Art is a frequent source of inspiration for many a novelist and short story writer. There are plenty of reasons why: it’s a way to discuss the creative process without falling into the age-old cliché of writers writing about writers; it allows them to use vivid imagery; and it makes room for further thematic exploration of certain ideas. There are an abundance of fictional artists out there in both short- and long-form narratives.
But there’s also a notable group of stories and novels that take their cue from actual works of art. For some, the inspiration is literal: the art serves as a starting point, and the ensuing story might allude to it directly or elliptically. (The website 7x7 features an abundance of collaborations between artists and writers, which falls into a subset of this.) Other writers might incorporate a real-life work of art into the plot of their book, showing its effect on the characters or the circumstances of their creation.
What follows is a look at a number of different books in which real works of art are used as the raw material for memorable works of fiction.
Edited by Lawrence Block
Acclaimed crime writer Lawrence Block edited this anthology of stories that uses the moody scenes found in the artwork of Edward Hopper to create a host of stylized, often harrowing, stories. Some of these use Hopper’s paintings as a starting point and veer far away from places he might have intended–Craig Ferguson’s story of a terminally ill priest and the legacy of Elvis Presley comes to mind. Others have incisive interpretations of their paintings: Stephen King turns a tense scene of a couple with a door looming in the background into an unsettling story of married criminals with a particular approach to keeping their hands clean when it comes to killing. Some opt for period pieces set around the time when Hopper was active; other writers prefer a more contemporary setting. The result is wide-ranging, but it also demonstrates what’s possible when taking a work of art as your inspiration.
Irving Stone’s 1934 novel took as its subject the life and work of Vincent van Gogh; its continued popularity decades later serves as a useful case study for how the enduring power of art can also extend to the popularity of prose works inspired by that art. Stone covers the breadth of van Gogh’s life, exploring the means by which he made several of his most evocative works. This wasn’t Stone’s only foray into the life of an artist: years later, he would write The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo.
There’s plenty going on in Donna Tartt’s third novel: questions of families biological and circumstantial, the story of a young man’s coming of age under difficult circumstances; and an account of a life spent on the margins of a city. But it’s also a story of obsession–specifically, the protagonist’s obsession with a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which factors heavily in the novel. Tartt’s fiction frequently nods in the direction of other artistic, cultural, and creative works: The Secret History abounds with references to classical literature, for instance. With The Goldfinch, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, that tendency moved even more to the forefront.
Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel takes as its subject the creation of the Johannes Vermeer painting that gives the book its title, and in doing so explores questions of creativity, gender, the bond between artist and subject, and the changing role of the artist in society. A screen adaptation was released to much acclaim in 2003, and many of Chevalier’s subsequent novels have also explored the works of people throughout history whose lives went against the grain of the societies in which they lived.
The creation of Ali Smith’s difficult-to-classify book Artful began with a series of lectures that Smith gave during her time as a visiting writer at St. Anne’s College. They concern big topics like art, literature, and time, and reference a host of real works, writers, and artists. But these lectures are also embedded within a larger context that gives them a fictional backdrop: the narrator finds herself being visited by the ghost of a lost love. It’s a beautifully jarring touch, bringing together aesthetic discussions with more metaphysical realms, and leaving things in a deeply unpredictable state throughout.
Paul Auster’s Leviathan grapples with a host of big themes: the relationship between art and politics, the point at which politically motivated actions become something more sinister, and the bond between those who create. In the midst of all of this is a subplot that’s something of an homage to Sophie Calle’s conceptual art project The Address Book, in which Calle contacted the people whose names were inside an address book she found lost on the street. Given the role of chance and coincidence in much of Auster’s own work, it isn’t hard to see what drew him to Calle’s work.
Calle’s work has been particularly evocative to a number of writers in recent years. Enrique Vila-Matas’s short novel Because She Never Asked also takes inspiration from her body of work, and takes a fictional collaboration between Calle and a writer (perhaps a stand-in for the author) as its starting point. Through its mesmerizing structure, it asks bold questions about the nature of storytelling, and contrasts the ways in which the novelist and the fine artist construct narratives.
Laird Hunt’s 2006 novel The Exquisite is a host of things all at once: a love letter to a particular corner of New York City, a tale of obsession and madness, and ghost story unlike any other. But it also derives abundant inspiration from Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which prominently features the body of an executed criminal. The painting itself is a recurring object in the novel, but its imagery also quietly permeates Hunt’s prose, creating a chilling effect throughout.