Transcript: Tracy Chevalier on Finding The Story Inside The Painting at TED Conference

Tracy Chevalier

In this TED Talk, novelist Tracy Chevalier shares three stories inspired by portraits, including the one that led to her best-selling novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Below is the full transcript of the whole talk.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Tracy Chevalier on Finding the story inside the painting at TED Talk


I’m going to tell you about an affliction I suffer from. And I have a funny feeling that quite a few of you suffer from it as well. When I’m walking around an art gallery, rooms and rooms full of paintings, after about 15 or 20 minutes, I realize I’m not thinking about the paintings. I’m not connecting to them. Instead, I’m thinking about that cup of coffee I desperately need to wake me up. I’m suffering from gallery fatigue.

How many of you out there suffer from — yes. Ha ha, ha ha! Now, sometimes you might last longer than 20 minutes, or even shorter, but I think we all suffer from it. And do you have the accompanying guilt? For me, I look at the paintings on the wall and I think, somebody has decided to put them there, thinks they’re good enough to be on that wall, but I don’t always see it. In fact, most of the time I don’t see it.

And I leave feeling actually unhappy. I feel guilty and unhappy with myself, rather than thinking there’s something wrong with the painting, I think there’s something wrong with me. And that’s not a good experience, to leave a gallery like that.

The thing is, I think we should give ourselves a break. If you think about going into a restaurant, when you look at the menu, are you expected to order every single thing on the menu? No, you select. If you go into a department store to buy a shirt, are you going to try on every single shirt and want every single shirt? Of course not, you can be selective. It’s expected.

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How come, then, it’s not so expected to be selective when we go to an art gallery? Why are we supposed to have a connection with every single painting?

Well I’m trying to take a different approach. And there’s two things I do: When I go into a gallery, first of all, I go quite fast, and I look at everything, and I pinpoint the ones that make me slow down for some reason or other. I don’t even know why they make me slow down, but something pulls me like a magnet and then I ignore all the others, and I just go to that painting. So it’s the first thing I do is, I do my own curation. I choose a painting. It might just be one painting in 50. And then the second thing I do is I stand in front of that painting, and I tell myself a story about it.

Why a story? Well, I think that we are wired, our DNA tells us to tell stories. We tell stories all the time about everything, and I think we do it because the world is kind of a crazy, chaotic place, and sometimes stories, we’re trying to make sense of the world a little bit, trying to bring some order to it. Why not apply that to our looking at paintings? So I now have this sort of restaurant menu visiting of art galleries.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

There are three paintings I’m going to show you now that are paintings that made me stop in my tracks and want to tell stories about them. The first one needs little introduction: “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer, 17th-century Dutch painter. This is the most glorious painting. I first saw it when I was 19, and I immediately went out and got a poster of it, and in fact I still have that poster. 30 years later it’s hanging in my house. It’s accompanied me everywhere I’ve gone, I never tire of looking at her.

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What made me stop in my tracks about her to begin with was just the gorgeous colors he uses and the light falling on her face. But I think what’s kept me still coming back year after year is another thing, and that is the look on her face, the conflicted look on her face. I can’t tell if she’s happy or sad, and I change my mind all the time. So that keeps me coming back.

One day, 16 years after I had this poster on my wall, I lay in bed and looked at her, and I suddenly thought, I wonder what the painter did to her to make her look like that. And it was the first time I’d ever thought that the expression on her face is actually reflecting how she feels about him. Always before I’d thought of it as a portrait of a girl. Now I began to think of it as a portrait of a relationship. And I thought, well, what is that relationship?

So I went to find out. I did some research and discovered, we have no idea who she is. In fact, we don’t know who any of the models in any of Vermeer’s paintings are, and we know very little about Vermeer himself. Which made me go: “Yippee! I can do whatever I want, I can come up with whatever story I want to”.

So here’s how I came up with the story. First of all, I thought, I’ve got to get her into the house. How does Vermeer know her? Well, there’ve been suggestions that she is his 12-year-old daughter. The daughter at the time was 12 when he painted the painting. And I thought, no, it’s a very intimate look, but it’s not a look a daughter gives her father. For one thing, in Dutch painting of the time, if a woman’s mouth was open, it was indicating sexual availability. It would have been inappropriate for Vermeer to paint his daughter like that.

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So it’s not his daughter, but it’s somebody close to him, physically close to him. Well, who else would be in the house? A servant, a lovely servant. So, she’s in the house. How do we get her into the studio? We don’t know very much about Vermeer, but the little bits that we do know, one thing we know is that he married a Catholic woman, they lived with her mother in a house where he had his own room where he — his studio. He also had 11 children. It would have been a chaotic, noisy household. And if you’ve seen Vermeer’s paintings before, you know that they’re incredibly calm and quiet.

How does a painter paint such calm, quiet paintings with 11 kids around? Well, he compartmentalizes his life. He gets to his studio, and he says, “Nobody comes in here. Not the wife, not the kids. Okay, the maid can come in and clean.” She’s in the studio. He’s got her in the studio, they’re together. And he decides to paint her.

He has her wear very plain clothes. Now, all of the women, or most of the women in Vermeer’s other paintings wore velvet, silk, fur, very sumptuous materials. This is very plain; the only thing that isn’t plain is her pearl earring. Now, if she’s a servant, there is no way she could afford a pair of pearl earrings. So those are not her pearl earrings. Whose are they? We happen to know, there’s a list of Catharina, the wife’s clothes. Amongst them a yellow coat with white fur, a yellow and black bodice, and you see these clothes on lots of other paintings, different women in the paintings, Vermeer’s paintings. So clearly, her clothes were lent to various different women. It’s not such a leap of faith to take that that pearl earring actually belongs to his wife.

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