Girl with a Pearl Earring

Elizabeth Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, The Seventeenth Century Leave a Comment

Title: Girl with a Pearl Earring: A Novel

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Publisher: The Penguin Publishing Group [Penguin Putnam Inc.]

Copyright: 1999

ISBN: 978-0452282155


Format: E-Book, 273 Pages

Genres: Historical Fiction, Historical Biographical Fiction, Historical Fiction Inspired by Art

Price: $13.99 [Kindle], $15.95 [Audible], $14.99 [Barnes and Noble Paperback], $13.99 [Nook], $13.99 [Google Play], $13.99 [Apple Books], $14.99 [Apple Books Audiobook]


After earning a graduate degree in creative writing from the University of East Anglia, Tracy Chevalier was immediately recognized for her literary talent. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, she recreates the 17th-century world of Johannes Vermeer. This haunting work of historical fiction received rave reviews in publications as diverse as The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor.

In 1664, 16-year-old Griet enters the Vermeer household as a servant. Daughter of a Delft tile maker, she has a natural eye for color and design. Daily, she cleans the studio, learning much about how Vermeer sees the people he paints. As his attention focuses on her, she slowly becomes one of his subjects. Tracy Chevalier fills this unusual love story with the shades, sounds, and textures of everyday life in Holland. Narrator Ruth Ann Phimister perfectly voices Griet’s growing awareness of the intrigues surrounding her and the need to define the value of her life.

“View of Delft” or “Gezicht op Delft.” Vermeer, 1660-1661.


Delft, The Netherlands; 1664 – 1676

The year is 1664 and it is the Dutch Golden Age. Delft was a city in the Netherlands. During this time, the Dutch lived through an era of relative prosperity. The Dutch Golden Age of painting was at its height during this time. The Netherlands, much like the rest of Western Europe, was still a place of religious contention, where Protestants lived rather uncomfortably with their Catholic neighbors.

In England, this time was known as “the Restoration Era,” pertaining to the restoration of Charles II to the throne after the defeat of the Puritan usurper Oliver Cromwell. The time is also known as the “the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason,” with great minds such as Sir Isaac Newton, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke, and René Descartes. After the Middle Ages ended, the Renaissance brought about a great deal of learning and a resurgence of culture. I like to think of the Age of Enlightenment as a sort of tail-end of the Renaissance but with an emphasis on science and philosophy.  Due to the Gutenberg Bible being published in the 1450s, the Bible was now readily available, especially to those in Protestant countries, resulting in a higher literacy rate than in the centuries before.

The fashion of the 1660s was characterized by tight bodices, curls around the head, and long hair in both genders.  Women’s fashions had a lower, tighter bodice with the stays or corset laced very tightly, the sleeves which initially were puffed out decades before now clung to the arms, and the skirts of the gown still tapered out as before. For the women, elaborate curls (with a bun situated at the back of the head and curls around the face), ornamentation (ribbons, curls, etc.), low yet broad necklines, and the “state of undress” style were very popular. Men wore breeches that spanned down to the knees, a vest or waistcoat, oftentimes a wig, a long coat, and a hat. The style of the time was dictated by the court of Louis XIV and it quickly became the standard regardless of country (in Western Europe).


Spoiler Warning

We have all seen that mysterious painting, the one known as “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” the seventeenth-century masterpiece of Johannes “Jan” Vermeer. One can even go so far to say that “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is “the Dutch Mona Lisa,” as some have taken to calling it. The figure in the painting is mysterious with her gaping mouth, dark soulful eyes, the haunting way in which she gazes over her shoulder, the rather artistic headcloth, and most importantly, the single pearl that catches the light. As we look at this young woman, we cannot help but wonder, who is she? Was she an acquaintance of Vermeer? Was she Vermeer’s relative? A daughter, perhaps? It seems as if the answer to that question is lost to time.

Tracy Chevalier published Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1999 and won international acclaim for her arresting story. Hollywood even made it into a 2003 motion picture (starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth) with a dreamy soundtrack composed by Alexandre Desplat.

Tracy Chevalier’s story was born out of speculation and a very creative imagination. Her “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is Griet, a young lower-class woman who is hired as a temporary maid for the Vermeer family. While working for the Vermeer family, she engages in the most arduous work (laundry, fetching meat and fish at the marketplace, and helping in any way she can), as she is lowest in the pecking order. It is clear in the beginning that Griet needs to leave her family to work for the Vermeers because her father, the longtime breadwinner as a tile-maker, lost his sight in a kiln accident. Her older brother Frans is in an apprenticeship and her sister, Agnes is far too young, so the burden falls on her shoulders.

Life with the Vermeers is a bit of an adjustment. However, the most interesting part of the story is when Griet interacts with the mysterious Vermeer, observes the progress of his paintings, and cleans his studio. There is something almost magical about the studio and there is a certain amount of reverential awe when Griet regards “him” or “the master.” At first her conversation with Vermeer is very minimal but as they interact more, it’s as if Griet begins to come alive, as if she is was blind but suddenly can see. She witnesses strange inventions like the camera obscura, has a conversation about the colors in the clouds with her employer, has the audacity to move an item in a tableau that Vermeer is painting, and even begins to grind ingredients for him, in order to make paint. This, to me, is the best part of the story. This is the reason why I read Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wanted to hear Griet’s story and in what ways she interacted with the famous painter.

