Girl with a Pearl Earring (novel)

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Girl with a Pearl Earring
Gwape first edition.png
First British edition dustjacket
Author Tracy Chevalier
Language English
Genre Historical fiction
Publisher HarperCollins (UK)
Dutton (US)
Publication date
January 1, 1999
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 258 pp
OCLC 42623358
813/.54 21
LC Class PS3553.H4367 G57 1999

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a 1999 historical novel written by Tracy Chevalier. Set in 17th century Delft, Holland, the novel was inspired by Delft school painter Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the model, and the painting. The novel was adapted into a 2003 film of the same name and a 2008 play.


Tracy Chevalier's inspiration for Girl with a Pearl Earring was a poster of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.[1] She bought the poster as a nineteen-year-old, and it hung wherever she lived for sixteen years. Chevalier notes that the "ambiguous look" on the girl's face left the "most lasting impression" on her. She describes the girl's expression "to be a mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss." She began to think that the girl had directed all these emotions at the painter, and began to think of the "story behind that look".[2]

Chevalier's research included reading the history of the period, studying the paintings of Vermeer and his peers, and spending several days in Delft.[2] Pregnant at the time of researching and writing, she finished the work in eight months, because, as she admitted, she had a "biological deadline".[3]

Plot summary[edit]

Sixteen-year-old Griet lives with her family in Delft in 1664. Her father has been recently blinded in an accident, and the family's precarious economic situation forces Griet's parents to find her employment as a maid in painter Johannes Vermeer's household. Becoming a maid casts doubt on Griet's respectability because of the bad reputation that maids have for stealing, spying and sleeping with their employers. It is not revealed how much of this reputation is earned. At the Vermeers, she befriends the family's oldest daughter, Maertge, but is not on good terms with Cornelia, one of Vermeer's younger daughters. She also becomes friendly with Tanneke, the other house servant, but is careful to remain modest and unobtrusive for fear of making Tanneke jealous.

During her months of work at the Vermeers', Pieter, the local butcher's son, starts courting Griet, and the area in which Griet's family lives is struck with plague which leads to the death of her younger sister. Griet is increasingly fascinated by Vermeer's paintings. Vermeer discovers that Griet has an eye for art, and secretly asks her to run errands and perform tasks for him, such as mixing his paints and acting as a substitute model. Griet arouses the suspicions of Vermeer's wife, Catharina, but Vermeer's mother-in-law recognizes Griet's presence as a steadying and catalyzing force in Vermeer's career. Griet is warned by Vermeer's friend, Dr. van Leeuwenhoek, not to get too close to Vermeer because Vermeer is far more interested in paintings than he is in people. Griet realizes that this is true and remains cautious.

Vermeer's wealthy but licentious patron, Van Ruijven, notices Griet and her beauty and pressures Vermeer to paint them sitting together. Griet and Vermeer are initially reluctant to fulfill this request due to Griet's strict modesty and a scandal surrounding the last girl who had been painted with van Ruijven. Eventually, Vermeer comes up with a compromise and paints a portrait of Griet by herself to be sold to van Ruijven. For the painting, he asks her to wear his wife's pearl earrings. When Catharina discovers this, Griet is forced to leave.

Ten years later, long after Griet has married Pieter and settled into life as a mother and butcher's wife, she is called back to the house upon Vermeer's death. Griet assumes that Vermeer's widow wishes to settle the household's unpaid fifteen-guilder bill with the butcher shop. Pieter laughs and says that he didn't mind losing the fifteen guilders because they bought him Griet as a wife. At the Vermeer house, Griet learns that even though Vermeer had made no effort to see or speak to her, he had remained very fond of the painting. In addition, Vermeer's will had included a request that Griet receive the pearl earrings that she wore when he painted her. However, Griet realizes that she could no more wear pearl earrings as a butcher's wife than she could as a maid. She then pawns the earrings for twenty guilders and pays fifteen guilders to her husband, claiming that Vermeer's widow had given her the coins to settle a debt with the butcher shop, but keeps five guilders to herself and never spends them.


