Girl with a Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier
April 2004 book review (1 of 3)
by Collie Collier
Books of historical fiction are based, in varying amounts, on
the reality of the past. However, the lack of good record-keeping,
coupled with the problem of information conservation, has left
us more often with mysteries than fact.
Art history is an excellent example of this
predicament. Probably the most famous of these little
mysteries is "Who was the Mona Lisa?" A less well known,
but equally compelling question concerns the identity
of the young girl in Johannes Vermeer's famous painting 'Girl With a Pearl Earring.'
Tracy Chevalier has done a lovely job of evoking the feel of
17th century Holland, as best she can. She freely acknowledges
the incredible lack of detail on the painter Vermeer and his
family, as well as any explanation on why there are only 35
canvases to his name -- let alone any recorded information on
who the infamous Girl might be.
She makes up a plausible story within the historical facts she
is able to dig up (and which she nicely credits for those who
wish to read more), while evoking the landscapes of the story
with expressive prose -- an artist's salute to the inspiration
provided by an artist of another medium.
Some of Vermeer's paintings, and information about him, can be seen here, including the 'Girl with a Pearl
His painting 'View of Delft' is particularly lovely, a
luminous example of how Vermeer transmuted the commonplace to
magic. The scene in the book where Vermeer teaches Griet -- the
story's young girl protagonist -- to also perceive that magic,
by seeing color in the formerly simply white clouds, is a delight,
and an enlightenment the enchanted reader can share.
Browsing through Vermeer's paintings, one catches recurring
elements, as is noted by Griet in the book. A map of the world
hung on one wall, the characteristic black-and-white checkerboard
tile floor, a light-soaked stained glass window, particular
articles of women's clothing painted with meticulous attention
to detail -- all are repeatedly reproduced in a variety of his
works. Even the infamous pearl earring itself appears in at
least five paintings of Vermeer's which I've seen.
Also characteristic of his work is the graceful flow of richly
embroidered cloth within the strong, well-lit lines of table,
floor, or wall -- reflecting the lovingly detailed softness
and delicate roundness of Vermeer's women, caught intimate and
motionless within strong geometric framing.
Speculations on the Paintings
Each invisible paintbrush stroke lavishly illustrates his
precise attention to detail. There is something else in many
of his paintings, though, which bothers me, and which I found
curiously reflected in Griet's viewpoint as she regards her
Master Vermeer's paintings.
Women, reproduced with care and attention, are central to
many of his paintings. I cannot help but wonder, though -- does
Vermeer reflect what he feels for women in general, or does he
faithfully reproduce the frequently weary, almost wary eyes of
the women he paints?
So often they are surrounded by a heavy, pressing darkness. Is
that his symbol for what the society of that time imposed on
them, or a cheaply produced background? From the incredible
attention to detail he seemed to delight in, I find that latter
Furthermore, when men are present in the paintings
they often create a jarring, almost animalistic feel in
contrast to the gracefully posed young women. As an example, 'Glass of Wine' is a striking -- almost creepy
-- depiction of seduction of the foolish by the calculating,
to the extent the man in the background cannot seem to bear
Within Chevalier's novel, Griet pities that woman, identifying
her as a servant girl seduced, impregnated, and discarded by
the nobleman who commissioned the painting. Griet's own reality
disturbingly starts to reflect the possibilities of her Master
Vermeer's paintings, when the very same nobleman turns his
attention to her.
In 'The Procuress,' the purchasing man's
controlling possessiveness reflects the pretty girl's calm,
almost self-indulgent acceptance of his payment -- while she is
eerily reflected in the tiredly attentive, yet curiously uncertain
scrutiny of the older woman in the background. The laughing leer
of the shadowed man next to them seems to invite the viewer's
participation in the commercialization of intimacy.
Does Vermeer repeatedly paint what he sees -- the ruin
of innocence, the inevitable destruction of beauty, dreams,
Speculations on the Protagonist
Like Vermeer's paintings, Chevalier's late-teenaged heroine
displays a similarly disquieting depth and complexity. Her
assumption of being no longer virginal once her Master has
seen her unbound hair shows an emotional innocence one might
expect from her religion and culture, overriding her obvious
intelligence. However, on occasion she reveals an intellectual
poise I found a bit startling in one so young and untrained.
I know some of the decisions Griet comes to can be easily
arrived at by a clever mind -- but they are usually intuitive,
not internally verbalized. As a result, I found the clarity and
logic of Griet's thought patterns occasionally somewhat jarring,
as well as her sometimes rather independent behavior. Would a
young girl of that time truly have acted with such deliberate
However, I came up with one possible cause for the carefully
written out thoughts of Griet. It is extremely hard to adequately
script emotion or intuition. Far easier instead to record,
as clearly written thoughts, what were probably in actuality
split-second insights on complex social behavior.
In the end, the book Girl With a Pearl Earring is a
quick, entertaining read with a satisfying conclusion to Griet's
growing awareness of her own precarious position in the world. The
few touches of a 21st century viewpoint don't really detract from
the story of an intelligent, thoughtful girl caught forever in
the immortality of paint. The occasional light brushstroke of
puzzling complexity within the story entices the reader as much
as the painting has obviously touched and inspired the author.