A Portrait of Radiance

  • Share
  • Read Later
Fact: Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) was a Dutch painter with a sketchy biography and exacting pictures that continue to astonish more than three centuries after his death. Fiction: an illiterate girl named Greit, 17, a servant in the Vermeer household, was the model for the artist's celebrated portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Tracy Chevalier is cautious with fact and adventurous with fiction in her novel, aptly titled Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutton; 240 pages; $23.95). Vermeer's activities as an art dealer and tavern operator are not pushed further than the thready historical record. Greit, on the other hand, is a full literary creation with the candid radiance of the Vermeer canvas. Through her eyes, we also get a close, bottom-up perspective on life in the city of Delft at a time when Holland was a leading maritime nation.

Chevalier is especially adept at character studies: imperious burghers, butchers, biddies and crones. It's as if, after scrutinizing Vermeer's masterworks (and doing the required reading), she began to think and feel like a 17th century Delfter.

The trick, of course, is to convey that sense of place and the texture of Vermeer's achievement without sounding like an art-history major. Chevalier's way is to have Greit assigned to clean Vermeer's studio, where she can observe the artist playing with light and color. Taken by Greit's fresh face and openness, Vermeer encourages the girl's curiosity. He solicits her comments and soon has her grinding his pigments.

By the time she sits for her portrait, Greit is a budding connoisseur. Standing, dustrag in hand, before her employer's paintings, she begins to have small epiphanies: "The pitcher and basin...became yellow, and brown, and green, and blue. They reflected the pattern of the rug, the girl's bodice, the blue cloth draped over the chair--everything but their true silver color. And yet they looked as they should, like a pitcher and a basin... After that I could not stop looking at things."

Neither can Vermeer's sharp-eyed mother-in-law and his perpetually pregnant wife, particularly after she learns that her earring is the same as the one worn by Greit in her portrait. But the truth is loftier than a studio tryst between artist and model. In fact, Chevalier's version is sexier: an exquisitely controlled exercise that illustrates how temptation is restrained for the sake of art.

As a bonus, the novel is wrapped in the most attractive book jacket in recent memory: a reproduction of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, her eyes signaling both anxiety and expectation. Now if Chevalier could be persuaded to take on Leonardo da Vinci, she might have him ask the smirking Mona Lisa, "What's so damn amusing?"