The Door in the Mirror
I have loved this painting since I first laid eyes on it in person, upstairs in the National Gallery in London. I stood there, caught out of time, for I don’t know how long. To me, it is beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. The woman looks young and innocent, as well as very pregnant. But the man next to her has the eyes of a wolf. As a friend of mine once said with a grimace, “He looks like Putin.”
What if the painting wasn’t a wedding picture at all, I suddenly thought. What if it was a work of blackmail?
Ever since, I have wanted to tell its story.
At the moment, I’m calling it The Door in the Mirror.
The Girl in Green
The lady in green looks terribly young: more girl than woman. She also looks pregnant. I have always called her “Greensleeves” (though to be precise, her sleeves are blue). Of late, art historians tend to dismiss the curve in her dress and talk about medieval fashion and folds of cloth, but every woman I’ve looked at the picture with instinctively sides with the old tradition: she is resting one hand on a belly swollen with child. Even so, she radiates innocence. Furthermore, she looks curiously like a portrait the painter later made of his wife Margaret. So much so, in fact, that for a while during the nineteenth century, the National Gallery exhibited the painting as a self-portrait of the artist with his wife.
Since then, however, documents have come to light suggesting that the man is not Van Eyck, but a wealthy Italian merchant — an investment banker, in today’s parlance — from the house of Arnolfini. Scholars quibble about which particular member of the family he might be, but the painting is now known as The Arnolfini Wedding. Whoever he is, he looks cold and calculating, even cruel. There is something disturbing about such a man gripping young innocence by the hand.
If he is indeed an Arnolfini, goes the general reasoning, then the woman in green must be his wife, rather than the painter’s. A fair assumption, but also a dull one. The storyteller’s response — my response — is to ask, “Why is Margaret Van Eyck standing there pregnant, her hand in the grip of a cold-souled banker?” The ghost of a smile hovers around her mouth and mischief glints in her eyes, as if to say Figure it out. I dare you.
My novel is the answer to her dare.