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Pen portraits: fine art in fiction


The Goldfinch, the painting Donna Tartt's new novel is built around, is just one of many real-life works of art reworked into literature

The Goldfinch, the Dutch painting that Donna Tartt's novel of the same name revolves around, attracted large crowds to a recent exhibition at New York's Frick Collection. But it's only the latest in a long series of works of art that authors have made the focus of novels and poems …

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel frescos

The frescos' troubled, protracted genesis is at the centre of Irving Stone's novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, now best known via Carol Reed's 1965 film version starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II, with whom the artist argued. Stone also wrote Lust for Life, about Van Gogh.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper

Leonardo's flaking mural is highlighted in Dan Brown's mega-selling The Da Vinci Code, as the artist's alleged inclusion of a woman among the disciples is part of its theory of his subversive assertion of a feminine element in Christianity, marginalised by the church. The same artist's Vitruvian Man is also prominent in the novel.

Bronzino, Portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi

Milly Theale, the terminally ill heiress in Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, views the portrait in a key scene ("a face almost livid in hue, yet handsome in sadness and crowned with a mass of hair … a very great personage – only unaccompanied by a joy") and finds herself mirrored by the woman's sadness: "I shall never be better than this", she desolately recognises.

Bruegel (attr), Landscape With the Fall of Icarus

Auden's Musée des Beaux Arts, probably the best-known poem about art, focuses on the way the way the "boy falling out of the sky" is only a sideshow in the painting, ignored by its ploughman and ship: exemplifying how suffering "takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along".

Bruegel, The Months

Five of Bruegel's six paintings of the seasons have survived, and a possible sixth is the MacGuffin in Michael Frayn's Booker-shortlisted farce, Headlong. The protagonist becomes convinced the missing work is a painting owned by neighbours, and does his utmost (including flirting with the woman) to get hold of it.

Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time

Viewable at London's Wallace Collection, Poussin's neo-classical painting shows women representing the seasons dancing in a circle to a lyre. It informs the texture as well as the title of Anthony Powell's Proustian novel sequence, in which characters "disappear only to reappear" and no dancer can control the dance.

Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring

Shown in the Frick exhibition alongside The Goldfinch, Vermeer's painting inspired Tracy Chevalier's bestselling novel of the same title, which invents a teenage servant as his model and speculates about how it came to be created.Sales were boosted by the film version starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.

Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa

Julian Barnes devotes chapter five of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters to Géricault's powerful image of sailors adrift on a raft after a shipwreck. They image a wider human condition: "How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us."

Picasso, The Old Guitarist

The inspiration for Wallace Stevens's poem about reality and the artist, The Man With the Blue Guitar ("things as they are changed on the blue guitar"), which airs different ideas about art's role over several stanzas. The poem exemplifies its ability to transform its subject-matter in its title – Picasso's man is blue, but not his guitar.

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