Girl with a Pearl Earring (novel)

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Girl with a Pearl Earring
Gwape first edition.png
First British edition dustjacket
Author Tracy Chevalier
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher HarperCollins (UK)
Dutton (US)
Publication date
January 1, 1999
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Pages258 pp
OCLC 42623358
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3553.H4367 G57 1999

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a 1999 historical novel written by Tracy Chevalier. Set in 17th-century Delft, Holland, the novel was inspired by local painter Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring . Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the model and the painting. The novel was adapted into a 2003 film of the same name and a 2008 play.

Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Although the term is commonly used as a synonym for the historical novel, it can also be applied to other types of narrative, including theatre, opera, cinema and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.

Tracy Chevalier American writer

Tracy Rose Chevalier, is an American-British historical novelist. She has written eight novels. She is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which was adapted as a 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

Delft City and municipality in South Holland, Netherlands

Delft is a city and municipality in the province of South Holland, Netherlands. It is located between Rotterdam, to the southeast, and The Hague, to the northwest. Together with them, it is part of both Rotterdam–The Hague metropolitan area and the Randstad.



Tracy Chevalier's inspiration for the novel was a poster of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring . [1] She had bought the poster as a nineteen-year-old and it hung wherever she lived for sixteen years. Chevalier noted that the "ambiguous look" on the girl's face left a lasting impression on her. She 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 of "the story behind that look”, imagining it as directed at the painter. [2]

<i>Girl with a Pearl Earring</i> 1665 painting by Johannes Vermeer, in the collection of the Mauritshuis

Girl with a Pearl Earring is an oil painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer, dated c. 1665. Going by various names over the centuries, it became known by its present title towards the end of the 20th century after the large pearl earring worn by the girl portrayed there. The work has been in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague since 1902 and has been the subject of various literary treatments. In 2006, the Dutch public selected it as the most beautiful painting in the Netherlands.

Chevalier's research included reading the history of the period, studying the paintings of Vermeer and his peers, and spending several days in Delft. [2] Pregnant at the time of researching and writing, she finished the work in eight months because she had a "biological deadline". [3]


Sixteen-year-old Griet has to leave her family home in Delft in 1664 after her father is blinded in an accident. As a tile-painter, her father is a member of the artists’ guild, so employment is found for her as a maid in painter Johannes Vermeer's household. In the strictly stratified society of the time, this is a fall in status because of the bad reputation that maids have for stealing, spying and sleeping with their employers. A further complication is that the Vermeers belong to the grudgingly tolerated Catholic minority while Griet is a Protestant. At their home, she befriends the family's oldest daughter, Maertge, but is never on good terms with the spiteful Cornelia, a younger daughter who takes after her class-conscious mother, Catharina. Griet also finds it difficult to keep on the right side of Tanneke, the other house servant, who is moody and jealous.

Guild of Saint Luke type of artist collective, usually a guild including artist-related professions, such as art teachers and art appraisers

The Guild of Saint Luke was the most common name for a city guild for painters and other artists in early modern Europe, especially in the Low Countries. They were named in honor of the Evangelist Luke, the patron saint of artists, who was identified by John of Damascus as having painted the Virgin's portrait.

Griet lives for two years at her employers’ and is only allowed to visit her home on Sundays, where the family circle is breaking up. Her younger brother Frans is apprenticed outside and eventually her younger sister Agnes dies of the plague. But during the early months of her work at the Vermeers', Pieter, the son of the family butcher at the meat market, starts courting Griet. She has been strictly brought up and does not welcome this at first, but tolerates his interest because it is of advantage to her impoverished parents.

Epidemic rapid spread of infectious disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time

An epidemic is the rapid spread of infectious disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time, usually two weeks or less. For example, in meningococcal infections, an attack rate in excess of 15 cases per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks is considered an epidemic.

Griet is increasingly fascinated by Vermeer's paintings. Vermeer discovers that Griet has an eye for art and secretly asks her to run errands and perform tasks for him, such as mixing his paints and acting as a substitute model. Griet arouses the suspicions of Catharina, but Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, recognizes Griet's presence as a steadying and catalyzing force in Vermeer's career and connives at the domestic arrangements that allow her to devote more time to his service. However, Griet is warned by Vermeer's friend, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, not to get too close to the artist because he is more interested in painting than he is in people. Realizing that this is true, Griet remains cautious.