While Vermeer seems to respect Griet with quiet civility or maybe even friendship, just about everyone else in the house seems to ignore or dismiss her. Catharina, the moody, tempestuous, and constantly pregnant wife of Vermeer, dismisses Griet as if she was a fly and seems to lash out with vitriol. Tanneke, the senior maid above her (who serves Maria Thins), is rude, condescending, and bossy, but sometimes oddly understanding. It’s apparent from their conversation that Tanneke and Griet are not friends. Maria Thins, mother of Catharina, is a peculiar but insightful woman who seems to know more than she sees. Interestingly enough, she is one of two people in the house to actually treat Griet with some semblance of respect, helping her in the small ways that she can. Lastly, Cornelia, the devious and clever daughter of Vermeer and Catharina proves herself to be a troublemaker, making life difficult for our heroine.

The last element of the story that I think needs to be mentioned are the characters who are acquaintances of the Vermeer family: the troublesome Van Ruijven, the fascinating Van Leeuwenhoek, and the family butcher, Pieter, with his son, Pieter the younger. Van Leeuwenhoek has a very limited role in the story, nothing more than a friend and fellow like-minded fellow who comes to visit the Vermeers. He provides Vermeer with the camera obscura to provide clarity in his many paintings. Van Ruijven is the superficial patron of Vermeer, often commissioning new paintings. It’s clear that he is a wealthy man with a lot of money to burn and a fondness for pretty maids. Needless to say, Van Ruijven has a fondness for Griet and constantly pesters her throughout the story, despite the Vermeers’ attempts at hiding her from him. Pieter the elder and Pieter the younger play an interesting role in the story. Pieter the elder is an affable butcher who always has the latest gossip scoop, knowing who is doing what and with who. His son, however, is a rather interesting handsome young man who begins to court Griet throughout the tale, even going so far as to meet her family. It’s clear from the way he talks to Griet that he wants to marry her.

All-in-all, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a fascinating and thought-provoking read, leaving me with more questions than answers. Even until the end of the book, I was at a loss for words to describe what exactly was occurring between Griet and Vermeer. The story left me feeling a little uneasy, much like how Griet felt when she observed something in Vermeer’s painting that felt wrong. It feels as if there is something missing in this story. In this case, I like to think it was all of the unanswered questions about Vermeer. As the quote on the book cover states, I also find this book to be a jewel of a read, enriched with all sorts of artistic facts and steeped so strongly in the history of the seventeenth century.


Who is Griet?

Our main character is a young woman by the name of Griet who is of humble origins, the daughter of a disenfranchised tiler with ill-luck. From the beginning of the story, we have no indication of Griet’s surname, only that she is from the lower class. Griet, which is a diminutive form of Margriet, translates to “daisy” or, oddly enough, “pearl.” Could it be that Griet is more of a symbol than a character? Is it a coincidence that her name means pearl?

You’re Catholic? That’s a bit unnerving!

Due to this unfortunate accident, Griet must leave her comfortable home in the poorer section of Delft and adventure to the Oude Langendijck, “Papists’ Corner” to take up the position of a maid. Even before Griet makes her way to the Oude Langendijck, it is clear from the conversations occurring between her family members and herself that she is going into alien territory, from the bosom of her Protestant home to an upper-class Catholic residence. When Griet finally does make her way to Papists’ Corner, her thoughts are not on the paintings or even remotely on art, but the fact that she will be working for Catholics. What exactly does she say about Catholics? She states, “I knew no Catholics. There were not so many in Delft, and none in our street or in the shops we used. It was not that we avoided them, but they kept to themselves. They were tolerated in Delft, but were expected not to parade their faith openly. They held their services privately, in modest places that did not look like churches from the outside” (Chevalier, 13). When she sleeps in the basement, Griet sees a Crucifixion painting at her feet, concerned that the Virgin Mary is staring at her. It clearly makes her uncomfortable.

In Love with the Employer?

“It’s clear from your face. You want him.” Pieter the younger states while observing Griet (Chevalier, 177).  As mentioned earlier, Griet seems to regard Vermeer with an almost reverential awe. While we have indication of what Griet may have felt toward him, we have next to no indication whatsoever of what he may have felt for her. Vermeer was a very gray character, hidden behind the shadows so that we couldn’t quite see his face clearly. One thing is certain, however, he goes to great lengths to safeguard Griet’s welfare and to protect her, especially from a lecherous man as Van Ruijven.

Memorable Quotes

  • “‘There is some blue in them,’ I said after studying them for a few minutes. ‘And— yellow as well. And there is some green!’ I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment” (Chevalier 107-108).
  • “The colors themselves made up for the troubles I had hiding what I was doing. I came to love grinding the things he brought from the apothecary— bones, white lead, madder, massicot— to see how bright and pure I could get the colors. I learned that the finer the materials were ground, the deeper the color. From rough, dull grains madder became a fine bright red powder and, mixed with linseed oil, a sparkling paint. Making it and the other colors was magical” (Chevalier 115).
  • “When it was uncovered it seemed to belong to another Griet— a Griet who would stand in an alley alone with a man, who was not so calm and quiet and clean. A Griet like the women who dared to bare their heads. That was why I kept my hair completely hidden— so that there would be no trace of that Griet” (Chevalier 130-131).


If you like this, check this out…

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 2003

This is the motion picture based upon the Girl with a Pearl Earring Book. It is an excellent movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

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