Girl with a Pearl Earring was an interesting read considering the fact that I had seen the film years back, and quite liked it. It was a pleasant surprise because I hadn’t quite warmed up to Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn which was my introduction to the author.
It is 1665. The story is told by sixteen year old Griet who comes to work as a maid in the Vermeer household to support her family. Vermeer, the artist, takes a fancy to her because she understands art.
The house is run by the matriarch, the wife’s mother. Although Vermeer was a good artist he was not the best man to provide for his family. Vermeer worked at his own pace. He was moody and temperamental even though the entire house was in debt, and his paintings were the only source of income.
Life was tough in a way the population with access to modern healthcare wouldn’t understand. There was no method of contraception, and it was one baby on the way after another whether you can afford it or want it.
Griet was a strong character for the times she lived in. The name ‘Grit’ would be apt for her because she is gutsy and resilient. She is sharp, and observes things which would elude a casual onlooker.
I was delighted to see Antony van Leeuwenhoek in the book as Vermeer’s friend. I was happy to see a microbiologist in a novel about an artist. Seeing Antony van Leeuwenhoek as a character took me back to my student days of learning how he discovered animalcules.
I confess I had never heard the term camera obscura before. Shameful because I call myself an amateur photographer (the amateur bit does take the sting out of it). Of course my grandpa knew what camera obscura was. He was an engineer and a photographer, and unlike me, a person who understands technicalities well.
A painting which isn’t a painting. The word photograph is yet to be invented because the camera hasn’t been invented yet. What a world it must have been. Since something cannot be captured there is no choice except to draw or paint what fascinated them. A while ago I had read Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life where I got a peek into a world where photography was being invented.
It is not new then wanting to save memories which have an impact on us. The word nostalgia means a great deal to us humans. When we write we do the same thing. Capturing a moment, a place, a situation, an experience, a time.
Spoilers ahead for the book and the film.
It was fascinating the way he tried to make Griet a part of his life – in charge of cleaning his studio, making her understand what an image was. He valued her opinion sensing her intelligence. He allowed her near his beloved colours, to make them, to buy them. He trusted her with his art, he took her suggestions into account and respected her opinions. Intellectually he treated her differently from a maid but the class difference remained. He was in a position of power so he did order her about and forced her to do things.
It’s interesting to see the interplay between their characters, Vermeer and Griet, the artist and the observer who later on becomes the subject. Griet is unusually quiet but she challenged Vermeer in her own way. She played many roles – muse, helper, and model. The relationship of the muse with the artist is fraught with complications and has no clear boundaries. Where does feeling stop and art begin? Can one draw in a completely detached manner from the subject? Would the essence be conveyed? The artist moves on. What of the muse who is caught up in the process unknowingly? Is the subject or the muse (in this case the same person) allowed to feel or have a say in how she is going to be portrayed? All these questions came up while reading the book, and I don’t have any answers.
The book gives us a picture of her life after she leaves the Vermeer household unlike the movie, which shows no clear resolution and leaves it to the audience. I confess to having seen the film first because I didn’t know it was based on a book. I would ask you to read the book first (always). The film shows more moments between them, paints a more romantic picture than it really is. Griet’s family makes her a well rounded character in the book but her family barely makes an appearance in the movie. The film also has more dialogue as opposed to the book in which silences abound.
A world of veneers and facades. The beauty of the book and the film is in its restraint, in the things left unsaid.
Have you read the book or seen the film?