Doyenne of the Trend in Blending Fiction, History, and Visual Art, Author Susan Vreeland Paints With Words at the Walters Art Museum
“It’s kind of complicated to give a tour with a short-story collection,” says Vreeland, who will be giving combination readings/art-history slide shows in at least six art museums over the next few months. Presenting her fiction at museums, she hopes, will help her readers become more excited about art, while at the same time sparking interest in fiction among art lovers.
“Museumgoers are used to going to events where experts talk about the artists or periods of art and show slides, but that’s an exterior viewpoint,” Vreeland explains. “A novelist can provide an inner, interior viewpoint—can take us into the inner life of the artist and make us feel the artist’s strong emotions for ourselves. I think my books appeal to a mainstream readership who surprise themselves by entering the art world and finding it moving or dramatic or fascinating. That’s what I aim to do is to widen my readers. I hope that my readers become museumgoers, and that museumgoers become readers—not just my readers, but readers in general.”
Vreeland isn’t alone in her crusade to draw parallels between visual art and the written word. Over the past five years or so, bookstores and review pages have been saturated with novels and story collections that fictionalize events surrounding the inspiration, creation, and discovery of great artworks. Recently, this phenomenon has become a major moneymaker, with art-themed books frequently topping best-seller lists. Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, a book exploring the life and process of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, became a Hollywood movie starring current it-girl Scarlett Johansson. Dan Brown’s art-based thriller The Da Vinci Code is an international best seller, spurring heated debate among religious scholars and art historians, and prompting countless reading groups and panel discussions, including a recent one at the Walters. And Vreeland’s 1999 best seller, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, was at the forefront of the trend, using Vermeer as a literary subject mere months before Girl With a Pearl Earring and Katharine Weber’s The Music Lesson, yet another novel about a Vermeer painting, hit booksellers’ shelves. This new trend in art-historical fiction, Vreeland says, gives readers a way around the often intimidating mystique that surrounds art and art criticism, challenging the old notion that fine art is the province of some cultural elite.
“The whole story of art hinges on perspective, the internal perspective and the external perspective,” she says. “I think our works, if I can speak for maybe the six to 10 writers who have recently been involved in writing about art, are sensitive to a need, a curiosity in people to read the stories that lie behind the paintings. When I hit on the idea that I could write fiction about art, it was a liberating idea for me, because I could involve myself in both. For me, it was my way to participate in the world of a painter, or the art world.”
While Vreeland, a former high-school English teacher, maintains that writing about art was a natural part of her own artistic development—rooted in her childhood spent painting alongside her great-grandfather, a landscape artist who taught her how to appreciate art at an early age—she realized that Girl in Hyacinth Blue struck a chord with mainstream audiences and art enthusiasts alike. Her next two books, The Passion of Artemisia and The Forest Lover, tackled the lives of two female painters, Artemisia Gentileschi and Emily Carr. And now, Life Studies slots neatly into Vreeland’s established oeuvre, offering up eight stories about people who lived among famous artists—focusing mainly on the Impressionists, with nods toward Amedeo Modigliani and Paul Cézanne—and nine more about ordinary viewers who experience inspiration from classic works of art. Vreeland’s attempts to extrapolate on known events in painters’ lives occasionally seem contrived, and her attempts to show the inspirational power of art feels a bit pithy at times, but Life Studies is nonetheless fast-paced and frequently engaging mainstream fiction—the literary equivalent of the History Channel.
“Imagining the lives of painters, and of the people surrounding them, can help us to appreciate the painters even more,” Vreeland says. “Because what else is going on in their lives? Babies crying, pressure to sell paintings—knowing that these painters kept painting in spite of distractions, illness, addictions, despair, doubt, makes us value them all the more, and rightly so.”
In reconstructing the home lives of Claude Monet, Édouard Manet, and the other artists in the first half of Life Studies, Vreeland, like many of her contemporaries, engaged in rigorous research, using old correspondence, art history books, and frequent museum visits to flesh out her character sketches.
“For these stories, I didn’t just research the painters, I researched the time periods and cultures surrounding them,” Vreeland says. Watching the artists develop into characters “really is a lovely experience. I’m thinking right now about how someone takes a Polaroid and looks at the little white box, and slowly the image emerges. Research feels like that to me—watching the image emerge on a Polaroid.”
In writing Life Studies, Vreeland also resisted the old notion that unpleasant aspects of great artists’ lives should be sugarcoated or ignored. “Winter of Abandon,” one of two stories dealing with Monet, explicitly relates a fact often glossed over in early art books—that Monet was an adulterer, impregnating second wife Alice Hoschede while still married to his ailing first wife, Camille. In “Olympia’s Look,” Manet is revealed as a notorious rake, carrying on affairs with many of his models, including prostitutes and youthful coquettes.
“You can’t change history and you don’t want to do people a disservice,” Vreeland says. “But at the same time, you don’t want to participate in that 19th-century habit of pulling the curtain over things, when those intimate details will help us to understand the painting or the painter better. So I sought out those emotional moments.”
And to help bring moments like those to life, Vreeland chose the Walters to inaugurate her new book tour. Though none of the Monets and Manets on view specifically informed Life Studies, she says, the museum seemed like an ideal location to explore the dialogue between literature and art that her work seeks to inspire. In particular, she points to the museum’s current feature exhibit, The Road to Impressionism: Landscapes from Corot to Monet, which presents 70-odd pieces by artists who influenced and informed Monet and Manet, as well as a brilliantly presented display of 19th-century painting equipment, including palettes used by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot. Like Vreeland’s stories, these arüifacts lend a sense of tangible history to the art hanging on the gallery walls and make the paintings more accessible. In addition, she gives her readers another tool: her web site, www.svreeland.com, which features images of the works that inspire and inform her work, in the hopes of stoking a deeper appreciation of visual art in those who pick up her books.
“That’s the experience I want readers to have, the visual as well as the literary,” she says. “To fully appreciate my stories, I think you have to see the paintings, just as to fully appreciate the paintings, you have to know a bit about each painter’s life. I start Life Studies with an epigraph by [artist and art historian] John Berger that asks, ‘To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?’ Well, you see, of course my answer is the former. To those who can apply it to their own lives.”
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