The Politics of Prose
Girl With a Pearl Earringby Tracy Chevalier
Dutton, 233 pp., $21.95
When a collection of paintings by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) toured the world in 1996, many became fascinated by Vermeer, and by "Girl With a Pearl Earring," his painting of a young girl. The girl, who looks over her shoulder at the viewer, lips parted, is simultaneously a seductress and a terrified child, and little is known about her true identity.
Commingling fiction and history is a brave and dangerous act; history gives the novelist plot, but it is the novelist's burden to make the plot a story. Tracy Chevalier rises to the challenge here. With slow and steady prose, she allows Griet, a girl chosen to clean Vermeer's studio, to tell how she became the subject of a luminous painting, and how she was ruined in the process.
Vermeer is noted for his use of light, and Chevalier is wise in choosing Griet -- the girl who cleans his windows, controls the light in his studio -- to explain him. Griet observes Vermeer's process: "I thought that you painted what you saw, using the colors you saw. -- Instead he painted patches of color -- black where her skirt would be, ocher for the bodice and the map on the wall, red for the pitcher and the basin it sat in, another gray for the wall.They were the wrong colors -- none was the color of the thing itself."
In addition to being able to watch Vermeer at work, Griet is privy to the gossip behind the scenes: the maid who became pregnant after being painted with her master (he made sure wine was included in the portrait, and made sure she drank at each sitting), the baker's daughter who was asked to wear a wide white collar for her sitting after Vermeer's wife wore one, Vermeer's mother-in-law's attempts to make Vermeer paint faster.
It is not as difficult to delight a reader by bringing history to life, however, as it is to create a narrative that will pull the historical facts together into a new and compelling story. In Griet's tale of adolescent yearning and betrayal, Chevalier succeeds, and for me, the eyes of the servant girl will never look the same.