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...
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