Art history in fiction – “A Girl with a Pearl Earring”

By | September 12, 2016

A Girl with a Pearl Earring is exactly what the title suggests – the story of the girl in the portrait by Johannes Vermeer. Have you ever wondered why her head-dress is a little bizarre for the time? Why her eyes are so full of something that is hard to explain, yet we feel it intensely when meeting her gaze? Or why does she wear this elusive pearl earring?

pearlearringWith the time constraints and the reading I have to do for my research, it is rare for me to read fiction. However, when a friend showed me a novel by Tracy Chevalier, I was intrigued. Having seen this painting “in flesh” last year at Mauritshuis, it was fresh in my mind. As I stood in front of it at the end of a day of travelling between The Hague and Delft, I pondered on how such a small painting could hold so much emotion. The girl’s magnetic gaze dared me to hold it. There was life in the painting – real, brutal, innocent, and passionate. The empty black background seemed to only increase the sense of something behind her and intensify the mystery of her unusual appearance.

The story takes place in the small town of Delft: a mini-Amsterdam of quiet canals, narrow houses, and many domed bridges. The view from the city tower provides a wonderful panorama of this magical place. Once you experience it, you can compare it with Vermeer’s painting View of Delft, also hanging in Mauritshuis (and also discussed in the book!). Vermeer is known to have taken liberties with his compositions, moving buildings and backgrounds as necessary to achieve a harmonious and pleasing balance.

In fact, Chevalier’s book touches on many eccentricities of the artist, intertwining fiction with history to create a rich backdrop for the story of Griet – the girl in the painting. Historical fiction is a wonderful way of connecting with facts while being able to enjoy an enticing story. It brings a little bit of history closer to us, and if the author does a good job with research – even better! A Girl With a Pearl Earring is about hardships, family, first love, duty, loss, dignity, and loss of innocence – all on the backdrop of lively, everyday hiatus of multiple religions, classes, and colourful (yet consistent!) characters that drive the story right into the reader’s world. It is touching, aching and heart-warming all at the same time, and it is so easy to put down and pick up again, making it getting absorbed into the world of the Dutch Golden Age no effort at all!

One thought on “Art history in fiction – “A Girl with a Pearl Earring”

  1. Siminnaz

    Thank u dear HelenG, I love always to read about Vermeer, one of my favorite painters. I watched a movie about this painting, So sad & impressive. Tons of thanks


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