Sunday, February 23, 2014

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

How many of you caught the Vermeer exhibition at the Frick Museum in NYC?  Open from October to January, and also featuring other Dutch painters (including Rembrant and Hals), the show was a beautiful compilation of paintings, many of which showed astounding realism and detail (a painting of apricots where the fruits seemed luscious enough to pluck off the canvas comes to mind).  Despite the beauty of the other works, the undoubtable hallmark of the exhibition--and what had even the most line-reviling New Yorkers (myself clearly counted in this category) waiting with the tourists to get into the Frick--was Vermeer's famous painting of a young girl who stares captivatingly at the viewer, titled Girl with a Pearl Earring.    
The painting is as beautiful and detailed as it is spare--one has not even contextual clues such as a piano or a pen to obtain knowledge of the young girl pictured.  The girl herself is a mystery.  Who can blame us for wanting to know the secrets behind the delicate, tantalizing image?  Tracy Chevalier provides a story with her book Girl with a Pearl Earring. 
Though clearly fictional, Chevalier's account of the life of "the girl" herself uses every historical clue we have, including utilizing our knowledge of the Vermeer family and the daily workings of the 17th century town in which they lived.  This is good, old fashioned historical fiction--taking what we do know and spinning it into an engaging tale of love and duty.
The plot in a nutshell: sixteen year old Griet has been engaged to work as a servant in the Vermeer household.  She is smart and perceptive, but most importantly, she has an eye for the aesthetic that will tie her to Vermeer and his paintings as she first cleans his studio, then assists him with his paints and paintings, then, finally, sits for the now famous painting and watches as her relationship with the married and father of six painter escalates into an explosion of a scandal.
This is the book for anyone who loves Vermeer, or Dutch painting, or painting at all.  The account may not be true, but the historical details provide insight into Vermeer's life and times that are very satisfying.  This book offers a story to accompany the nameless, mesmerizing girl with the pearl earring--and don't we all deserve a story?

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