Girl with a Pearl Earring – The novel

The Story:

One of the best-loved paintings in the world is a mystery. Who is the model and why has she been painted? What is she thinking as she stares out at us? Are her wide eyes and enigmatic half-smile innocent or seductive? And why is she wearing a pearl earring?

Girl With a Pearl Earring tells the story of Griet, a 16-year-old Dutch girl who becomes a maid in the house of the painter Johannes Vermeer. Her calm and perceptive manner not only helps her in her household duties, but also attracts the painter’s attention. Though different in upbringing, education and social standing, they have a similar way of looking at things. Vermeer slowly draws her into the world of his paintings – the still, luminous images of solitary women in domestic settings.

In contrast to her work in her master’s studio, Griet must carve a place for herself in a chaotic Catholic household run by Vermeer’s volatile wife Catharina, his shrewd mother-in-law Maria Thins, and their fiercely loyal maid Tanneke. Six children (and counting) fill out the household, dominated by six-year-old Cornelia, a mischievous girl who sees more than she should.

On the verge of womanhood, Griet also contends with the growing attentions both from a local butcher and from Vermeer’s patron, the wealthy van Ruijven. And she has to find her way through this new and strange life outside the loving Protestant family she grew up in, now fragmented by accident and death.

As Griet becomes part of her master’s work, their growing intimacy spreads disruption and jealousy within the ordered household and even – as the scandal seeps out – ripples in the world beyond.

Tracy Chevalier’s inspiration:

The idea for this novel came easily. I was lying in bed one morning, worrying about what I was going to write next. (Writers are always worrying about that.) A poster of the Vermeer painting Girl With a Pearl Earring hung in my bedroom, as it had done since I was 19 and first discovered the painting. I lay there idly contemplating the girl’s face, and thought suddenly, “I wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. Now there’s a story worth writing.” Within three days I had the whole story worked out. It was effortless; I could see all the drama and conflict in the look on her face. Vermeer had done my work for me.

I have always loved Vermeer’s paintings. One of my life goals has been to see all 36 of them in the flesh. In March 2004 I finally saw the 36th—the recently attributed Young Woman Seated at the Virginals. There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told. I wanted to tell one of them.

About Vermeer:

Little is known about Vermeer. For a start, we don’t know what he looked like. There are no confirmed images of him, though in one of his early works, The Procuress, a man looks out at the viewer from the edge of the scene, which in Dutch painting of the time was often the artist himself. In The Art of Painting a painter sits with his back to us. We don’t know if it’s meant to be Vermeer, but it gives us an idea of what an artist in his studio might have looked like.

The few known facts about Vermeer’s life come from legal documents, of marriages and births and sales and debts. The son of innkeepers, he was born in 1632 in Delft, a town of about 25,000 people best known for its blue and white glazed earthenware. He spent all of his life there, though he may have done a six-year painting apprenticeship elsewhere, possibly in Amsterdam or Utrecht.

In 1653 Vermeer converted to Catholicism and married Catharina Bolnes, a Catholic from a well-off bourgeois family. They had eleven surviving children. The family lived in the house of Maria Thins, Vermeer’s mother-in-law, in an area off the main Market Square known as Papists’ Corner because of the concentration of Catholics living there. Only 20% of the population were Catholic; the rest were Protestant. Catholics were tolerated but barred from municipal functions and required to worship privately. There were two “hidden” churches in Delft, one right next door to Maria Thins’ house.

Also in 1653 Vermeer joined the Guild of Saint Luke as a master painter — an important step in his career as a painter, it meant he had completed his apprenticeship and was ready to work professionally as an artist.

He did not make a living from his paintings, however, possibly because he painted so few – just 35 are known to exist, and he produced only two or three a year. He quite likely had a patron, perhaps Pieter van Ruijven, who bequeathed several Vermeers to his daughter. Vermeer was also an art dealer, but his primary source of income was his mother-in-law.

