Books Inspired By Works of Art

Posted 13 January, 2017 by Rinn in Misc. / 6 Comments

Art inspires and moves, art invokes and demands response. Centuries ago, even those that could not read were able to look at and understand, or interpret, works of art. Therefore it is only natural that works of art have inspired works of fiction in turn. It provides the perfect backdrop for a historical novel, an already established setting, leaving the author free to flesh out the characters. Or it can bring the past and the present together. Either way, there are so many novels that have been inspired by works of art, and definitely not enough time or space to discuss them all. So here are five examples of books, and the artworks and artists that inspired them.


Goldfinch goldfinch

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt & Het puttertje by Carel Fabritius

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is set in New York, and revolves around a man called Theo Decker. The story begins with Theo as a child – his mother is killed in an accident and his father abandons him, so he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. The one thing that always reminds Theo of his mother is a painting: The Goldfinch by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. This leads him to a career in art and antiques as an adult – but soon his past begins to catch up with him.

The Goldfinch, or ‘Het puttertje’ as it is called in Dutch, was painted in 1654 by Carel Fabritius. There are not many other known surviving works of Fabritius. It is part of the permanent collection of the Mauritishuis in Den Haag (The Hague), Netherlands, although it was recently displayed at the Scottish National Gallery at the end of 2016.


girl_with_a_pearl_earring Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier & Meisje met de parel by Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier tells the imagined story of how the famous painting came to be about, as told by the ‘model’, Griet. At sixteen, Griet is sent to work as a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in Delft, after an accident results in her father’s blindness. Despite his initial aloofness, Griet soon becomes something like Vermeer’s assistant, due to her eye for art and colour. This causes tension within the household and within Griet’s different personal relationships – and then one day, Vermeer asks Griet to sit for one of his paintings.

Girl With a Pearl Earring, or to give it the original Dutch title ‘Meisje met de parel’, was painted in the 17th century by Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer lived in Delft, in the Netherlands, where the novel is set, and the painting remains in the Netherlands – like The Goldfinch, it can also be found in the Mauritshuis in Den Haag. I managed to see Girl With a Pearl Earring when I visited the Mauritshuis in September 2014, and it really is a gorgeous painting – but actually very small!


venus velasquez I Am Venus by Barbara Mujica

I Am Venus by Bárbara Mujica & the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez

In 1619, painter Diego Velázquez began to gain prominence within the court of King Philip IV. Yet his paintings were dangerous, risque in a time where people were very conscious of sin, and the consequences of being a sinner. Despite this, he produced his riskiest painting, all the while chancing being caught by the Inquisition. As with Girl with a Pearl Earring, I Am Venus by Bárbara Mujica is narrated not by the artist, but by the model.

This particular work of Diego Velázquez‘s is called the ‘Rokeby Venus’, or the ‘Toilet of Venus’, and was completed between 1647 and 1651. It shows Venus, lying on a bed, gazing into a mirror held up by her son Cupid. This is the only surviving nude by Velázquez, not a surprise when the Inquisition would actively hunt down any such artwork. When it was first brought to England from Spain, it was displayed at Rokeby Park in Yorkshire, which is where the name comes from. In 1906 it was moved to the National Gallery in London, where it has been ever since. It was actually attacked by a suffragette, Mary Robinson, in 1914, after the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, but has since been restored.


madame x Strapless

Strapless by Deborah Davis & Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent

Strapless by Deborah Davis tells the story of the real ‘Madame X’ – 23 year old Virginie Gautreau, a New Orleans Creole who moved to Paris and became an ‘it girl’. She was pursued by artists, but it was John Singer Sargent who was lucky enough to actually paint her. However, the painting did not have the desired effect, and caused nothing but scandal and controversy. Strapless looks at how it affected Virginie herself.

This painting is entitled ‘Portrait of Madame X’, and was painted by British artist John Singer Sargent in 1884. The title was meant to keep the model’s identity anonymous, but obviously this did not work, and people were shocked and scandalised. The main issue was that one of the straps on Madame X’s dress was hanging loose, a sign of ‘loose morals’ and wanton behaviour, so Sergant had in effect painted her as a prostitute when she was in fact a lady of high society. Sargent later repainted the strap onto the shoulder, but the damage had already been done, and he was never able to build a long-term career as a portrait painter in France. ‘Portrait of Madame X’ now resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


mona lisa i mona lisa

I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis & The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis is an imagined account of the real Mona Lisa, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy wool merchant. Set in 15th century Florence, it is a romance and a mystery all in one, inspired by the history and art of Renaissance Italy.

The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, is possibly one of the most infamous paintings in the world. Painted at the beginning of the 16th century, it is believed to be of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a merchant turned local official. For such a famous painting, there is a lot of mystery around it – Lisa’s expression, the setting, and until very recently, the identity of Lisa herself. It has been the subject of much popular culture, for example Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and there have been plenty of copies made around the world. The Mona Lisa is now on display at the Louvre, in Paris, and has been attacked and stolen several times – apparently, the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1914 was what drew attention to it, and before that it was not widely known outside the art world.


Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend any others inspired by works of art?

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6 responses to “Books Inspired By Works of Art

  1. I love this post! It’s so fascinating and it’s a subject that isn’t discussed a lot. The only book I’ve read with painting as the cover is Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates, but I can’t think of the name of the painting, but it encapsulates the story.

  2. I loved the Goldfinch so much. I still sometimes look back and think, how I’d like to read a book as colossal as that. But although it’s been several years, I don’t think I have yet. It was just one of a kind.

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