This lovely novel by Tracy Chevalier imagines the story behind Vermeer's painting, and is told through the eyes of the subject, the girl with the pearl earring.
Little is known about Vermeer's life, and no one knows who the girl in the painting is, so Chevalier is free to invent. She imagines her as Griet, a serious girl, not given to gossip or flirtation, who keeps her wild hair, which seems to her to belong to some other Griet, covered at all times. When her father, a tilemaker, is blinded in a work-related accident, the family is thrown into hardship. With the eldest son already in apprenticeship, it falls to 16-year-old Griet to do her part, and she is sent to work as a maid in the house of the famous painter, Vermeer.
One of the joys of this book - and, indeed, of Vermeer's paintings - is the attention to everyday domestic detail. In her new position Griet is in charge of the household's laundry, and Chevalier describes the back-breaking several-day process by which Griet cleans the linens and clothes of Vermeer's large family (a wife; five, then six, children; a mother-in-law; and another maid). Griet goes to the market every morning to buy fish or meat, and assists the other maid in preparing and serving the family's meals, and in waiting on the table when the patron comes to receive a new painting of his wife. Besides her endless chores, she must also find a way to placate Vermeer's jealous wife, maliciously spying daughter, and shrewdly controlling mother-in-law, all without complaining.
Eventually Griet attracts the attention of the moody Vermeer, whose studio she meticulously cleans every day. He sees that Griet is pretty, and has an artistic eye: she studies his paintings in progress and one day, after meditating long, decides to move a cloth in the background to improve the composition. Vermeer begins to teach her how to grind ivory and other ingredients and mix his paints. As they work secretly, side by side, Griet finds herself inexorably enthralled by the taciturn painter, but their attraction threatens to disrupt the whole family.
Griet has also attracted the attentions of the butcher's son Pieter and Vermeer's patron van Ruijven. She is not a worldly girl, nor given to introspection, and she struggles with her situation, avoiding van Ruijven and drawn to Vermeer, yet also to Pieter. She realizes she cannot hope for a future with the painter, and that her lot must lie with the handsome young butcher, yet she cannot help herself from succumbing to the implacability of Vermeer's wishes, even when they involve a secret painting of her, wearing his wife's best earrings. Griet complies, though she knows it will cost her her job.
This gem of a novel was made into a beautiful movie in 2003. Scarlett Johansson is magnificent as Griet and Colin Firth is convincing as Vermeer, but it's the cinematography that makes this movie really shine. Again, the careful attention to mundane domestic details, faithful to the period, and always bathed in an amazing pellucid light that makes each shot look like a Vermeer painting in itself, beautiful and jewelled and whole.
Both book and movie are highly recommended.