Girl With A Pearl Earring

The Painting (1665)

Girl With A Pearl Earring

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.

GWAPE Book CoverIt 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.

~~~ Ripples

CLICK on the following links to go to related posts on Ripple Effects:

Inspired By Vermeer

Books and the Gender Issue


Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “Girl With A Pearl Earring”

  1. Elegantly reviewed, both the book and the film. Thank you. I have yet to read the book, but after my post with the film in it and so many recs, I know I will (after some on the pile are gone through).

    I do love the visuals in the film, they will stay with me forever, I think. The opening with Griet cutting and preparing vegetables is one of my all time favorite scenes.

    Oh, I love Colin Firth, even though every role is not stellar. After dozens of viewings of Pride & Prejudice, I feel I know every expression and speech pattern so well.


    1. Ruth,

      I’m so glad to find another CF fan, and I suppose, JA too? A look at my Tag and Category Clouds and you’ll find how much P & P and other JA works had meant to me. I love the understated acting of CF, his nuanced expressions speak volumes. Have you seen “When Did You Last See Your Father?”

      The paperback deluxe edition is very reasonably priced. You really should get hold of it because you’ll find so much richness that aren’t conveyed in the film. And there are subplots too.

      Also, just the opening scene of vegetables cutting, your favorite, has more to it than what the movie shows.

      Thanks for sharing.


  2. I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years, having read it rather quickly. Every now and then, I think I’ll pass it on, give it to someone. But no, it survives nonetheless. I am glad to hear the things you have to say about it. Yes, it can stay; it deserves to stay on our shelf.


    1. oh,

      This is a keeper. It’s amazing how Vermeer’s works can have their impact almost four centuries later. After the movie, there’s also a play adapted from the book too. And at Regent in Vancouver, I found a book of poetry on the “Women in Vermeer’s Paintings”, a poem for each of the painting!


  3. I’m a CF fan, too, and have watched him in Pride and Prejudice dozens of times… It’s time to start viewing that again. Thanks for reminding me.

    Before Chevalier’s book came out, a woman in my painting class was practicing painting fabric and light by copying The Girl With a Pearl Earring. Usually, we didn’t copy works of art in that class, but my fellow classmate thought she could learn so much from that painting. I’ve been drawn to it ever since. I loved the book and the movie.


    1. Cathy,

      I’m no painter myself… but I just like to look at the play of light and shadows in V’s paintings, especially those done by the windows. Also, I really admire the calmness in and total absorption by what the subjects are doing, just very ordinary daily chores. Take The Milkmaid, looks like she’s pouring milk for the King! Imagine V. accomplishing all these in a house full of children, 11 at the end… he had to be serenity himself.

      And for CF…. P & P is the definitive start. I’ve enjoyed a couple of his more recent films too that I think are very well done. My pick: WDYLSYF, book and film… see sidebar.


  4. Yes, this is a painting I could live with, and a book I’m sure I would enjoy, especially with your note about social structures and class. As we were saying, that’s one of the important subtexts in life itself these days, and I suspect Chevalier’s exploration would be worthwhile.

    As for the movie, I just went poking about and found a youtube someone has put together that’s completely entrancing. Now, I’m going to have to get the DVD, too. You know that I’m your idiot reader, filmwise. I’ve never heard of Colin Firth, and only know the name of Scarlett Johansson, but it’s time for me to start expanding my horizons!

    A lovely, interesting post – thanks!


    1. You know, Linda, I’m relatively late in ‘discovering’ CF too, maybe just 4 or 5 years ago… it all started with my watching the BBC made for TV mini-series P & P (1995). That started the ripple effects, got me exploring the works of JA. Before you think we’re a bunch of fanatics going through our second teenage years, stop and go watch that definitive BBC production before you laugh.

      As for Vermeer, I’m just touching the surface, and learning every day. Watch the movie for the visuals, but for more critical, literary enjoyment, I highly recommend Chevalier’s book.


  5. I read Girl With a Pearl Earring a while back, and was thoroughly entranced.Your point about the importance of class distinctions, and the wealthy patron’s “despicable, self-serving lust” is well taken. Tracy Chevalier did such a wonderful job with the novel that I cannot see Girl or any Vermeer or other Dutch painting without thinking of her description of the earring piercing Griet…
    Deluxe edition? Oooh…
    Have only seen the clip of the movie that Ruth had on her blog, but it was enough. Someday!

    I’ve put away the book for some years too until I saw the Vermeer exhibition in Vancouver a few weeks ago. It’s interesting to re-visit the world Chevalier painted in her story.


  6. This is a great overview of both. I’d never read the book until after we had been there (and it had been a long time since the movie), and of course going to the Vermeer museum inspired me. You really nail the intricacies of the book that I recall being handled so well in the film — the awkwardness, reticence and sense of being pawns in a web. The class distinctions are really the key here and you expressed it so beautifully. I’m eager to see the film again after having been there. I’m wondering if it was all shot in Belgium, as our host told us the beginning of it was shot in the town square of Delft. Maybe it just looked so close, she thought so!


    1. Jeanie,

      As you can see, this was posted more than three years ago. So the sentiments from reading the book and watching the film have subsided quite a bit. But then again, I know these two are quality works that deserve re-experiencing. Thank you for all the posts on your Holland visit, actually your whole European adventure. They open my eyes to things I haven’t seen before, and help me to relive my memories of some fond experiences as well.


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