Desert Isle Keeper
Girl With A Pearl Earring
Almost nothing is known of painter Johannes Vermeer’s life, and he was not a prolific painter. What paintings we have of his, however, are memorable with their luminosity and portrayal of everyday life in seventeeth century Delft, Holland. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier brings to life the subject and circumstances of one Vermeer’s best known and loved paintings.
The girl in question is Griet, a sixteen-year-old girl who goes to work in Vermeer’s tumultuous household. She is a lowly maid and laundress, but catches Vermeer’s eye from the start because he notices her awareness of color and shape as she arranges sliced vegetables on a table. She is the only one in the household allowed into his studio, because she has discovered the knack of cleaning the setting for paintings in progress without disturbing them.
This sets Griet up for difficulties in the household, which is full of women vying for the tiny bit of power and authority available to them. Griet finds herself carefully negotiating a path of survival between Maria Thins, Vermeer’s imperious mother-in-law; Catherina, his insecure and eternally pregnant wife; Tanneke, the senior servant in the household; and Cornelia, the sly and scheming daughter. Just as Vermeer created art out of small aspects of everyday life, so does Tracy Chevelier bring a very different time and place to life with observation of tiny details that hold huge meaning to her characters: a cracked tile, the way one wears one’s headcovering, the piercing of an ear to hold a pearl earring – all have significance far beyond the surface.
At the center of it all for Griet is the painter Vermeer. She quickly develops a fascination with him that could be a crush or could be love. Whatever it is, it is hopeless given their stations in life. She gains his trust and he increasingly allows her to work with him in a way not even his wife has: she grinds his paints, sets them out, and once even suggests a better way to arrange a painting. Each small intimacy causes great disturbances in the arrangement of the household, and the consequences play out around the seemingly oblivious Vermeer. The climax arises, of course, when he has Griet pose for him. I found myself looking at the cover (which shows the painting) again and again, marveling as Chevelier’s narrative explains each small detail of the painting, from the earring to the head covering to the barely visible bit of hair just above the maid’s eye.
In its own way, the novel is suspenseful as well. From the start, there is a sense of the precariousness of Griet’s position in both the household and the larger society. There are so many ways a girl can be ruined, and by something as seemingly innocent as posing for a painting (or even a rumor that she is posing) or removing one’s cap. Griet is not perfect; I sighed at her scorn for the butcher’s son who woos her throughout the book. She sees only the blood under his fingernails while the reader sees the one safe harbor for her in a dangerously small world. How it all will turn out hangs in the balance right up to the very last pages of the book, and I turned those pages quickly to discover the ending.
But the ending is only part of the story; the rest of it is the journey, observed in historically accurate and beautifully drawn detail. This is a book I want to read again, purely to lose myself in the writing and the images the author evokes, as well as the absolute sense of a place and time in history.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is an amazing work of art, bringing to life an era that I know little about but now want to know better. Chevalier’s imagining of Vermeer and his world, and Griet, the maid who becomes the Girl with a Pearl Earring, has actually become my understanding of the painter and the painting. In a way, it spoils the painting for the viewer – once you read the book, it’s hard to imagine ever looking at the painting again without thinking of Griet and her story, and becoming unable to imagine any other story behind the picture. But if that’s the price of enjoying this book, trust me, it’s worth it.