Journey beyond the frame

There are many ways to engage with a work of art. One can contemplate the aesthetics, context or techniques. If compelled, why not also allow one’s imagination to journey beyond the confines of the frame?

Among a growing trend to imagine the lives of unknown painted subjects, author Tracey Chevalier invites us to explore this concept as part of her TED talk Finding the Story inside the Painting.

Chevalier describes her way of selecting, entering into and exploring three portraits that have made her “slow down” and “stop in [her] tracks.” Through this talk, she takes us on a journey into her thinking process in decoding and then using the power of storytelling to what she describes as our natural tendency to fill in details about something unknown.


The Girl with the Pearl Earring, 1665, Johannes Vermeer. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

In sharing how she developed the concept for her best selling novel through a single portrait, we gain insight into her source of inspiration. She describes how she had initially been attracted to the aesthetics of Vermeer’s painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring then later by what she feels is a “lack of resolution” regarding the girl’s expression – whether she is happy or sad. This unsettling feeling held her interest for 16 years. One day, while contemplating the reproduction hanging on her wall, she suddenly engaged more deeply with the image and wondered “What the painter did to [the girl] to make her look like that.”

This question became the turning point which drove Chevalier to investigate “the story inside the portrait.” She no longer saw the painting as a “portrait of a girl,” but as “a portrait of a relationship.” Chevalier further describes her search for historical evidence while filling in the blanks with possible scenarios leading up to the moment in which Vermeer painted her.

Through this talk, we gain insight into her strategy in visiting  a gallery, what kinds of portraits make her “stand in her tracks,” how she decodes, uses inference, then uses her imagination to weave a narrative. She asks questions, makes statements and uses a combination of critical thinking and creativity to engage with a work of art.

Her way to connect with a painting is to tell a story about it. I understand her need to find her own way to fully engage with a museum object. When I am drawn to a work of art, I feel compelled to photograph it and in that process, engage more deeply with it  – the details, the mood, the emotion –- while creatively discovering what made me slow down and stand in front of it – perhaps even leaving me inspired and transformed in the process.

NPG 96; Unknown woman, formerly known as Mary, Queen of Scots by Unknown artist

Unknown woman, formerly known as Mary, Queen of Scots, circa 1570, unknown artist. Photo courtesy National Portrait Gallery. 

For more stories inspired by “mystery” portraits, see these interactives from an exhibition that closed in July 2012 at the UK’s National Portrait Gallery. Inspired by the exhibition, a book of the same name, Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People, features internationally renowned authors, such as Downtown Abbey creator Julian Fellowes imagining what the lives of these sitters might have been like. There is an accompanying podcast on Itunes and a story competition where people imagine the lives of the sitters, posted here on the gallery’s website. 

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