The Painting (1665)
Not much is known about this girl looking back at the artist with her soulful glance. The pearl earring, the focal point of the painting, is obviously incompatible with her humble attire. Vermeer has captured a mystery open to anyone’s imagination. But it takes a master storyteller to create a believable and poignant narrative that can move modern readers three hundred some years later.
The Novel (1999)
Vermeer taught me that Less Is More, and I have been practicing that aesthetic principle in my writing ever since.” — Tracy Chevalier
You can see it coming… it’s almost like reflex that after seeing a Vermeer exhibition I’d go back to the book Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, and re-watch the DVD of the movie based on it. Well, especially when I didn’t get the chance to see the painting itself in the exhibition.
It was this book that first sparked curiosity in me about Vermeer and his works. Tracy Chevalier has done a superb job in creating out of her imagination the story behind the girl with the pearl earring, within the realistic social and historical contexts. She has brought to the surface layers of possible subtexts hidden in this seemingly simple portrait.
I’ve appreciated that she has chosen the social segregation and hierarchical class structure of 17th century Delft as the backdrop of her novel. So, instead of a sweet little tale or melodramatic story, Chevalier highlights the complex social reality of power relations between servant and master, artist and patron. She has masterfully created a scenario whereby the social distance between the servant girl, Griet, and her master Vermeer, is drawn closer by her quiet understanding and appreciation of aesthetics. With the same sharpness and sensitivity, Chevalier has also shown how a wealthy patron can exploit art with his despicable, self-serving lust.
Chevalier’s ingenuity tugs at our heartstrings as we see the innocent and powerless being played as pawns, no more than flies caught in the web of the rich and powerful. The struggle between survival and artistic freedom is poignantly painted as irreconcilable subjects on the canvas of financial reality. And fate teases all. Yet among all these, the natural light that comes from art and beauty silently seeps through, brushing us warmly with a tender glow.
Do try to get hold of the Deluxe Edition. It includes 9 full-color Vermeer paintings, which are cleverly incorporated into the story by the author.
Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, Deluxe Edition, published by PLUME, Penguin Group, 2005, 233 pages.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
The Movie (2003)
Watching the movie Girl With A Pearl Earring is the closest to actually seeing a Vermeer exhibition. Every frame is like a Vermeer painting with its extensive use of natural light from windows, contrasting the shadows in the interior of the Delft household. The film was nominated for three Oscars in 2004, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design. In other words, it’s a pleasure to watch… it has to be because dialogues are sparingly used throughout. Herein lies the strength of acting and the effectiveness of sound and visual communication.
The restrained performance of Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet brings out the reality of the social order of the day. A servant is not supposed to speak unless spoken to. And what does a master has to say to an uneducated maid, unless he sees in her the appreciation of art and the clear understanding of aesthetics, of light and shadows, of beauty in the mundane.
Vermeer’s asking Griet to be his assistant and ultimately putting her in one of his works, albeit reluctantly for both, sparks off repugnant reverberation in town, and of course, the fierce jealousy of the painter’s wife Catherine (Essie Davis). But as flies caught in the web of patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), with debts to pay and a full household of mouths to feed, the artist has to bow to reality, and the even lower-ranked servant has to yield to her fate.
The visuals and music are the key to revealing the internal. Beautifully shot in Luxembourg to simulate 17th Century Delft, the movie is a work of art in itself. Colin Firth’s usual reticent persona on film fits him perfectly this time. His taciturn portrayal of the ambivalent artist betrays the struggles within. Scarlett Johansson delivers a convincing performance as pure and innocent Griet, and her gradual growth on the path of experience, albeit the book, as usual, depicts the inner turmoil more effectively.
The special feature on the DVD is enjoyable as well, chronicling the making of the movie. I hope though that a Blu-ray version will come out one of these days, for that will indeed do justice to the cinematography and to the original artist, the master painter Johannes Vermeer himself.
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