Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Allure and Pilfering of Dutch Paintings in Novels (no. 15)

 by Larry Witham

From Vermeer to Rembrandt, Small Dutch Artworks Set the Tone

DUTCH PAINTINGS HAVE always been a good centerpiece for novels. The Dutch style has its allure, and the smallish size of many Dutch works makes them convenient objects for human intrigues—such as personal contemplation or theft.
            In the real world, a few small Rembrandt paintings hold the record for art thefts, somewhere around eighty. But for fiction, any kind of Dutch paintings will do. They just have that certain quality.
            The allure began with Frenchman Honoré de Balzac. His was a time when Dutch landscape and genre painting was making its way into France. These detailed paintings of ordinary life—versus large paintings about history, politics, and heroes—fascinated a detail-telling artist such as Balzac. So he frequently injected Dutch artworks into his story plots.
            Best known is the 1830 short novel, At the Sign of the Cat and Racket (La Maison du chat-qui-pelote). A young artist returns from Italy. He comes upon the “cat and racket” shop, and there envisions a genre scene, which Balzac portrays in the Dutch style. The artist paints the scene in that new manner and it revolutionizes the Paris Salon. The artist also sees a young maiden, the shop owner’s daughter, in the window. He captures her image exquisitely in what might also be called a portrait in the Dutch manner.
            They marry, and as the painter is drawn more to his wife’s portrait than to her, and as she feels more and more inadequate next to the ideal of the portrait, their marriage breaks down. The artists wants to live in the world of the artistic ideal, with all its freedom. His wife represents the shackles to humdrum life on earth. Besides such melodrama, Balzac is clearly influenced by Dutch painters’ attention to everyday detail—a hallmark of his own novelistic style.
            Pulitzer-winning novelist Donna Tartt has also chosen a small Dutch painting as a scaffold for her very long novel, The Goldfinch (2013). The choice is not necessarily integral to the characters or the plot. Except that the young hero in this coming-of-age story—Theo Decker—can end up in Amsterdam for a gun battle with European gangsters to recover the Dutch artwork. In Amsterdam, with its lenient drug laws, Theo can also feed his drug habit, which is a key feature in the character’s story.
            The Goldfinch (a real artwork) was painted by the little-known Dutchman Carel Fabritius in 1654. Of the Dutch painters, otherwise, Rembrandt and Vermeer seem the obvious favorites of novelists.
            Either artist can certainly swing a book cover, as proved by spy-thriller novelist Daniel Silva’s The Rembrandt Affair. Silva’s plotting around Gabriel Allon, a tough and cagey former Mosad agent who is also an art restorer, often evokes the plight of European Jews. In this case, they were owners of art taken by the Nazis. This Rembrandt was owned by a Jewish woman, but later came into the illicit possession of a Swiss banker who made his fortune on the back of the Holocaust.
            The woman slipped a list of stolen art and treasure into the lining of Rembrandt painting. The list is also an indictment of guilty parties. For this reason, the painting becomes an object of pursuit by the good guys and the bad. In the end, Allon recovers the list. The painting is given justice. The Swiss banker is foiled, but he is so high up in the system, he is beyond punishment for the time being.
            Most literal of all is British novelist Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which tells the fictional love story of Vermeer with the young woman, a house servant girl, who was the subject of his famous portrait in blues, yellows, browns, whites, and flesh tones, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).
            So little is known of Vermeer’s private life that Chevalier has had to mine her powers of invention. The sexual tension between Vermeer and the attractive sixteen-year-old Griet is the obviously story line, but Chevalier also introduces a modern-day controversy into her plot.
            It has been argued in modern times that Vermeer’s renderings were so well done because he used a camera obscura to trace the scenes before he painted them, a kind of “cheating,” you might say (like using an overhead project today, a favorite method of Andy Warhol, for example). The evidence in Vermeer’s work is the curved perspectives of his paintings and the blurry highlights that cameras produce. As Griet said in the novel, “They set up the camera obscura so it pointed at me.”
            The debate continues in fiction, however.
            When Katherine Weber decided to create a fictional Vermeer painting for her plot in the elegant novel, The Music Lesson (1998), her main character, Patrician Dolan, argues that Vermeer didn’t need a camera obscura to simply draw very well; it’s done all the time by talented art students, after all.
            The central theme, however, is how a Dutch painting can overwhelm the heart and senses. This painting—a fictional “music lesson” by Vermeer—mesmerizes Dolan during her long isolated stay in the Irish backcountry after the painting was stolen by an IRA splinter group.
            Author Weber knows her art history, and the Irish landscape. Vermeers had been stolen before, one by the IRA from the stately Russborough House in England (Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid, now recovered), and one from the Isabelle Steward Gardner Museum in Boston (The Concert, still missing, with speculations on IRA involvement).
            This novel, a kind of diary of past events, opens with: “She’s beautiful. Surely, there is nothing more interesting to look at in all the world, nothing, than the human face. Her gaze catches me, pins me down, pulls me in.” There is more such exaltation, and we don’t learn the portrait painting is a Vermeer until halfway through the book.
            As girl in Boston, fictional Dolan had been enchanted by a Vermeer at the Gardner Museum. So later, as an art historian, she was brushed-up on the painter. Indeed, an agent from the IRA splinter group duped her into identifying a Vermeer worthy of theft for the Irish cause. It is a political cause deep in Dolan’s family background, but one she's been sucked into only now, a time of loneliness, making her a party to high crime and unexpected violence.
            She now calls herself a “naïve idiot” for not seeing all the betrayal. But the painting’s spell over her did not lend to seeing hard, cold reality. For an hour or so, on the eve of the crime, an airport heist in Holland, “I just sat with the simple painted panel in my two hands, and I looked and I looked and I looked. And anything that might happen to me when this is over, however it ends, will be worth that hour.”
            As long as there is fiction, we're likely to find its profitable use of Dutch painting.

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