Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Author Tracy Chevalier - Wikimedia
I have a fondness for this story. Several years ago, we discussed the book “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in my Book Club. Shortly after, my daughter bought me a reproduction of Vermeer’s painting of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” for Christmas, which I love. It hangs in my dining room at this moment.
Because of her clever imagination, Tracy Chevalier has succeeded in writing an historical novel about the artist Johannes Vermeer even though very few facts are available about his life or the lives of the subjects of his paintings. We are therefore the recipients of a totally contrived version of this 17th century artist’s life which became a best-selling novel as well as a highly regarded film.
We are first introduced to Griet (Scarlett Johansson at age 17) at her family home in Delft, Holland, although her last name is never mentioned in the novel nor in the film. Griet’s father is a painter who has recently become blind and unable to work anymore. Griet is obliged to obtain work as a maid in the home of the painter Johannes Vermeer (Colin Firth) in order to provide financial help to her family.
Vermeer’s wife Catherina (Essie Davis) and her two daughters were not welcoming to Griet who worked very hard to please them. She felt at home only in Vermeer’s studio where he recognized her talent with colors and allowed her to mix his paints and care for his materials. In one scene, he shows Griet his camera obscura, a plain box with a lens which enables an image to be projected onto paper which is then used by the artist to render an accurate reproduction of the subject of his painting. Vermeer was one of several artists who made use of the camera obscura in the 17th and 18th centuries to refine their work. This scene is the first subtle hint that sexual tension exists between Vermeer and Griet. The artist is careful to keep secret from Catherina that he and Griet spend much time together in the studio.
Griet Meets Peter
On a trip to the local butcher to pick up the Vermeer order, Griet meets Pieter, the butcher’s son (Cillian Murphy), who flirts with Griet at the shop, and goes to her church on Sunday where he meets her family. Griet’s mother likes Pieter and encourages Griet to accept Pieter’s friendship. At this point, the viewer is aware that Griet is intrigued by Vermeer and has little interest in Pieter.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer - Wikimedia
A Painting is Commissioned
Vermeer’s income depends a great deal on one of his patrons, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson) who has taken notice of Griet, and wants her to be a maid in his home. When Vermeer objects, Van Ruijven then asks Vermeer if he would paint a picture of himself and Grief together. Vermeer knows that Van Ruijven had molested a previous subject of Vermeer’s and does not want Griet to suffer the same misfortune. He refuses this request also, but does agree to paint a portrait of Griet for his patron. Catherina is aware of the commission which fuels her jealousy towards Griet, but her mother Maria, who shares their household, wants to keep Van Ruijven as a satisfied patron and encourages her son-in-law to do the painting of Griet.
Griet is Wrongly Accused
Catherine has discovered that her prized tortoise-shell comb is missing and believes that Griet has stolen it. She threatens to fire Griet for the supposed theft, which angers Vermeer, who then searches the entire house, turning furniture pieces upside down and pulling clothing from drawers in his fury. He eventually finds it in his daughter Cornelia’s belongings, and realizes that Griet has been wrongly accused.
The Pearl Earring
In his preparation for the painting of Griet, Vermeer asks her to take off her headpiece which she refuses to do initially. She relents, and Vermeer is mesmerized by the beauty of Griet without her headpiece. They decide on a peasant head covering, and Vermeer indicates that he would like Griet to wear one of Catherina’s earrings to set off the picture. Fearing Catherine, Griet does not wish to comply, but Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria brings Griet the pearl earrings on a day when Catherine is away, so that the painting can be completed to Vermeer’s satisfaction. Vermeer pierces Griet’s ear lobe so that she can wear the earring.
Grief has been accosted by Van Ruhjven a few times, and one day in an alley he almost succeeds in raping her. She runs to Pieter, an indication that she regards him as trustworthy, and Pieter asks her to marry him.
It is strange to watch Tom Wilkinson (Van Ruhjven) playing a villain as he is usually cast as an heroic character with integrity. He has portrayed Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Lyndon Johnson, as well as a multitude of fictional heroes. One of his more recent successes was his role in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”
Catherina insists on seeing the painting, and is furious when she realizes that her earring was used. She tries to destroy the painting with a knife, though unsuccessfully, as Vermeer intercepts. However, she insists that Griet must leave her house.
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Colin Firth - Wikimedia
Film Differs Slightly from the Novel
Only here does the film divert from the tale that is told in the novel. In the film version, Griet is visited in her home by Vermeer’s cook who brings Griet a package. Upon opening it, Griet finds that it contains the blue headscarf she wore when she posed for the painting. Also, inside the scarf are the pearl earrings that belonged to Catherina.
The film ends there, but the novel continues to relate what happens to Griet in the future. The viewer may get a better sense of the entire picture by seeing the film and reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel. The author has written six other novels, including another historical fiction piece entitled “Burning Bright,” which is about the poet William Blake who lived in 18th-century London.
“Girl with a Pearl Earring” was received well by the public, both the novel and the film. Scarlett Johansson was nominated for a Gold Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama.