Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After her father is blinded by an explosion at a kiln factory, sixteen-year-old Griet has to begin work as a maid in the household of painter Johannes Vermeer. Her wages will help sustain her newly poor family. The Vermeer household includes Catharina, Vermeer’s pregnant wife, who dislikes Griet on sight; Maria Thins, Catharina’s powerful mother; and five children—Maertge, Lisbeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, and baby Johannes. Griet immediately suspects that Cornelia will be a difficult child.
The family housekeeper, Tanneke, explains to Griet her duties as a maid, including washing, ironing, mending, cooking, shopping, and, most important, cleaning Vermeer’s studio. Griet is instructed to be extremely careful and to not move anything out of place. Griet thinks how difficult this could be, trying to dust under objects set up for painting, but she works out a method, using her arm and hand to measure distances between objects as she removes them. Vermeer approves of her cleaning.
Vermeer is working on a painting of the wife of his patron, Pieter van Ruijven. She is dressed in a yellow mantle trimmed with ermine and wearing a pearl necklace and pearl earrings. Griet is fascinated by the painting and yearns to know the painter.
On Sunday, her first day off (and the only one she will have each week), Griet visits her parents, who ply her with questions about the house and the painter. Griet describes the painting in detail to her father.
One day, Vermeer’s friend Antonio van Leeuwenhoek arrives with a strange box that he identifies as a camera obscura. Vermeer shows Griet how it operates, and encourages her to look through it. He says it is a tool to help him see things better, and she comes to understand that he sees things in a way others do not.
Meantime, Griet has become friendly with Pieter, a butcher’s son. One day, he tells her that the plague has struck the neighborhood where her parents live, and that her sister, Agnes, is ill. On another Sunday, she visits her brother, Franz, in the kiln factory where he is working as an apprentice. She learns that the difficult circumstances under which he works are punishment for his inappropriate attentions to the owner’s wife.
Vermeer’s painting of van Ruijven’s wife is finished, and everyone is satisfied with it. The painting is taken from the home before Griet can get a final look at it. Van Ruijven, whose eye has been on Griet for some time, manages...
(The entire section is 1012 words.)
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In her novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier tells the invented story of the girl who modeled for Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting by the same name.
It is 1664, and Griet, who is sixteen years old, must leave her family to work as a maid for the Vermeer family. Griet’s father is a well-respected man who used to paint tiles for a living. However, since he was blinded in an accident, his family has struggled. The painter Vermeer has agreed to take on a maid in order to help the family. Vermeer and his pregnant wife, Catharina, come to meet Griet. Griet is preparing vegetables for a soup and she has organized them by color in a circle. Vermeer instantly notices that she has arranged the vegetables by color and asks her how she decided to arrange her vegetables. Griet, who is always careful not to betray her feelings, does her best to avoid his questions. Catherina also inspects Griet’s work. She knocks a knife to the ground, and Griet quickly returns it to the table. When they leave, Griet presses her lips together, which is enough to signal her discomfort to her mother. However, Griet’s mother reminds her that their family is no longer able to support itself. Already, an attraction between Griet and Vermeer has been established—and it clearly threatens Catharina.
The Vermeer home, which is located in Papist’s Corner, a Catholic neighborhood within Delft, Holland, is unusual to Griet. She was raised a Protestant, and the paintings of religious scenes, such as the crucifixion, unnerve her. The family also surprises her, especially the children, of which there are several. Maertga is roughly the same age as Griet’s younger sister, Agnes. The younger daughter, Cornelia, catches Griet’s attention—she can tell Cornelia will make mischief. When Cornelia laughs at one of Griet’s instructions, the latter slaps her. Griet knows that this will not be her last confrontation with Cornelia.
The other maid, Tanneke, shows Griet around the home and explains her many duties. She spends a significant amount of time doing laundry, which she knows will dry and chap her hands. Another of her jobs is to go to the market to buy meat. The Vermeer family uses a different butcher than Griet’s. Griet feels turned off by Pieter the butcher and his son, also named Pieter, because they serve their customers in the same bloody apron in which they do their work and because their hands are bloody from their work. Griet is given a room and a bed in the cellar. Even this room contains a crucifixion painting, which keeps Griet from sleeping soundly.
Although Griet does not feel that she is being worked any harder than she would have been in her home, the work here is much lonelier. Tanneke is moody, Cornelia is always plotting, and Catharina clearly distrusts Griet. Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins, is quite clever, but she and Griet do not share a warm relationship. Griet does, however, share an intense connection with the master of the house, though at first she is only aware of him looking at her from the window of his studio. No one but Maria Thins, who arranges his business, is allowed to enter the studio. Before long, however, Griet is asked to clean it. She is careful to place things exactly where they belong; she quickly grasps how important the positions of the objects are to Vermeer’s painting. She even knows not to clean the windows because doing so could affect the room’s lighting and consequently ruin his painting.
When Griet goes home on Sundays, she always describes Vermeer’s paintings. In response to the plague, which claims the life of Griet’s younger sister, Agnes, a quarantine is issued around her parents’ neighborhood. Griet misses her weekly visit, and she realizes that she has begun to be separated from her family.
Before long, Griet’s work begins to change and Vermeer has her mixing colors. Maria Thins recognizes that this speeds his painting to support his ever-growing family, but...
(The entire section is 1634 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Andres, Sophia. “From Camelot to Hyde Park: The Lady of Shalott’s Pre-Raphaelite Postmodernism in A. S. Byatt and Tracy Chevalier.” Victorians Institute Journal 34 (2006): 7-37. Examines Chevalier’s talent from a feminist perspective, looking at her blending of history and fiction and her giving voice to women in paintings.
Baker, Barbaraz, ed. The Way We Write: Interviews with Award-Winning Writers. New York: Continuum, 2006. A collection of interviews with novelists, playwrights, and others, including Chevalier, who discuss their methods of writing. Chevalier comments about her interest in history, her use of the first person, and the balancing act between fact and fiction.
Cibelli, Deborah H. “Girl with a Pearl Earring: Painting, Reality, Fiction.” Journal of Popular Culture 37, no. 4 (May, 1994): 383-392. Discusses Chevalier’s methodological assumptions and the use of historical accounts of Vermeer’s art and Dutch culture. Concludes that Chevalier’s approach to creating a novel from a specific painting is unique.
Strout, Cushing. “Fact, Fiction, and Vermeer.” Sewanee Review 109, no. 2 (2001): ixvi-ixix. A brief, positive review of the novel in which Strout notes the religious and class differences and praises Chevalier for her intelligent methods of fictionalizing history.