Paperback reviews: Love blossoms in a 17th-century painting
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach Vintage pounds 6.99
Sunday 26 December 1999
The trend started with Simon Schama's brilliant work of history, An Embarrassment of Riches, in which he identified an anxiety about wealth and materialism behind the displays of conspicuous consumption in the work of artists of that time. Moggach takes this thesis as her central conceit and fashions a thrilling love story from its elements.
It is 1636, and Amsterdam is thriving. Cornelis Sandvoort, prominent citizen and man of substance, is also "a collector of beautiful things". These include paintings, flowers and a young wife from an impoverished family. The elderly Cornelis longs for an heir, otherwise what is the point of garnering all these riches? But, so far, Sophia has not held to her part of the bargain. His future posterity weighs on him, so he commissions Jan van Loos, a fashionable young artist to paint the happy couple's portrait. They are surrounded by Cornelis's favourite belongings, but Jan has eyes only for Sophia. Moggach cunningly interweaves her own theories of art into the ensuing tale of sexual betrayal and financial intrigue. The greater deception, for her, is that of the artist who to all intents and purposes communicates the immutability of his subject but, at the same time, allows a tulip, which is about to lose its glistening petals, into the frame.
Sophia gazes dutifully ahead, the very picture of a complacent matron but secretly longs for this dashing young portraitist to seduce her. It doesn't take Jan long to pick up on the signals, and soon illicit notes are being swapped and secret assignations made in the artist's studio. All this hectic plotting gives Moggach ample opportunity to insert famous scenes from Dutch art into her novel (the book even comes illustrated in case we miss the references). Scenes from Vermeer: a woman reading a letter by the light of a window; the chaotic mess of an artist's studio; street scenes; and, of especial pertinence to the plot, a nude lying on a dishevelled bed.
Each stage of this story is frozen into a symbolically significant tableau, but with a lightness of touch that does great credit to Moggach's painterly prose. When the couple's illicit passion grows too ardent to be contained, they plot their escape from Cornelis. And this is where Moggach is at her most inventive, employing the old Shakespearian device of the bed- trick to dupe the husband, and sending Jan into the hectic market of "tulip futures". Moggach reproduces the coded language of 17th-century Dutch art to great effect while telling a rip-roaring tale that ends with a wonderfully dramatic flourish.
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