Published: 31 July 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction
With precisely 35 canvases to his credit, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer represents one of the great enigmas of 17th-century art. The meagre facts of his biography have been gleaned from a handful of legal documents.
Yet Vermeer's extraordinary paintings of domestic life, with their subtle play of light and texture, have come to define the Dutch golden age. His portrait of the anonymous Girl with a Pearl Earring has exerted a particular fascination for centuries - and it is this magnetic painting that lies at the heart of Tracy Chevalier's second novel of the same title.
After an accident leaves her father unable to work, seventeen year old Griet goes to work at the house of Johannes Vermeer, a master painter who has a multitude of children.
The Vermeer household is a chaotic one and Griet’s arrival is met with suspicion from more than one quarter, especially Catharina, Vermeer’s wife, who soon becomes jealous of the time Griet spends with her husband. Although Griet takes pride in her domestic chores, she finds herself more drawn to Vermeer’s studio and is fascinated by the creative process.
As Vermeer gets used to Griet’s presence in his domain and he realises she can see things the way he does, he begins to encourage her by getting her to mix his paints and asking her opinions. Griet, basking in the attention, finds excuses to spend even more time in his studio but her presence there is staring to attract unwelcome attention from within and outside of the household.
As Griet tries to deal with Catharina’s jealousy and her eldest daughter’s schemes to get her dismissed, she also comes to the attention of Van Ruijven, Vermeer’s patron, who has taken a shine to her. When Van Ruijven requests Vermeer to paint a portrait of Griet, the artist is reluctant but his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, encourages him because they need the money and Vermeer can’t afford to offend his only patron. While posing for Vermeer, Griet’s attraction to him grows but the portrait may prove to be the beginning of the end of her time in the Vermeer household.
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was a Dutch painter who specialized in domestic scenes of middle-class life but he was a slow painter which caused his family a great deal of hardship as they were often in debt. Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted around 1665 and depicts a portrait of a young girl wearing a turban on her head and a large pearl earring in her left ear. The identity of the girl in the portrait is unknown so Tracy Chevalier’s novel offers a fictional account of how the portrait was created and it is a very plausible one.
Set in Delft in the seventeenth century, Chevalier paints a pretty picture herself of the time and setting for her novel. There is an abundance of descriptive passages on the clothes worn during the period, the furnishings in the household and even the cleaning methods Griet employs during her daily chores. Sometimes the details gets a bit repetitive but it all helps set the scene and we get a real sense of time and place.
The Vermeer household is bursting at the seams with characters, including Catharina, Vermeer’s constantly pregnant wife; Maria Thins, Catharina’s mother, who is financing the household; Maertge, the oldest daughter intent on making Griet’s life a misery; and Tanneke, a fellow servant who resents Griet’s arrival. Vermeer himself remains an elusive figure as everyone else seem to tiptoe around him, leaving him to his work.
Vermeer, absorbed by his art, seems oblivious to anything else in his household but he is immediately intrigued by the girl who comes into his studio and so carefully cleans without disturbing his sets. When Vermeer realises Griet has an artist’s eye, he is keen to encourage her and their relationship changes subtly with Griet finding excuses to be in his studio. While it is clear Griet has developed feelings for Vermeer, the relationship never becomes intimate and it is hard to tell whether Vermeer feels the same way. When Griet and Vermeer are in the studio, it seems like a quiet haven from the chaos going on elsewhere.
Griet is likeable, however there were certain aspects of her character that I felt were not explained clearly, such as the obsession with keeping her hair covered. Griet clearly equates uncovering her hair with unleashing a more passionate nature within her that makes her uncomfortable as she explicitly states she doesn’t want to be one of “those women”. However, we are given no explanation as to why Griet would even think this way or any evidence of it being a problem from her past. In fact, the only time we evidence this behaviour is much later in the novel when Griet uncovers her hair while sleeping with the young man she will eventually marry. Griet seems like such a tightly controlled young woman all the time so it would’ve been nice if the reasons behind it had been explored more.
The final straw comes when Vermeer paints Griet for his lecherous patron who has taken a shine to her and Griet is given Catharina’s pearl earrings to wear. When Catharina discovers this, she is so outraged, Griet leaves the house. Catharina’s reaction is out of proportion since she has long been in the habit of lending her clothes and jewellery as props, however she behaves as if she has just caught Griet in bed with her husband. Years later, Griet, now married to the butcher’s son, is called back to the house after Vermeer’s death and is given the pearl earrings by Catharina.
At the end of the book, I was looking for some afterword about why Chevalier chose to write a novel about the creation of a painting but there was nothing.