The Book Nook: possible backstory of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’

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The book: 

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Tracy Chevalier

Suggested for:

Anyone who is a fan of the painting and would be interested in a fictional story of its inception. Or anyone who likes art history in general.

Clog rating:

Clog Rating 4

There are a few paintings that almost anyone who has ever been exposed to art will recognize. One such piece is Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Even without knowing the name of the painting or the name of the artist, the subject’s ambiguous smile from over her shoulder is completely recognizable. No one really knows who the girl is, but Tracy Chevalier attempts to create a historically accurate — yet fictional — account of the woman.

Chevalier prefaces the story (in some editions) by explaining how she came to the decision to elaborate on the woman in the painting and the in-depth research that she undertook to do so in the most accurate manner possible. While there are some known facts about Vermeer, his personality remains a mystery, as does the woman that he so intimately painted. This is where the fiction comes into play. The stage is set with historical and geographic accuracy — ensured through Chevalier’s trips to the Dutch town of Delft and extensive study of Vermeer and his contemporaries’ paintings of the time period. The facts lay the foundation for the building of the protagonist’s life.

In the novel, the woman is given a name, Griet, which is perhaps the most critical part in establishing her humanity. From there, the novel takes you through her journey, culminating in her famous (or in this story, slightly infamous) portrait. She takes on the role of a maid in Vermeer’s household who is charged with cleaning his precious studio. Her place in the household is precipitous at best, due to her unique duties and apparent favor from the master. Her interaction with the other members of the household are in constant flux.

The most fascinating part of the story is hearing how Griet felt about the painting. Understanding her perspective, even if it is fictitious, gives new depth and intricacies to the piece. Chevalier writes in a manner that allows the reader to understand Griet’s unyielding duty to her family, which overwhelms her hidden passions and personal desires. The story moves quickly and provides great resolution — and is definitely a worthwhile read.

Image Source: chillbill under Creative Commons.

Contact Mackenzie Bedford @[email protected]