Review: “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier
Originally posted April 2004
Thanks to George for making this a better review, as he always does.
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 Earring.’
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 option unlikely.
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 to watch.
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, and hope?
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 emotional manipulation?
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.