“Vermeer paintings are like a window,” Tracy Chevalier says, musing on the enduring fascination of the seventeenth-century painter. “Even though nothing…untoward is going on, you really feel like you are eavesdropping on a person.”
Much like Vermeer, Chevalier’s work gives readers a chance to eavesdrop on the lives of characters who range from artists and muses to suffragettes and grave-diggers. In the best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring (2000), Chevalier was praised for her luminous portrayal of Griet, a servant in the house of Vermeer. The book was called “a wondrous, enthralling piece of work” and “triumphant.” A film adaptation of it was made in 2003. In her latest book, The Lady and the Unicorn (2003), Chevalier reveals a continuing fascination with visual imagery as she weaves a narrative that brings to life the passion and drama behind a set of mysterious, medieval tapestries.
Born in Washington, D.C., Chevalier dreamed from childhood of being a writer. “I wanted,” she says, “to be a part of the making of something I loved.” The author of four novels to date, she is currently doing research on the poet-painter William Blake. She received her B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. from University of East Anglia in England. She lives in London.
Excerpt from Girl with a Pearl Earring (2000)
“Look out the window.”
I looked out. It was a breezy day, with clouds disappearing behind the New Church tower.
“What color are those clouds?”
“Why, white, sir.”
He raised his eyebrows slightly. “Are they?”
I glanced at them. “And grey. Perhaps it will snow.”
“Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables.”
“My vegetables, sir?”
He moved his head slightly. I was annoying him again. My jaw tightened.
“Think of how you separated the whites. Your turnips and your onions—are they the same white?”
Suddenly I understood. “No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.”
“Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?”
“There is some blue in them,” I said after studying them for a few minutes.
“And—yellow as well. And there is some green!” I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.
He smiled. “You will find there is little pure white in clouds, yet people say they are white. Now do you understand why I do not need the blue yet?”
“Yes, sir.” I did not really understand, but did not want to admit it. I felt I almost knew.
When at last he began to add colors on top of the false colors, I saw what he meant. He painted a light blue over the girls’ skirt, and it became a blue through which bits of black could be seen, darker in the shadow of the table, lighter closer to the window. To the wall areas he added yellow ocher, through which some of the grey showed. It became a bright but not a white wall. When the light shone on the wall, I discovered, it was not white, but many colors.
The pitcher and basin were the most complicated—they became yellow, and brown, and green, and blue. They reflected the pattern of the rug, the girl’s bodice, the blue cloth draped over the chair—everything but their true silver color. And yes they looked as they should, like a pitcher and a basin.
After that I could not stop looking at things.
Selected WorkThe Lady and the Unicorn (2003)Falling Angels (2001)Girl with a Pearl Earring (2000)The Virgin Blue (1997)