Interview with Tracy Chevalier

  • 18 March 2013

Art Quarterly asks award-winning author Tracy Chevalier about her love of Vermeer and how works of art manage to creep into the heart of her novels.

Tracy Chevalier at home in January 2013, with a quilt she made herself Portrait: Tina Hillier

AQ: What was the first work of art you fell in love with?

Tracy Chevalier: The first artwork that I remember loving was a Henri Rousseau painting called The Sleeping Gypsy (1897). It is at MoMA in New York, but I knew it as a child because we had a framed copy of it at home. Every time I ran up and down the stairs I saw it, and it has a very surreal, naïve quality to it.

What is your earliest memory of visiting a museum or gallery?

I grew up in Washington DC, so we had all of the Smithsonian museums at our beck and call, plus the National Gallery. I can’t remember a specific first visit but museums and galleries were part of my childhood.

You wrote your best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1999. When did you first see the Vermeer painting that you based it on?

I was 19 and was visiting my sister in Boston. She had a poster of it on her wall and I fell in love with it. I went out and bought the poster myself and still have it up in my study. That was when I started looking into Vermeer and discovered there were only 35 – now 36 – works so I was determined I was going to see all of them, and I have finally!

For your novels you often start from a visual source. How do you select the art or artist you choose to focus on?

With Girl with a Pearl Earring, I just thought, what’s the relationship between this girl and the painter? Well, it’s all in the look on her face, that’s the relationship, so I’ve got to write about that. With Burning Bright (2007), I loved Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. I was at a Blake exhibition at Tate Britain and thought, I’ve got to write about this now.

“I particularly love the Sir John Soane’s Museum. It’s a wonderful integration of a living space with art.”

There is quilt-making in your latest novel, The Last Runaway.

I wanted to write about the Underground Railroad, and the people who helped slaves escape to Canada. The quilts came because often in my book I try to have the characters do or make something, a kind of shorthand for describing their personalities. Quilt-making was the one creative outlet that women in this harsh climate had.

Do you have a favourite UK museum?

Choosing a favourite museum is so difficult. In London I visit the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern a lot. But I particularly love the Sir John Soane’s Museum. It’s a wonderful integration of a living space with art. Every time I come back from it, I look around our house and think it’s so boring.

Is there anywhere that you visit overseas?

I particularly love the Frick Collection in New York. It’s another small place within a house that really appeals to me. The Mauritshuis is closed for renovations [it reopens mid-2014], and Girl with a Pearl Earring is going around the world. It’s going to be in the Frick at the end of the year with a couple of other Vermeers and I can’t wait to see them.

If you could borrow a work of art to hang in your house what would it be?

I should say Girl with a Pearl Earring, but I’ve looked at it so much I would actually choose Vermeer’s View of Delft (c. 1660–61). It’s one of his few landscapes and it is gorgeous. I once did a jigsaw puzzle of it – a great way to get to know a painting. I think because I’ve spent so much time scrutinising one Vermeer I would like to move on and scrutinise that one.

Are you working on a novel now?

I am working on a new one and it’s going to be about trees. So it’s visual but it’s not necessarily art. But it’s still at such early stages so it wouldn’t surprise me if art crept in.