Maria Thins was the mother-in-law of Johannes Vermeer and a member of the Gouda Thins family.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek Dutch tradesman and scientist

Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek FRS was a Dutch businessman and scientist in the Golden Age of Dutch science and technology. A largely self-taught man in science, he is commonly known as "the Father of Microbiology", and one of the first microscopists and microbiologists. Van Leeuwenhoek is best known for his pioneering work in microscopy and for his contributions toward the establishment of microbiology as a scientific discipline.

Vermeer's wealthy but licentious patron, Pieter van Ruijven, notices “the wide-eyed maid”, molests her when he can and pressures Vermeer to paint them together, as he had with an earlier maid that Van Ruijven had then made pregnant. Griet and Vermeer are therefore reluctant to fulfil this request and eventually Vermeer comes up with a compromise. Van Ruijven will be painted with members of his own family and Vermeer will paint a portrait of Griet by herself which is to be sold to van Ruijven. For the painting, he forces her to pierce her ears and wear his wife's pearl earrings without her permission. Cornelia seizes the chance to let Catharina discover this and in the resulting scandal Vermeer remains silent and Griet is forced to leave.

Ten years later, long after Griet has married Pieter and settled into life as a mother and butcher's wife, she is called back to the house following Vermeer's death. Griet assumes that Vermeer's widow wishes to settle the household's unpaid butcher’s bill. There Griet learns that Vermeer had asked for her painting to be hung in the room as he was dying. In addition, though the family is now poorer, Vermeer's will has included a request that Griet receive the pearl earrings that she wore when he painted her, which Van Leeuwenhoek forces Catharina to hand over. Griet realizes, however, that she could no more wear them as a butcher's wife than she could have as a maid. She therefore decides to pawn the earrings and pay the fifteen guilders owed to her husband from the price.


The novel was published in Britain in 1999 and a year later in the United States, where it became a New York Times bestseller, [4] Though it was nominated for several fiction prizes, it won only the Barnes & Noble Discover Award in 2000 [5] and the 2001 Alex Award for books that have special appeal to young adults. In 2001 Plume released the U.S. paperback edition with an initial print-run of 120,000 copies; a year later the book had been reprinted 18 times with close to two million copies sold. [6] In 2005 HarperCollins brought out a UK special edition with nine colour plates of Vermeer paintings, published in celebration of one million copies sold. [7]

The New York Times described the work as a "brainy novel whose passion is ideas"; [8] Atlantic Monthly praised Chevalier's effort "in creating the feel of a society with sharp divisions in status and creed”. [9] However, Publishers Weekly noted details that “threaten to rob the narrative of its credibility. Griet's ability to suggest to Vermeer how to improve a painting demands one stretch of the reader's imagination. And Vermeer's acknowledgment of his debt to her, revealed in the denouement, is a blatant nod to sentimentality”. [10] Details were also called into question by the art historian Gary Schwarz, particularly the simplistic portrayal of the Catholic/Protestant division in a country where the differences between Protestants were equally important. [11]

As well as the high English-language sales, the novel’s popularity has seen it translated into most European languages and in Asia into Turkish, Georgian, Persian, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean. [12]


In Chevalier's fictional account, the character Griet is the model for Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring.jpg
In Chevalier's fictional account, the character Griet is the model for Vermeer's painting

Rather than writing a story of Vermeer having an illicit relationship with the household maid, Chevalier builds tension in the work with the depiction of their restraint. As Time magazine notes, Chevalier presents "an exquisitely controlled exercise that illustrates how temptation is restrained for the sake of art". [13] The restraint is also a function of the distanced style that Chevalier chose for her narrator, Griet. It has been noted that its aim is to replicate Vermeer’s style of painting. It concentrates particularly on visual detail, both in the appearance of characters and of domestic surroundings, and their spatial placing in relation to each other. [14]

It is this cool approach that differentiates the book from the three other novels published in 1999 which also deal with 17th century Dutch painting. Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a set of stories centred upon a supposedly lost painting by Vermeer; [15] and Katharine Weber’s The Music Lesson deals with the stolen Vermeer painting of that title. [16] Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, on the other hand, is set in Amsterdam and also deals with the love between a painter and his subject. In addition, it too started from an attempt to decipher the enigmatic look of the sitter in a painting of the period. [17]

Another theme - that is demonstrated in the narration rather than commented on overtly - is how women of that time, in Lisa Fletcher’s words, “did not own their bodies, but were the possessions first of their parents, then of their employers, and finally of their husbands. As the novel progresses, Griet becomes increasingly aware that she is ‘for sale’". [18] She is given no choice by her parents over whether or where she will work. Van Ruijven and other characters assume she is sexually available simply because she is an unchaperoned maid. And once Pieter becomes Griet’s accepted suitor, her parents leave her alone to his physical advances, anticipating that the match will be to their benefit.

