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Novel ideas 

Every great or high-grossing movie is inevitably followed by The Making of ..., through which moviegoers can deconstruct things like special effects and casting. But in painting, the most revered works often belong to artists long dead. It is a rarity when a canvas comes with a creation story, so we are left to marvel over the "Mona Lisa" and her enigmatic smile. More and more writers, however, are turning to art and attempting to construct narratives for the lives of artists and their works. It's a tricky though trendy premise, an idea alternately novel and unoriginal.

This fascination with creating stories has, for some reason, recently focused on two of the Dutch masters, Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn. Johannes "Jan" Vermeer, the lesser known of the talents, provides a virtually blank slate for art-loving writers. Dying at age 43 in 1675, Vermeer left behind few records of his existence: a birth certificate, a marriage license and a notice of his death. He was born in Delft, known for its porcelain painting, and was a prolific procreator, fathering 15 children. He was not quite as efficient a painter; only 35 authenticated Vermeers grace collections today. The majority of Vermeers, mostly portraits and scenes of Delft, languished unrecognized until a French art critic "rediscovered" Vermeer in the 1870s.

Perhaps it is this sparse outline of a life that has drawn authors to Vermeer, as well as his renditions of women and girls (unusual for his time) with creamy skin, posed in shimmering light. His "Girl Interrupted at Her Music" inspired the titles of the book and movie Girl, Interrupted, and "The Music Lesson" begot a book with the same name.

This year, Dutton published expat Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was inspired by a Vermeer print that hung over the author's bed since she was 19. In Chevalier's hands, the unnamed girl in the yellow and blue headcloth becomes 16-year-old Griet. Misfortune has pushed Griet into service in a Catholic household, occupied by Maria Thins, her daughter Catharina, son-in-law Vermeer and their children. While cleaning Vermeer's studio, Griet observes the minute additions to the canvases. Her constant discoveries parallel those of readers. Vermeer admirers will want to explore his works again, and the uninitiated will be encouraged to seek them out.

Chevalier's attention to detail sets Girl with a Pearl Earring apart, and she excels at integrating Vermeer's real paintings into the story. In one instance, Griet realizes that the grumpy head maid, Tanneke, is the subject of "The Milkmaid." In another, her blind father describes his memory of "View from Delft": " ... the paint that had sand in it to make the brickwork and the roofs look rough. And there were long shadows in the water, and tiny people on the shore nearest us." Chevalier doesn't assume the mind of Vermeer, but she does delve deeply into the process of painting: the creation of textures, preliminary sketches, paint making and the interaction between light and darkness.

Griet's eye for color leads her to become Vermeer's assistant--and model. Catharina, the ever-pregnant wife, becomes jealous, and her spleen turns the tale to a surprising end. Detailing Vermeer's and Griet's passion for his work, and Catharina's suspicions, Chevalier shows what the best (and worst) art can do: spark emotion and move people to action. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier has done an outstanding job combining a sketchy history, visual evidence and the mind of a young woman. If you believe in past lives, surely Tracy Chevalier must have been Griet or a girl like her.

While Girl with a Pearl Earring focuses on the model and, to a lesser extent, Vermeer himself, Susan Vreeland takes a different approach in Girl in Hyacinth Blue. The protagonist here is neither model nor artist, but an inanimate object, a painting. This phenomenon of "animating" an object has also become common; E. Annie Proulx adopted it in Accordion Crimes and the film, The Red Violin, did very much the same.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces, from the present to the past, the painting of a pensive girl facing a window. Is it a Vermeer? No one knows, but the oil is enough to drive a private school math teacher, Cornelius Engelbrecht, to obsession and shame. Created sometime in the late 1600s and passed down through the ages, the picture was seized by Engelbrecht's father from a Jewish family during WWII. Vreeland doesn't dwell too much on any of the painting's owners, yet she somehow avoids valuing the painting over human life, and, as the story unfolds, we realize that the main character in her novel is history itself.

There's less mystery to dispel about Rembrandt, as he left more than 600 confirmed works and a slew of records. This relative abundance of information might explain why the new Rembrandt tales are less interesting. Because of a much broader knowledge of the artist's life and times, the pressure of historical accuracy seems to have hampered authors' imaginations (the exception being Rembrandt's Eyes, a recent, skillfully written biography of sorts).

In 1998's Lenoir, Ken Greenhall chronicles the life of Lenoir ("the black"), an enslaved African who appears in Rubens' "Four Heads of a Negro" and posed for Rembrandt. He successfully demonstrates how money sometimes steers the creative process, but Lenoir the character is not believable. Greenhall as Lenoir vacillates between simplistic and philosophical observations about his new land. He says of the Dutch, "They are pale, their country is flat and wet, they have no souls," and sentences later, muses about the Calvinist revolution sweeping Europe. Greenhall struggles to imbue Lenoir's thoughts with anguish, yet the slave's memories of his homeland--which one would expect to be vivid and painful--are curiously flat and stoic.

Turkish immigrant Yeshim Ternar brings us yet another Rembrandt model, the man whose back faces viewers in "The Jews in the Synagogue." Like Vreeland, Ternar time travels in Rembrandt's Model, from present-day Canada to 17th-century Holland and Spain. The model, Samuel, tells of his personal journey, the story of Sephardic Jews and his encounters with the greatest Dutch master. The historical context is obviously exhaustively researched, but it's also a disincentive to completing the book. Persistence does pay off, though, as Ternar paints a stunning portrait of Rembrandt. Unlike the other authors, she dares to take Rembrandt's voice.

Here's Rembrandt thinking: "Anxiously, he examined the many faces of Samuel in his drawings. As long as he had changed the face ... Samuel's face belonged to him, the artist." The passage continues, exploring the complex relationship between the artist (who creates the image) and the subject (who consents to be reinvented). "Simple unadorned forms worked best in the dark corners of a sketch, but there lay the danger as well, for dark corners became more powerful, the longer a viewer gazed at a picture. ... This is how Samuel had gained power over Rembrandt, in the dark corners where the artist had placed him as he was in real life."

A master of chiaroscuro, a complex technique using sudden blending of shadow and light, Rembrandt would have been pleased by Ternar's meditations on his art. I suspect that Vermeer, also an innovator with depictions of light, would approve of the license these writers are taking, their reconnections between the visual and the verbal arts. After all, Chevalier, Vreeland and the like are shedding light on areas of gray, and following in the footsteps of the masters--suspending a life in perpetuity or a moment in time. EndBlock

  • Exploring a recent trend in books that fictionalize the lives of famous artists.

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