Five artworks that have inspired novels

  • 27 June 2014

To celebrate the reopening of the Mauritshuis in The Hague – whose collection includes Girl with a Pearl Earring – we select five great works of art that have inspired novels.

1. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Tracy Chevalier’s popular novel of the same name was inspired by Vermeer’s iconic painting, which is now back on display at the newly renovated Mauritshuis in The Hague. It is not a portrait but a rendering of an imaginary figure, known as a ‘tronie’. Chevalier’s equally imaginative tale follows a fictional relationship between Vermeer and his maid-turn-model Griet, a 16-year-old Dutch girl.

2. The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

This understated painting by one of Rembrandt’s most gifted pupils is another masterpiece back on display at the Mauritshuis. Donna Tartt’s hugely successful third novel has raised the work’s profile, with a record 61,000 visitors flocking to The Frick Collection when it was on display. Tartt’s fictitious story follows a young man called Theo, who steals the painting after a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother.

3. Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas

This painted bronze sculpture of the ballet student Marie van Goethem features real garments made from silk and tulle. When the original wax sculpture was first exhibited, contemporaries were shocked by the unprecedented realism of the piece and touched by the representation of pain and stress in the young student. The 1922 cast was acquired by Tate with Art Fund assistance in 1952. Cathy Marie Buchanan’s tale The Painted Girls imagines the difficult lives of the model and her sister Antoinette, as they struggle to make ends meet after the death of their father.

4. Portrait of Madame X by John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau caused a scandal at the 1884 Paris Salon due to her provocative dress and pose, subsequently destroying his career in France. After keeping the painting in his studio for over 30 years, Sargent sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but asked that the sitter’s name was disguised. Gioia Diliberto’s story draws broadly on historical facts to piece together the model’s tempestuous life as an American-born socialite in Paris.

5. The Months Series by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Bruegel produced six paintings depicting the seasons for wealthy Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jonghelinck, of which only five remain today. His unidealised vision of the landscape was groundbreaking, illustrating the tiresome toil of the peasants and suppressing favoured religious iconography. Headlong by Michael Frayn imagines the rediscovery of the lost sixth panel by Martin, a tired novel writer, whose struggle to uncover the true identity of the work ends in disaster.