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Top Ten List: Literary Works Inspired by Great Art

For Literature Week, a list of literary works inspired by visual art.

1. Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier’s novel, inspired by the Vermeer painting of the same name, is set in 17th-century Delft and is a fictional account of the story behind the painter, his model and the painting itself.

2. Luncheon of the Boating Party, Susan Vreeland

Narrated by Auguste Renoir and seven of the models (all real friends) used in his famous painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, and set in and around Paris in the summer of 1880, this novel explores the creation of the work, the intersections of the lives of the models and the artistic and social milieu of the day. 

3. Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, Harriet Scott Chessman

Lydia, older sister of the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, was the model for five of her sister’s paintings, including Woman Reading from which the novel’s title is derived. Suffering with Bright’s disease and aware of her approaching death, Lydia, the novel’s narrator, reflects on her world and asks important questions about love and art’s capacity to remember.

4. The Matisse Stories, A.S. Byatt

Three stories in each of which a seemingly ordinary woman’s life is touched in some way by a Henri Matisse painting. Each is also about the intimate connection between seeing and feeling. 

5. The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

Blockbuster thriller revolving around two of Leonardo Da Vinci’s most iconic works, the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper

6. “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus,” William Carlos Williams

This poem, a response to the painting of the same name by the Flemish Renaissance painter Bruegel, was included in Williams’ last book Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems published in 1962. 

7. “The Shield of Achilles,” W.H. Auden

The poem is Auden’s response to the detailed ekphrastic description of the shield, illustrated with scenes from daily life, forged by the god Hephaestus for the hero Achilles in Book 18 of Homer’s Iliad. First published in 1952, The Shield of Achilles is also the title work of a collection of poems by Auden, published in 1955.  

8. “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Wallace Stevens

Stevens’ poem takes as its starting point Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, painted in 1903 during the artist’s Blue Period, and examines the nature of reality and the attempts by artists to alter it. 

9. “The Disquieting Muses,” Sylvia Plath

Inspired by the 1913 painting The Disquieting Muses by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, Plath’s disturbing poem imagines herself as a child watched over constantly by three faceless muses, or sinister women, who cast long shadows over her.

10. Cupid and the Silent Goddess, Alan Fisk

Set in 16th-century Florence, this novel imagines how the creation of Il Bronzino’s famous painting Allegory with Venus and Cupid, which hangs in London’s National Gallery, might have touched the lives of everyone involved with it.