Have you ever experienced such a moment: you admire a fascinating portrait painted by a famous artist and you would like to know more about the model; you glance at the title of the picture and you find out that the model is anonymous…what a pity. On the other hand, though, your imagination has been immediately set at work to fill in the void. Who was this woman? Family? A friend? A stranger? I suppose such a feeling might have been a source of inspiration for this book.
We are shown the household of Johannes Vermeer, one of the 17th century Dutch geniuses, whose 35 canvases are like precious crown jewels for every art museum in the world. He needs a new maid to clean his studio and decides to hire Griet, a 16-year-old daughter of a tile painter who had become blind in an accident at work. It was partially an act of charity and solidarity of guild members– at the time of that accident Vermeer had been the headman of the Guild of St Luke and Griet’s father, although just a simple artisan, belonged to that organization too. Griet is a perceptive and intelligent girl; her new master quickly sees she might be also artistically talented. Soon enough the new maid advances to an unofficial part-time assistant and ultimately she sits for her master as a model with the pearl earrings of his wife in her earlobes. And then an avalanche of problems is set in motion. Vermeer’s eternally pregnant wife, Catharina, despises Griet (as wives always know when their hubbies get too interested in another girl), and the children, following the example of their mother, give her some grief too. Other maids start to spread gossip about the nature of intimacy between her and Vermeer– it is known that some servant girls have got pregnant while doing modelling for their masters. Such rumours might seriously hurt Griet’s chances to find a husband and she needs a husband very badly as her family can no longer support her financially. She suffers further losses. Her younger sister dies during a bout of plague. Finally her beloved brother, Frans, loses his job in scandalous circumstances and has to go away from Delft. Griet’s biggest ally is Maria Thins, Vermeer’s taciturn mother-in-law , who does everything in her power to make her son-in-law paint and earn more and more as they are heavily indebted. Will she be willing to help Griet, though, when the girl is accused of stealing? The book ends with a twist and, although we will never know whether this story was true, we finish it being sure it was very well told.
What I liked:
I am sure the authoress has made a lot of research because all the facts concerning the life of Vermeer are in perfect accordance with all rare documents we currently have at our disposal. The plot is not very intricate but you soon find yourself glued to the book and compelled to finish. The mood of the masterpiece simply seeps through the pages and the fictional girl with a pearl earring is as likeable as her portrait. A very nice read!
What I didn’t like:
I wish this book were longer – some more descriptions of life in the 17th century Delft (and of Griet’s family too) would please me very much. What happened to her brother? I hate the fact that we were told nothing about the fate of Frans.
The final verdict:
I definitely recommend this novel, although some other books of this author I didn’t like that much.
ETA: I’ve forgotten to add: Griet is the Dutch version of Margaret which means “pearl”…