When a novel gracefully combines facts and fiction about a famous person whose life is very little documented, you may end up not knowing where to draw the line between reality and fantasy. That’s what I experienced while reading Girl with a Pearl Earring, a book that fell into my hands by chance at the most appropriate time possible: when I was living in Delft, the place where the story’s action takes place.
Tracy Chevalier started from a real painting of a mysterious girl and imagined the story that led to its creation:
“I wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that. [..] I saw it as a portrait of a relationship rather than a portrait of a girl. And I thought: <Now there’s a story>” (The Telegraph, 2008)
The historical novel tells the story of Griet, a poor young girl living with her family in Delft (The Netherlands), in the 17th century. She is hired as a maid in the house of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, where she secretly becomes the painter’s assistant, too. The story follows Griet as she grows up from girl to woman while going through intense emotional transformations and turmoil caused by her family, her feelings, and the Dutch painter himself.
What I enjoyed the most while reading this book was that even if the main focus of the book was on Girl with a Pearl Earring, other paintings of Vermeer were beautifully integrated into the storyline. It feels like Chevalier used Vermeer’s paintings to recreate his life, his home, and the social relationships existing in Delft at that time. One example is the explanation about The Milk Maid painting:
“When he painted Tanneke she stood there happily pouring milk for months without a thought passing through that head, God love her.”
In order to take advantage of the whole experience, I recommend searching for the paintings “explained” in the book as the story unveils them. In this regard, a book with images included would have been very useful.
My enthusiasm for this book was partly fueled by the fact that I had been living in the historical centre of Delft for one year and a half at that time, so I could easily imagine the streets, canals, and historical buildings described by the author. In addition, the approach taken by Chevalier in framing the story of the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the way she presented Vermeer’s universe made me look at paintings from a different perspective.
I am sure you will enjoy the story of the young Dutch girl, no matter whether you have visited Delft or not. Because more than reading a story, you will get insights into the artwork of the Master of Light and the Dutch society of the 17th century.
‘Till next time … happy reading!
PS: If you want to see the Girl with a Pearl Earring painting, it is currently displayed at Mauritshuis in The Hague (The Netherlands).
PPS: Tracy Chevalier had an interesting TED Talk about finding the story inside a painting. It contains some spoilers, so don’t watch it if you haven’t read the book yet!
PPPS: If you are interested in other books inspired by paintings, check out this TED blog post.