Historical materials

Apart from Girl with a Pearl Earring itself, in which Griet is the sitter, several more of Vermeer’s paintings feature in Chevalier’s novel. [19] At the very start, View of Delft is recalled by Griet’s father. [20] When Griet enters the household, Vermeer is working on Woman with a Pearl Necklace and Tanneke mentions soon after that she had been Vermeer’s model for The Milkmaid . [21] His next subject is Woman with a Water Jug , for which the baker’s daughter models. Griet describes the painting to her father and also witnesses its creation in closer detail now that she is helping in the studio. [22] Van Ruijven’s wife (Maria de Knuijt) later models for A Lady Writing a Letter . During this episode it is recalled that she had previously appeared in Woman with a Lute and that her husband had seduced the maid who sat for The Girl with the Wine Glass . [23] Van Ruijven himself, a sister and a daughter, figure in The Concert , [24] which is conceived of as a successor to The Music Lesson . [25] A final painting, The Procuress , is not Vermeer’s painting of that title but a genre piece by Dirck van Baburen that belongs to Maria Thins. This hangs on the wall to the right of The Concert. [26]

These paintings that survive compensate for the lack of much real information available in the historical record about the main male characters. That has allowed Chevalier to integrate into her imaginary scenario some of the few facts that are known about Vermeer and so give her fiction the appearance of reality. [27] But scarcity of evidence extends outside the Vermeer household as well. Although Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is known to have acted as executor to Vermeer’s will, there is no documentary proof of friendship between the two. Van Leeuwenhoek was certainly interested in optical devices and it has been speculated that Vermeer made use of a camera obscura, but that is as far as the evidence goes. [28] Again, there is a high level of probability that Pieter van Ruijven was Vermeer’s patron, since 21 of the artist’s paintings belonged to his estate, but no documentary evidence survives. And there is certainly not the slightest hint that he was the sexual predator that Chevalier portrays. [29]

Such considerations are important since, as Lisa Fletcher argues, historical novels “intervene in our view of the past” and influence our reaction to it in the present. Thus it was noted that the 2001 exhibition of “Vermeer and the Delft School” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York “attracted almost twice the number of visitors than the Vermeer exhibition held at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1996. For Walter Liedtke, the gallery's curator of European paintings, the success of [the exhibition] was due, at least in part, to Chevalier's novel.” [30]

See also

Related Research Articles

Johannes Vermeer 17th-century Dutch painter

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime but evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a painting by Johannes Vermeer.

<i>The Milkmaid</i> (Vermeer) 1658 painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Milkmaid, sometimes called The Kitchen Maid, is an oil-on-canvas painting of a "milkmaid", in fact, a domestic kitchen maid, by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which regards it as "unquestionably one of the museum's finest attractions".

<i>The Astronomer</i> (Vermeer) painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer is a painting finished in about 1668 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is oil on canvas, 51 cm × 45 cm, and is on display at the Louvre, in Paris, France.

<i>The Concert</i> (Vermeer) stolen painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Concert is a painting by Dutchman Johannes Vermeer depicting a man and two women performing music. It belonged to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, but was stolen in 1990 and remains missing.

Pieter van Ruijven Dutch patron

Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven is best known as Johannes Vermeer's patron for the better part of the artist's career.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a 2008 play. Adapted by David Joss Buckley from the novel of the same title by Tracy Chevalier, it premiered at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. It then received its London premiere at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on 29 September 2008, directed by Joe Dowling and designed by Peter Mumford. Its London run had been scheduled to end on 1 November, but after largely poor reviews and in a poor financial climate it closed early on 18 October.