  • Griet: a sixteen-year-old girl working as a servant in the Vermeer household, is the protagonist and narrator in the novel. Chevalier describes her as intelligent and perceptive, and that "she had an aesthetic eye that simply needed encouragement in order to flourish."[2]
  • Johannes Vermeer: a Dutch painter and Griet's master. Chevalier noted she was "reluctant to flesh him out", and that she wanted to keep him mysterious since very little is known about his personality historically.[2]
  • Catharina Bolenes Vermeer: Johannes Vermeer's wife. Chevalier stated that it was easy for her to imagine Catharina's character since she herself was pregnant when she wrote the book; she is very jealous of Griet because she is the first and only person to act as Vermeer's assistant in the studio.[2]
  • Maria Thins: Vermeer's mother-in-law, who is cordial toward Griet.
  • Willem Thins: Catharina's brother, a jobless bachelor, is locked up in an institution after an argument with his mother, and for attacking a pregnant Catharina with a stick.
  • Tanneke, the Vermeers' other older household servant who initially guides Griet through her duties.
  • Maertge Vermeer: Vermeer's eldest daughter who befriends Griet.
  • Cornelia Vermeer: the Vermeer's third daughter who antagonizes Griet throughout her stay.
  • Pieter: the butcher's son who is in love with Griet
  • Agnes: Griet's 12-year-old sister who dies of the plague.
  • Pieter van Ruijven: a patron of Vermeer who molests maids. His eye is caught by Griet the main character, and he requests a portrait of her.
  • Frans, Griet's brother.


In Chevalier's fictional account, the character Griet is the model for Vermeer's painting.

Rather than writing a story of Vermeer having an illicit relationship with the household maid, Chevalier builds tension in the work with the depiction of their restraint. As Time magazine critic Sheppard writes, Chevalier presents "an exquisitely controlled exercise that illustrates how temptation is restrained for the sake of art".[4]


Published in the United States in January 2000, the book became a New York Times bestseller,[5] and went on to sell over two million copies in thirty-six languages.[6] In 2001 Plume Press released the paperback edition with an initial print-run of 120,000 copies; a year later the book had been reprinted 18 times with close to two million copies sold.[7] Over three millions copies have been sold in 36 languages, as of September 2008.[8]

Richard Eder of The New York Times described the work as a "brainy novel whose passion is ideas",[9] and the prepublication review in Time notes the fullness of the characters.[4] Atlantic Monthly praised Chevalier's effort "in creating the feel of a society with sharp divisions in status and creed", in describing Protestant Griet joining the household of the Catholic Vermeers.[10]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Tracy Chevalier Q&A". Daily Mail. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Chevalier, Tracy (September 2005). Girl With a Pearl Earring Deluxe Edition. Penguin Group. pp. ix–xvi. ISBN 0-452-28702-2. 
  3. ^ Chevalier, Tracy (December 28, 2003). "Mother of Pearl". Retrieved 2009-06-18. 
  4. ^ a b Sheppard, R.Z. "A Portrait of Radiance" Time. January 9, 2000. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  5. ^ "Best Sellers Plus" The New York Times. February 27, 2000. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  6. ^ Gent, Paul (September 23, 2008). "Tracy Chevalier on letting go of Girl with a Pearl Earring". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-06-18. 
  7. ^ "This Pearl is a Diamond". Publishers Weekly. Vol. 249. Issue 4. January 28, 2002.
  8. ^ Gent, Paul (23 September 2008). "Tracy Chevalier on letting go of Girl with a Pearl Earring". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 December 2013. 
  9. ^ Eder, Richard. "Master Vermeer, Isn't It, Um, Missing a Little Spark?" The New York Times. January 24, 2000. Retrieved November 13, 2010.
  10. ^ Adams, Phoebe-Lou. Atlantic Monthly. February 2000. Vol. 285. Issue 2.

External links[edit]