London — The signature brush strokes of the 17th century Dutch Master throw off their dazzling light and Tracy Chevalier, alone in front of the painting of the girl playing a guitar, reaches toward the portrait's oval face as if she is trying to touch the magic.
"Oops," says Chevalier, catching herself before her fingers actually graze the surface of Johannes Vermeer's "The Guitar Player." The Vermeer hangs in Kenwood House on London's Hampstead Heath, an English manor-turned-art gallery well off the beaten path of London's main art stops. And it is where Chevalier frequently came to stare at the only Vermeer in England while writing "Girl With a Pearl Earring," her staggeringly successful novel about the painter's masterpiece of the same name.
On this quiet Saturday morning after New Year's Day, Chevalier is back at Kenwood, showing "The Guitar Player" to a first-time viewer. She has seen all but one of the world's 35 known Vermeers but there is something special about this almost empty gallery, its stately rooms offering unobstructed views of such beguiling art, hung modestly on a side wall.
"This isn't his best work -- it looks like he rushed it a little -- but it's just amazing to be able to get this close to a Vermeer," Chevalier says with a wary glance toward an oblivious security guard. "I've been to Vermeer exhibitions where people are standing 10 deep and everyone is jostling for position." The writer simulates a body-check with her shoulders. "But these are intimate paintings," she says. "They were never meant to be seen that way."
Vermeer is plenty famous in his own right but if anyone else bears responsibility for the current surge in fascination with his work it is Chevalier. Her "Girl With a Pearl Earring" has sold more than 2 1/2 million copies worldwide, not bad for a book Chevalier says she thought "a couple thousand people would read and that would be it." But readers responded to Chevalier's imagined aura of creative and sexual tension that might have spawned Vermeer's work of genius, so she ended up with one of those books that sells by the boatload and then says to its author: Top that.
A lighter tone
The 41-year-old Chevalier has published two novels since then, with her latest, "The Lady and the Unicorn" -- another invented tale about the making of a real artistic masterpiece -- beginning to creep onto bestseller lists. This time her subject was a tableau of six tapestries stitched on commission for an arriviste nobleman in medieval France. It's an interesting choice of material for fiction, and the book is a much lighter romp than the repressed tone of "Girl."
"Yeah, there's more sex in this one; it's deliberately lighter," Chevalier says about "The Lady and the Unicorn." "At the beginning of it I thought, 'Right, I'm setting a book in medieval times and everybody's going to expect the plague and death.' And so I decided nobody's going to die in this book ... just to confound them," she says.
Chevalier is now on a book tour of the United States to promote "Unicorn." But the recent release of the movie version of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" means she still finds herself talking about -- and occasionally defending -- her fictional account of what inspired Vermeer to paint a portrait of such disturbing intimacy. The film stars a brooding Colin Firth as the mysterious painter from Delft and, in a blessed bit of prescient casting, rising star-of-the-moment Scarlett Johansson as Griet, his 16-year-old maid and muse.
The film has been critically well-received, notably for the cinematography's cool blue interiors that replicate in film what Vermeer did so well on the freeze-frame of a canvas, using light to convey drama. In the movie, even the dust glows.
Chevalier had nothing to do with the screenplay ("I can't imagine writing anything by committee," she says). But she did spend some time on the film set in Luxembourg, where designers tinkered to turn a set that was originally built as a mock Venice into a stand-in for 17th century Delft.
Turning the substance of "Girl" into a movie was not such a stretch, she says, because her historical novels are woven around descriptive imagery rather than the characters' inner emotions.
"Because I'm writing historical novels I try to stay away from psychological analysis," Chevalier says, braced against the winter chill on Hampstead Heath. "These people lived in a time that was pre-Freud. They did not think with such self-awareness. What my characters are thinking is what they see around them, and so the novel becomes very descriptive. That lends itself to cinema."