Seventeenth century, the city of Delft was a great example of a blooming city of the golden age. It was a major city, partly due to the rising of the VOC. And when there is a lot of money, there is a lot of art. The city was the home of painters like Pieter de Hoogh, Jan Steen and -the one I’m interested in most- Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer was the most famous Dutch painter of the golden age. He lived a mysterious life and up until now a lot of details about his life, such as his face, remain secret. His enigmatic existence gave him the nickname ‘sphinx of Delft’.
But isn’t the mystery what makes someone interesting? Worth writing about? Tracy Chevalier thought so. She was intrigued by the painter Vermeer and even more by one of his most popular paintings, ‘The girl with the pearl earring’. After staring at the poster of the painting she had in her room for 9 years, she wanted to know what hides behind the look of the girl. Chevalier describes the girl’s expression “to be a mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss.” She began to think that the girl had directed all these emotions at the painter, and began to think of the “story behind that look”. Within three days she had the entire story ready. “Vermeer really did the work for me”.
The girl with the pearl earring is a story about a sixteen year old girl, Griet. She becomes maid in the household of Vermeer. It’s a family of man and wife, six children, Vermeer’s mother-in-law and, including Griet, two maids. Griet is a very calm and self-conscious girl. This does not only help her in being a great maid but also in getting attention from the painter Vermeer himself. Despite his indifferent personality he shows interest in the maid as the only one of the family. After a while her life as maid has become Griet’s real life more than the weekends she spends at home. After some months living as a maid, the painter lets Griet mix the colours of his paint. This is a huge deal because no one else is allowed, not even Vermeer’s wife. One of the biggest clients of Vermeer, Van Ruijven, is a pretty rude and horny guy who harasses Griet multiple times. He decides he wants to be in a painting with her. The last time Van Ruijven was painted with a maid he impregnated her and she got fired. Because of the affection Vermeer has for Griet he makes an arrangement to only paint Griet, without Van Ruijven. All this time Vermeer’s wife is uninformed. Vermeer doesn’t want to paint his wife but does want to paint Griet, which isn’t something his wife would like. Vermeer paints Griet, painting her affection for him, her fear of getting caught, her contempt for her own feelings and the deep look with which she stares into his eyes. But when the painting is finished something is missing; something eye-catching in the middle of the painting. Griet is forced by Vermeer to pierce her ears and wear the expensive earrings of Vermeer’s wife. They both know that the consequences of Vermeer’s wife finding out will be huge. And off course, who’s coming up the stairs of the studio?
The book is easy to read but not too simply written. I had to sit through a five hours during train trip and finished the book at once. The fact that this is a historic novel is what made it more interesting for me. I’ve seen the painting of the girl with the pearl earring myself and even though this is just a novel, I feel like I’ve learned something from reading this book. I love how the book is about Vermeer and his painting, but how the writer managed to retain the mystery of the painter. Because the writer tells a story from the view of a maid, and not just about the life of a maid. She tells the story of the entire household of the Vermeer’s.
The book is a great success and is translated into thirty-nine languages. It gets four-and-a-half stars out of five and a lot of positive feedback on a lot of sites. In 2000 the book became New York Times bestseller. Three years after the first print of the book, in 2003, a film based on the book was made. The film has the same name as the book and Scarlett Johansson plays the role of Griet.
If you’re interested in art or history, go read this book. If you like a book about love and its boundaries, go read this book. But if you like action, fire, a book that leaves you mindblown or tangled with your own thought, don’t read this. This book is quite lingering, it’s interesting but also really decent. But decent is the way to behave if you’re a maid in the seventeenth century. I like that the writer wrote about the way guys have to ask the father for the hand of the girl they want to date and about how life used to be, in contrast to the hype of writing about our future and how fucked up the next generations are. One thing is sure, after reading this book you will love the painting of the girl with the pearl earring.