Girl With a Pearl Earring

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Sixteen-year-old Griet becomes the servant of painter Johannes Vermeer after her father, a respected artisan, is accidentally blinded. Although her primary duty is to clean the master's studio, which his wife is not allowed to enter, Griet is also responsible for most household chores. Yet she is powerless in this house and bitterly resented by his wife and eldest daughter.

Griet's life becomes a relentless succession of work, domestic jealousies, and constant vigilance against lechery and plague. Inhibited by fear and social custom, she tries to keep her actions secret when Vermeer asks her to prepare the substances he will use for paint. Such work is inappropriate for a maidservant, and she knows her place.

Eventually Vermeer wishes to paint Griet. Because she has been taught not to allow men to look closely at her, she feels guilty when posing (fully clothed) for her master, even though his patron's wife, a lady, does so without misgivings. Griet resists revealing her ear, her hair; more than immodest, such gestures seem to her immoral. Nevertheless, she becomes the reluctant, unforgettable model for his enigmatic portrait, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (also known as “Head of a Young Girl”).

Tracy Chevalier evokes the life and customs of seventeenth century Delft in impressive detail. Vermeer himself remains in shadow, the private man and meticulous artist holding himself in check. Unable to permit herself the luxury of emotion, Griet becomes a silent, practical tradeswoman. Girl With a Pearl Earring is understated, as quiet and domestic as Vermeer's art, but the more one looks at it, the more one sees.