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 to corner her one day, but he is stymied in his attempts by the kindly van Leeuwenhoek, who keeps van Ruijven away from her.
Vermeer begins to paint again; his next subject is the baker’s daughter. For this work, he secretly asks Griet to assist him, first by buying colors at the apothecary and then by grinding pigments. He also shows her how a painting is created. The two work closely together, but her assistance is kept secret from the rest of the household. Family members, especially Catharina, would be jealous if they knew of the maid’s privileged position.
Pieter, the butcher’s son, is now a serious suitor, interested in Griet’s hand. He goes to her family’s church and is invited by Griet’s parents to Sunday dinners. Griet repels his advances, though, telling him that at age seventeen, she is not ready.
Vermeer finishes the painting of the baker’s daughter and begins another painting for van Ruijven. At one point, Griet sees something she thinks is not right in the painting and dares to change the folds of the drapery left in position for the model. Despite the seriousness of her actions, Vermeer nevertheless agrees with the change and remarks that he has learned something from her.
Cornelia has played several mean tricks on Griet. This time, she secretly places her mother’s tortoise-shell combs among Griet’s belongings. Griet finds the objects and, horrified of being accused of theft, requests Vermeer’s help in identifying the true culprit, Cornelia. Soon, she is punished. Griet now feels indebted to Vermeer,...
(The entire section is 2,646 words.)