In the postmodern era, a number of historical figures have been re-created in literature and film. With the novel, most authors begin their stories with the famous person and work back to the work of art. Tracy Chevalier reverses this process, beginning with the painting and working back to the artist. Her focus, however, is not on the painter Vermeer, but on the painting—Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665).
Chevalier’s methodology was to examine the famous painting and to infer from it aspects of the model’s character. Because historians agree that Vermeer often used servants as his models, Chevalier had devised a fictional servant named Griet for her story. After closely examining the painting, Chevalier formed her story around the incongruity displayed in the painting: Griet is a servant wearing an unusual headdress and luminous pearl earrings. Her wide eyes stare provocatively at the painter (or viewer), and her half-open mouth is sexually suggestive.
Griet lives by a strict Protestant moral and social code and is uncomfortable in the Catholic household of her employer. Properly cognizant of the mores of her position, she refuses to take off her maid’s cap for her sitting with Vermeer.
Griet, too, is on the verge of a sexual awakening, a subtle development by Chevalier that is one of the beauties of this coming-of-age novel. While the attentions of Pieter, the butcher’s son, do not awaken her sexuality, and...
(The entire section is 565 words.)