overriding impression was sadness at how crowded the rooms were! These are paintings that need a calm empty room to be appreciated in. At the exhibition you were lucky if you had three seconds in front of a painting before you were shoved out of the way by another visitor. The exhibition was a victim of its success.

I was delighted to be there nonetheless, and very excited to see the Girl in the flesh, so to speak. I also loved seeing the View of Delft, and the Girl with the Water Pitcher – all very glowing paintings. I confess to being surprised by his rather quotidian early works, and his horrifying late work The Allegory of Faith. Terrible painting. Oops, is one allowed to say that about a Vermeer? Of course we are! He did make mistakes, as we all do.

In the last century Vermeer's painting has been the subject a wealth interpretation, at times conflicting. In your opinion, to what extent was Vermeer conscious of what critics today see in his art?

Unconscious, thankfully. To me these are very unselfconscious paintings, and that is part of their charm and power. They are very much an individual vision unmediated by critical expectations.

Which author, if any, occupies a role in the history of literature analogous to the role that Vermeer occupies in the history of painting, and why?

Ho ho, what a good question! It's strange, I keep thinking of Henry James, who, in his style of long rambling sentences and minutely depicted psychologizing, is about as far as you can get from Vermeer's painting style. But his critical reception has been similar – respected while he was alive but not necessarily a blockbuster writer, then fell out of sight, and then was reclaimed by academics and made his way onto university syllabi everywhere. He hasn't been embraced by the public as Vermeer has recently, though, and I suspect he never will.

Although the various arts share common ground, each one presents its own particularities which inevitably condition the artist's expressive desires. In your opinion, which are the fundamental differences between literature and painting?

I would say the fundamental difference is temporal. A painting is about a moment, a book is about a sweep of time – be it 100 years or a day or an hour, it is still about what changes between the beginning and the end of the story. A painting is about what we see and how we respond to a moment. The power and beauty of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is that in such a seemingly simple painting he has extended a moment so that we think about her long after we've stopped looking at her. She contains much more in her face than one single moment of time.

Marcel Proust wrote: "All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer"

A comment?

I think Proust is talking about that self-consciousness I mentioned earlier. Artists (and writers) have to do what they do in the end for themselves. If they start thinking too much about Making A Statement, about Immortality or Celebrity or whatever, the work will not have its power and resonance. Vermeer painted View of Delft to the best of his ability, without considering that someone like Proust would later swoon over a bit of yellow wall (well, roof, really). If he had tried to anticipate such a response, the painting would have been ruined by self-consciousness.

If you had the fortune of a brief encounter with Mr. Johannes Vermeer, what single question would you ask him?

Can you forgive me?