Vermeer painted mostly domestic interiors, often of a woman alone doing something: pouring milk, weighing jewels, reading a letter, playing a lute. It is not known who any of the models were. They were probably all painted in the same room, Vermeer’s studio on the first floor in his mother-in-law’s house. The room had three windows and light from the northwest — preferred by painters because it was more diffuse and even. In most of the paintings the women sit or stand in the same corner, with the light source from the left, so that the shadow of Vermeer’s hand did not fall onto the canvas as he was painting.

Vermeer may have used a camera obscura as he painted. A camera obscura brings some parts of a composition into focus while blurring others, as well as intensifying colors. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope and other optical instruments, was the executor of Vermeer’s will, and may well have introduced him to the device.

Vermeer’s death in 1675, probably from a stroke or heart attack at age 43, was stress-related, according to his wife. The family was falling further and further into debt, mostly as a result of a war between France and the Netherlands begun in 1672. Not only did the art market collapse, income from Maria Thins’ rented properties also dried up. Catharina described her husband’s sudden decline thus:

“As a result and owing to the very great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half he had gone from being healthy to being dead.”

Paintings in the Story:

“Do you remember the painting we saw in the Town Hall a few years ago? It was a view of Delft, from the Rotterdam and Schiedam Gates. With the sky that took up so much of the painting, and the sunlight on some of the buildings.”
“And the paint had sand in it to make the brickwork and the roofs look rough. And there were long shadows in the water, and tiny people on the shore nearest us.”
“That’s the one.”
I remembered it well, remembered thinking that I had stood at that very spot many times and never seen Delft the way the painter had.
View of Delft
View of Delft
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Entranced with herself in the mirror, she did not seem to be aware that anyone was looking at her.
I wanted to wear the mantle and the pearls. I wanted to know the man who painted her like that.
Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Woman With a Pearl Necklace
Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz,
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin-Dahlem

“When he painted Tanneke she stood there happily pouring milk for months without a thought passing through that head, God love her.” The Milkmaid
The Milkmaid
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

“You remember the last one,” Maria Thins reminded Catharina. “The maid. Remember van Ruijven and the maid in the red dress!”
Catharina snorted with muffled laughter.
“That was the last time anyone looked out from one of his paintings,” Maria Thins continued, “and what a scandal that was!”
The Girl with the Wineglass
The Girl With the Wineglass
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Brunswick

“Look at me,” he said.
She looked at him. Her eyes were large and dark, almost black.
He gave her a quill and paper. She sat in the chair, leaning forward, and wrote, an inkwell at her right. He opened a pair of the upper shutters and closed the bottom pair. The room became darker but the light shone on her high round forehead, on her arm resting on the table, on the sleeve of the yellow mantle.
“Move your left hand forward slightly,” he said. “There.”
She wrote.
“Look at me,” he said.
She looked at him.
A Lady Writing
A Lady Writing
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“In between the women is a man sitting with his back to us–”
“Van Ruijven,” my father interrupted.
“Yes, van Ruijven. All that can be seen of him is his back, his hair, and one hand on the neck of a lute.”
“He plays the lute badly,” my father added eagerly.
“Very badly. That’s why his back is to us – so we won’t see that he can’t even hold his lute properly.”
My father chuckled. He was always pleased to hear that a rich man could be a poor musician.
The Concert
The Concert
Isabella Gardner Museum, Boston [stolen]

“When you look at her cap long enough, you see that he has not really painted it white, but blue, and violet, and yellow.”
“But it’s a white cap, you said.”
“Yes, that’s what is so strange. It’s painted many colors, but when you look at it, you think it’s white.”
Woman With a Water Jug
Woman With a Water Jug
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Lick your lips, Griet.”
I licked my lips.
“Leave your mouth open.”
I was so surprised by this request that my mouth remained open of its own will. I blinked back tears. Virtuous women did not open their mouths in paintings.
Girl With a Pearl Earring
Girl With a Pearl Earring
Mauritshuis, The Hague

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