Named for a 1666 portrait by Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the title of a 1999 novel by Tracy Chevalier. Combining fact and fiction, Chevalier tells the story of Griet, a 16-year-old girl hired as a maid by the Vermeer family. Several of Vermeer's paintings are woven into the story, with The Milkmaid becoming Tanneke, the family's cook, and A Lady Writing and The Concert being painted during Griet's stay with the family. After adding color-mixing to her duties and introducing her to the camera obscura, Vermeer finally elects to paint his maid. Chevalier imagines the situation and events surrounding the creation of the portrait, and - after borrowing Catharina Vermeer's jewelry - Griet becomes the title character.

The Vermeer portrait is an enigma: we don't know who it's of, we don't know when it was painted, and we don't know what Vermeer would have called it. It's one of the most compelling portraits of all time.

It's been called the Mona Lisa of the North: and there is something of that mysterious effect in the slight sfumato of the mouth. But this girl is not composed and knowing as La Gioconda is; she's young, possibly innocent, and her mouth is half-open in an appealing or almost questioning look.

I can't tell how old she is: fourteen, perhaps sixteen, or maybe grown up. The rest of the face doesn't tell us much; it's the delicate budding of those lips that makes her seem so young, I think. She's standing facing to the left, with her head turned towards us. She's wearing a rich golden-coloured robe with a white collar, and a blue turban topped with yellow, falling down behind her. The painting is also called the Girl with Turban. That's certainly what dominates the space of the scene.

But the pearl earring: your eye is drawn to it. Her coral lips, her limpid eyes, and then that earring, hidden in the shadows away from the strong illumination on the left. It's an example of something of a Vermeer characteristic: the almost metaphysical or hypnotic power of a bauble, which when you look into it reflects the whole scene, or world, or captures the people and voices and lives around her.

The background is just black. The flesh, the gold, the blue, the white of her eyes, swim out of nothing at you.

The pretty model appears in another Vermeer, the allegorical The Art of Painting, standing robed all in blue, crowned with leaves and fruits, holding symbols of music and literature as the artist himself visibly paints her. André Malraux believed she was Vermeer's younger daughter Maria. Modern critics don't think there's any evidence for this, and don't think the dates fit, though no-one actually knows the dates. Around 1665 plus or minus five, but that sort of uncertainty covers too much of Vermeer's short career to be meaningful.

It's 46.5 cm x 40 cm, oil on canvas, signed, and in pretty good condition, very little disfiguring retouching. It was bought at Amsterdam in 1882 by one A.A. des Tombe for 2 florins and 30 stuivers, and without even checking that's got to be a ridiculously small amount for such a masterpiece: he presented it to the Mauritshuis, the royal gallery in The Hague, in 1903.

A rather unusual love story is the 1994 opera The Second Mrs Kong, with music by Sir Harrison Birtwistle and words by Russell Hoban, where the girl with the pearl earring's partner is King Kong. It was commissioned by Glyndebourne. Hoban gives her the name Pearl; and it also features Anubis, Orpheus, and Vermeer.

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.

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