“The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like the odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a sun struck instant that existed now and forever.” (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch)

As he faces Carel Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, Theodore Decker, the protagonist in Donna Tartt’s eponymous novel, enters a time warp in which the past converges with the present and future amidst a bombing at New York’s Met Museum. The magnetic pull of the painting urges Decker to remove it from its place on the museum’s wall, ensnaring him in a crime world he then desperately yearns to escape. Except the priceless painting has such an emotional hold on him he is unable to easily extricate himself.

Dutch artists of bygone eras continue to exert a strong influence on the creative minds of today. Famous Dutch Masters such as Carel Fabritius, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals are just a few of an enigmatic group whose paintings have inspired imaginative tales that trickle from their canvases into literatur where strokes on sailcloth become words on a page. They are objects of yearning which few can physically have but so many want. Time in a museum with these paintings is often short, fleeting even. Take the Vermeer exhibition, for example, which is on display in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum for just five months with limited tickets. A ‘speechless windswept moment,’ until you insert: writers, whose artistry acts as a sort of memorabilia for artwork to flourish across different fields.

Tartt’s novel is a siren call for preserving the age-old artwork. She bridges the gap between artwork and its audience through carefully constructed phrases and she’s not the only one. Marcia Muller’s crime trilogy The Cavalier in White follows Joanna Stark, an art security expert, on a cat-and-mouse chase to find who has stolen the Hals painting from a San Francisco gallery. The highly sought-after artwork is central to a story of life and death and a symbol of the preciousness of these artistic creations.

Another work of art you will know is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The girl’s mysterious ‘gaze’ continues to captivate her beholders who seek to explain what lies behind her mesmerising look. Tracy Chevalier was equally enchanted by the pearl girl’s enigma and composed two hundred and thirty-three beautifully written pages that offer a fictionalised account of Vermeer’s personal life through a glimpse into daily life in 17th century Netherlands. Mystery solved!

One more noteworthy work of historical fiction is Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue which addresses the relationship between art and fiction, past and present, by focusing on the ‘lost’ Vermeer of the same name. Through eight interconnected stories, the novel brings to life distinct Dutch eras, like a sort of literary Beltracchi.

While the Girl in Hyacinth Blue is not a copy of a famous Vermeer, the novel is a work of art in its own right. After analysing each stroke of Vermeer’s painting, somewhat obsessively, Vreeland was able to create an original in her own mind.

The magnetism of each of these paintings has created narratives beyond their own boundaries and will continue to inspire generations to come.   Eva Lakeman   May 2023