The premise of the book is interesting. The author, Tracy Chevalier, takes a real-life painting by the real-life 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, and weaves a remarkably rich (though thoroughly fictional) story around it. The painting -- also known as Girl with a Pearl Earring -- is shown on the book cover above, but I thought it would be nice to include a larger version here as well:
Since Vermeer was one of those artists who wasn't really appreciated during his time, having lived in obscurity and died in debt, little is known about the true historical circumstances under which this painting came to be. Who was the girl who posed for it? What's the deal with the turban and the gigantic pearl earring? Was the painting even intended to be a portrait at all?
Like any good novelist, Chevalier produces answers to all of these questions. The girl in the painting is Griet, a fictional young maid who was employed in the Vermeer household for a few years between 1663 and 1665. As for the circumstances relating to the painting's creation, well, therein lies the story.
Griet goes to work for the Vermeers after her father is blinded in an accident and rendered unable to work. She starts out assisting another maid, Tanneke, with laundry and related household chores, but she is also in charge of cleaning the artist's studio -- carefully dusting around pitchers, cloths, and other props that had been painstakingly arranged for a painting. As time goes by, Griet eventually becomes an all-out assistant to Vermeer, crushing pigments, mixing paints, and even suggesting compositional improvements.
When Griet arrives at the household, Vermeer and his wife Catharina have five children. Catharina has no interest in her husband's work, except to wish that he would paint faster so as to bring in more money. She refuses to nurse her own children so she can get pregnant again more quickly, and the rapidly-growing family stretches their modest budget beyond what they can afford.
Tension builds when Vermeer agrees to paint Griet for Van Ruijven, his biggest patron, but must keep it a secret from his wife -- because by now, Catharina is already suspicious and jealous of her husband's young female assistant. Naturally, things don't end so well when she finally finds out what's been going on.
The story was enjoyable and engaging enough that, after finishing it, I actually wanted to go read more about the real Vermeer. And I was delighted to find that most of the characters from the story -- Johannes and Catharina, their (eventually) eleven children, the maid Tanneke, Catharina's mother Maria Thins -- were all real people.
But my delight faded a little upon reading more. Although many of the historical details in this novel were accurate, every indication is that the real Catharina was nothing like the character portrayed by Chevalier. From this article:
Recently, the novel and film Girl with a Pearl Earring has portrayed Catharina in an very unpleasant light. She is characterized as a jealous, selfish, superficial and spoiled young woman. Perhaps worse, she is sadly incapable of understanding her husband's art to the point that she attempts to destroy one of her husband's finest paintings in a hysterical fit of envy.
However, in a recent interview Arthur Wheelock, organizer of the historic 1995/1996 Vermeer exhibition as well as author of important publications on the Delft master, has noted: "the film was quite beautiful, but I had a hard time with the characterization of Mrs. Vermeer. She was portrayed as a very unpleasant individual. And there's nothing at all remotely to suggest that in what we know about her. She was a model for a lot of his work. I don't think the picture is fair to her memory."
(Quote edited slightly for brevity.) I think it was the connections to real history that captured me most about this novel -- and upon learning more about the real Catharina, I felt my overall impression of the book decline somewhat. It just seemed a little sad to me that such character assassination against an undeserving woman -- even an obscure one who lived and died centuries ago -- should be necessary for the sake of writing fiction.
Don't get me wrong: Girl with a Pearl Earring was a very readable and compelling novel. But I think I would have been happier with it if I hadn't tried to learn more about the realities it was ostensibly based on.
Girl with a Pearl Earring
by Tracy Chevalier
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5