<i>Study of a Young Woman</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

Study of a Young Woman is a painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, completed between 1665 and 1667, and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Jan Verkolje painter from the Northern Netherlands

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<i>Girl with a Red Hat</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Red Hat is a rather small painting, signed by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is seen as one of a number of Vermeer's tronies – depictions of models fancifully dressed that were not intended to be portraits of specific, identifiable subjects. Others believe it is a portrait. Whether Vermeer chose family members as models or found them elsewhere in Delft is irrelevant to the appreciation of his paintings. Its attribution to Vermeer – as it is on a (recycled) wood panel and not on canvas – has been a matter of controversy with scholars on both sides of the argument.

<i>The Geographer</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

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<i>View of Delft</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

View of Delft is an oil painting by Johannes Vermeer, painted ca. 1660–1661. The painting of the Dutch artist's hometown is among his most popular, painted at a time when cityscapes were uncommon. It is one of three known paintings of Delft by Vermeer, along with The Little Street and the lost painting House Standing in Delft. The use of pointillism in the work suggests that it postdates The Little Street, and the absence of bells in the tower of the New Church dates it to 1660–1661. Vermeer's View of Delft has been held in the Dutch Royal Cabinet of Paintings at the Mauritshuis in The Hague since its establishment in 1822.

<i>A Girl Asleep</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

A Girl Asleep, also known as A Woman Asleep, A Woman Asleep at Table, and A Maid Asleep, is a painting by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, 1657. It is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and may not be lent elsewhere under the terms of the donor's bequest.

Jacob Abrahamsz. Dissius was a Dutch typographer and printer. He is most notable as an art collector and for his links to Johannes Vermeer - his collection included 21 Vermeer works and in 1680 he married Madgdalene, daughter and sole heir of Vermeer's main patron Pieter van Ruijven. Dissius died in 1695 and his collection was auctioned off in Amsterdam the following year.

<i>Mistress and Maid</i> 1666 painting by Johannes Vermeer

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<i>Girl with a Flute</i> painting attributed to Johannes Vermeer

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Olivia Hetreed is a British screenwriter and editor, and the current president of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. In 2003, she received a BAFTA nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for adapting Tracy Chevalier's best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring into the film of the same name. Hetreed has also been credited as the screenwriter for productions based on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Emily Brontë, and Caroline Lawrence. As a result, she has been called an "expert in literary adaptations."

<i>Girl with a Pearl Earring</i> (film) 2003 Drama film directed by Peter Webber

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a 2003 romantic drama film directed by Peter Webber. The screenplay was adapted by screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, based on the 1999 novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier. Scarlett Johansson stars as Griet, a young 17th-century servant in the household of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer at the time he painted Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) in the city of Delft in Holland. Other cast members include Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy, and Judy Parfitt.


  1. "Tracy Chevalier Q&A". Daily Mail . Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  2. 1 2 Chevalier, Tracy (September 2005). Girl With a Pearl Earring Deluxe Edition. Penguin Group. pp. ix–xvi. ISBN   0-452-28702-2.
  3. Chevalier, Tracy (December 28, 2003). "Mother of Pearl". . Retrieved 2009-06-18.
  4. "Best Sellers Plus" The New York Times. February 27, 2000. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  5. Barnes & Noble website
  6. "This Pearl is a Diamond". Publishers Weekly 249.4, January 28, 2002.
  7. Abe Books
  8. Eder, Richard, "Master Vermeer, Isn't It, Um, Missing a Little Spark?"
  9. Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Atlantic Monthly 285.2, February 2000
  10. Reviewed 1 March 2000
  11. Fletcher 2012, p.9
  12. Goodread Editions
  13. Sheppard, R.Z. "A Portrait of Radiance" Time. January 9, 2000. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  14. Fletcher 2012, pp.11-12
  15. Vreeland site
  16. Weber site
  17. Moggach site
  18. Fletcher, Sheffield Hallam University
  19. Fletcher 2012, p.8
  20. Page 7 in the HarperCollins paperback (2000)
  21. HarperCollins 2000, p.36ff, p.40
  22. HarperCollins 2000, pp.96-7, 106-8
  23. HarperCollins 2000, p.135ff
  24. Harper Collins 2000, p.184ff
  25. HarperColllins 2000, p.163
  26. HarperCollins 2000, p.179
  27. Tracy Chevalier TED Talk, 5.45-7.50
  28. ”Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) and Johannes Vermeer”, Essential Vermeer
  29. ”Pieter van Ruijven”, Essential Vermeer
  30. Fletcher, Sheffield Hallam University