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.)