TED Radio Hour
8:28 am
Fri September 20, 2013

How Do You Find A Story In A Painting?

Originally published on Fri April 11, 2014 11:45 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Framing The Story.

About Tracy Chevalier's TEDTalk

When writer Tracy Chevalier looks at paintings, she imagines the stories behind them: How did the painter meet his model? What would explain that look in her eye? She shares the story of Vermeer's most famous painting that inspired her best-selling novel "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

About Tracy Chevalier

Novelist Tracy Chevalier is the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring. Chevalier pulls stories from paintings and historical episodes, finding the human thread behind opaque images. Her other books include The Lady and the Unicorn and Burning Bright, about two children who become neighbors of William Blake.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And we'll hear a lot more from Andrew Stanton later in the hour. But first, to another story, one told by the novelist Tracy Chevalier. And this one begins in an art gallery.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TRACY CHEVALIER: When I go into a gallery, first of all, I go quite fast. And I look at everything and I pinpoint the ones that make me slow down for some reason or other. I don't even know why they make me slowdown, but something pulls me like a magnet. And I just go to that painting. And then, the second thing that I do is I stand in front of that painting and I tell myself a story about it.

RAZ: Tracy wrote an entire book about one single painting. The most famous painting by the Dutch artist, Vermeer, "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Do you remember when you first saw it?

CHEVALIER: Yeah, I first saw a copy of the painting in my sister's apartment when I was 19. She was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And I walked into the apartment and I saw a poster of the painting on the wall and I just stood in front of it and stared. Wherever you are in the room, her eyes seem to follow you. Her mouth is really glistening and her lips are slightly apart and she's just staring at us and she's also, most importantly, wearing a big pearl earring in her ear. It's so simple - there's nothing in the background just her. And there's a look almost like she's just turned her head and is looking over her shoulder at us. Vermeer painted her skin so luminously. What kept me looking at the painting was the expression on her face, which is really difficult to read. Sometimes she looks happy and sometimes she looks terribly sad, like something very sad has happened to her.

RAZ: What was it about her though? How did you know there was a story with her?

CHEVALIER: Well, you know I didn't, for a long time I didn't know there was a story about her. I had the copy of the painting - this poster - hanging up everywhere I went for, I think, 16 years. Before one day I was lying in bed and I was looking at it and then suddenly it popped into my head, I wonder what the painter did to her to make her look like that. It was the first time I actually thought, that's a portrait not of a person but it's actually a portrait of a relationship. Because the way she's looking has something to do with him and how she feels about him. And that was what made me think, there must be a story there to their relationship and I want to find out what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHEVALIER: So here's how I came up with the story. First of all, I thought I've got to get her into the house. How does Vermeer know her? Well, there have been suggestions that she is his 12-year-old daughter. And I thought, no. It's a very intimate look, but it's not a look a daughter gives her father. For one thing in Dutch painting of the time, if a woman's mouth was open, it was indicating sexual availability. It would have been inappropriate for Vermeer to paint his daughter like that. So it's not his daughter. But it's somebody close to him, physically close to him. Well, who else would be in the house? A servant. A lovely servant. So, she's in the house. How do we get her into the studio? We don't know very much about Vermeer, but the little bits that we do know - one thing we know is that he married a Catholic woman. They lived with her mother in a house where he had his own room where he - his studio.

He also had 11 children. It would have been a chaotic, noisy household. And if you've seen Vermeer's paintings before, you know that they're incredibly calm and quiet. How does a painter paint such calm, quiet paintings with 11 kids around? Well, he compartmentalizes his life. He gets the studio and he says, nobody comes in here. Not the wife, not the kids, okay, the maid can come in and clean. She's in the studio. He's got her in the studio. They're together and he decides to paint her. He has her wear very plain clothes. Now, most of the women in Vermeer's other paintings wore velvet, silk, fur, very sumptuous materials. This is very plain. The only thing that isn't plain is her pearl earring.

Now, if she's a servant there's no way she could afford a pair of pearl earrings. Whose are they? We happen to know, there's a list of Katerina, the wife's clothes amongst them a yellow coat with white fur, a yellow and black bodice and you see these clothes on lots of other paintings - different women in the paintings. So clearly, her clothes were lent to various, different women. So we've got all the elements for our story. She's in the studio with him for a long time. These paintings took a long time to make. They would have spent time alone. All that time. She's wearing his wife's pearl earring, she's gorgeous, she obviously loves him, she's conflicted. And does the wife know? Maybe not and if she doesn't, well, that's the story.

RAZ: That's amazing. I mean, you got all of that from a single, static image. And it's basically a made-up story. This is fiction.

CHEVALIER: I know it's - I still laugh that it's such a simple painting and yet I did base this story on what's in the painting and also the little tiny bits of biographical detail that we know about Vermeer. And that's what I based it all on, which is very little and yet it is quite a lot. I think, maybe what it is, is we have dramatic lives, though they may not seem dramatic to the outside. But to us it's those little daily incidents of life that are dramatic and if you put a frame around it, an actual painting frame, or if you put a frame that is a novel around small incidents, they suddenly become bigger because you focus. And anybody can focus on things that don't seem to mean much and suddenly they become much bigger and much more important than you ever imagined.

RAZ: Do you ever think, like, what if this becomes his story, like, what if people confuse fiction and fact?

CHEVALIER: I think a little bit of that has happened, which I feel flattered by but I'm a little terrified by too. And I'm really glad that I wrote the book before it occurred to me that that would ever happen.

RAZ: I guess, I'm wondering, you know, I mean, there's amazing power in this story you shared, like people wanted to hear that story. They didn't care that it wasn't true.

CHEVALIER: Yeah, they didn't care it wasn't true, but I think they've kind of made it true. I think that a lot of people have a hard time looking at that painting without thinking of that story. And maybe novels that work are the ones that, you know, you suspend disbelief and I think people have suspended disbelief in a kind of long-term, sort of way. The suspension is going to go on all their lives while they look at those paintings.

RAZ: What does a good story have to have?

CHEVALIER: What does a good story have to have? I suppose it has to have a journey. I like to have a character who has to change. Most of us still look for that template because it's what human beings do. I think that we tell stories to make sense of the world, to make sense of our lives, to make them mean something to us and to our descendents. And it's a very natural thing that humans have been doing for thousands of years. In that way, I think we are quite conservative in that we do like, literally, a beginning, a middle and end. A beginning, which is normal. The middle, which is the change and challenge, and the end, which is the new normal.

RAZ: Do you still go and visit her? Do you go see that painting?

CHEVALIER: Yeah. It lives in The Hague at the Mauritshuis Museum. And I find it, in fact, whenever I see her I find it very hard to leave the room. 'Cause I think I keep looking at the painting, like, even though I've written a whole story about it, which supposedly explains this look of, sort of, torment on her face, I'm still not sure that's actually what's happened. I always - about to leave the room and then I go back to look at her and I think, are you finally going to tell me what you're thinking? And she never does. I liken it to a song that ends on the second to last chord rather than giving you that resolution that you're craving, it just never gives it to you and that's what makes the painting so very powerful because it gives us such a huge gap there that we fill it in and so we really become part of the painting ourselves.

RAZ: Novelist Tracy Chevalier. She wrote the book "Girl with a Pearl Earring." You can hear her full Ted Talk at TED.NPR.org. On the show today, framing the story. The things we find out about ourselves when we hear them. Stay with us, I'm Guy Raz and it's the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.