‘Worth a Thousand Words’ (At Least!)
Image by Arthur Matthew Gray for Architectural Digest Image by Arthur Matthew Gray for Architectural Digest

Five Literary Classics Inspired by Artwork

By Nicole Barr & Phill Provance for

The connection between visual art and literature has always run deep. In fact, according to Canada’s CBC, Indonesian cave art uncovered in 2017 shows humans were using sequential pictures to tell stories as far back as 44,000 years ago. And, as noted by the world-famous Getty art museum, writing itself grew out of drawings early humans made to record the world around them.

Lucky for us, some tens of thousands of years later great authors and artists are still interacting with each other. Indeed, throughout human history, numerous visual works have been influenced by our most memorable tales–as when Salvator Dali created a series of illustrations for Dante Allighieri’s Renaissance classic The Divine Comedy and Pablo Picasso made his famous depictions of Miguel Cervantes’s eponymous Don Quixote–and vice versa; ultimately, after all, all the fine arts share a purpose: to amplify our reaction to the human experience.

The term for a work of literature that describes a work of art is ekphrasis, but many times visual art’s influence on the written work is to serve as unmentioned inspiration; perhaps, then, far more visual art than we realize has spurred our written tradition: as with viewing a painting hung on a gallery wall, when we read we see only what the the literary artist chooses to show us. Nevertheless, tons of great books openly inspired by art do exist. Below are our picks for the five best:

5. The Masterpiece by Emile Zola – The Masterpiece is a fictional account of  the Parisian art world in the mid-19th century. It portrays the struggles of the protagonist, Claude Lantier–inspired by Zola’s close friend Paul Cézanne–to paint his life’s work. A classic story of an artist unable to live up to his potential, it is sure to resonate with today’s aspiring artists and authors alike.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – This story revolves around a portrait of the main character, Dorian Gray was painted by Basil Hallward who is an artist infatuated with Dorian’s beauty. Though no actual picture of a man named Dorian Gray exists, Wilde’s story has become timeless, influencing countless movies and TV shows, such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Penny Dreadful, in addition to countless direct film adaptations.

3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracey Chevalier – In this novel, Tracy Chevalier constructs a possible, if entirely fictional, account of the inspiration for Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s 17th century masterpiece–which has alternately gone by the same title as well as many others, including Girl with a Turban. Today, while no one can definitively identity the portrait’s subject, many art historians believe she is Vermeer’s oldest daughter, Maria. Still, Chevalier’s tantalizing story of forbidden romance of remains compelling, if altogether unlikely.

2. A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord – Though a seemingly out-of-the-way topic to many contemporary readers, A Giacometti Portrait was a pop-cultural sensation when it first appeared as a mid-20th century record of author James Lord’s experiences modeling for a portrait by artist Alberto Giacometti. However, to overlook this book simply because Giacommetti is no longer a household name would be to do yourself a disservice: Lord’s masterful prose and virtuosity as a memoirist make this as riveting a read today as it was half a century ago.

1. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – This novel by one of literary Modernism’s luminaries, Virginia Woolf, is so steeped in early-20th century British fine-arts culture, readers might be forgiven for misunderstanding what its core inspiration is: character Lily Briscoe’s decade-long attempt to finish her painting of the novel’s eponymous lighthouse furnishes part of Woolf’s experimentally loose storyline (will Lily be able to finish her picture?), while poet Augustus Carmichael causes the moment of complication at the novel’s inciting incident–a dinner party at the summer home of fictional philosopher Mr. Ramsay and his wife–by asking for more soup.

But, ever a master of misdirection, Woolf merely uses these details as red herrings to hide the actual existing work that inspired her book: the Godrevy Lighthouse at St. Ives, Cornwall. That’s right, despite the novel’s setting in the Isle of Skye, as several literary scholars have pointed out, Woolf’s descriptions and the shape of the lighthouse on the cover of the book’s first edition–the work of her sister (and likely inspiration for Lily), Vanessa Bell–is a dead ringer for the distinctively octagonal tower near where Woolf’s own parents kept a summer home.

Click here to read more articles on The Good Life.