Fantasizing Vermeer's Girl With A Pearl Earring

by Vicki Alford

Girl With A Pearl Earring is a movie based on Tracy Chevalier's novel of the same title.   Chevalier fantasized and has woven a story of the young girl in Johannes Vermeer's painting, Girl With A Pearl Earring.   The girl in the portrait is mysterious; no one knows her name or anything about her.   Yet, director Peter Webber brings to life in the film Chevalier's story of the young girl in the painting and life in 17th century Holland.         

The story begins in Delft, Holland in 1665 with the young girl, Griet (played by Scarlett Johansson), leaving her home to work for the Vermeer family.   Her father is blinded and handicapped in a recent accident and she must help support the family.   Although the movie does not tell the viewer, the novel explains that the father is a craftsman and painter of Delft tiles and has been severely injured in a kiln accident.   The white and blue Delftware or Delft Pottery, an imitation of imported Chinese pottery, (1) is seen throughout the movie, against the wall in the studio, as bowls in the kitchen, and for dinnerware.

Griet, from the beginning of the movie to the end, wears a white cap covering her hair completely at all times.   She removes it one time to put the scarf around her head for the portrait.   Moreover, Griet does not work on Sundays and attends church with her own family.   The viewer must have some background knowledge of John Calvin and the Netherlands to understand Griet, her family, and the significance of working in the Vermeer home. The Netherlands welcomed the Reformation; the people were stirred by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century.   Calvinists like Griet and her family attended regular church services because of John Calvin who believed and taught, "It is convenient to have a place of worship - definite days and stated hours, and a place suitable to receive all."   After the ruthlessness of the Spanish Inquisition and a civil war with Spain, the Netherlands gained their freedom.   The Dutch Reform Church was formed, and became the state religion in 1651 (2).   However, the Dutch were tolerant and not everyone belonged to the state church.   In the film, the Vermeers are Catholic, and Griet's mother warns her before she leaves home, "Be careful of their Catholic prayers, or if you must be with them when they pray, stop your ears."

As the film opens, Griet walks through Delft by the canals that are so important to Holland.   Much of Holland is below sea level.   Dykes and drainage ditches were built starting in the 7th century to enclose land for grazing sheep and cattle.   In the fifteenth century, engineers developed windmill-driven pumps to create polders, pieces of land claimed from the sea.   The canals provided water for the city while at the same time they drained the water out of the city (3).   It has been said, "God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland."   The houses were built on the canals. At the Vermeer home, the servant, Taneke, tells Griet to get water out of the canal to wash laundry, "Water on this side of town is good for that."   The water for cooking is pumped on the side of the house.   Trash and wastewater, however, are thrown back into the canal, making it unsanitary.

Young and illiterate, Griet works long days scrubbing the laundry by hand on a rub board after she has boiled the clothes in a steaming pot of water and soap.   One of her duties in the house is to go to the market to buy meat for the mistress.   The first day she smells the meat that is handed to her wrapped in a bloody cloth and tells the butcher it is bad meat.   She then meets the young butcher boy, Pieter, who gives her a better piece of meat wrapped in a clean cloth.   The butcher tells her that they will see her again, making a new customer.   Griet and Pieter begin a flirtatious relationship that lasts throughout the movie.  

Johannes Vermeer's household when Griet arrives is very chaotic with his jealous wife, Catharina (Essie Davis), five children, a domineering mother-in-law, and the servant, Taneke.   Griet is assigned to clean Vermeer's art studio along with doing the laundry and other duties.   Catharina insinuates her scorn and anger that she, the artist's wife, is not allowed into the studio, Griet is to go in, clean, disturb nothing, and to leave everything as it was found.   Griet carefully cleans around everything, as she comes to understand the importance of his environment to the artist.

Johannes Vermeer, a 17th century Dutch artist, is known for his sensitive use of light and color and the poetic quality of his works.   Most of his works are of simple domestic scenes with figures standing in Dutch houses (4). Some examples are the milkmaid painting, the scene of the mistress and the maid, of the woman reading a letter and of the soldier and the maid. When Griet opens the studio window shutters, light pours into the studio, highlighting objects in the room.   As she cleans, she notices how the light plays on the objects and on her own image and skin tones in the mirror.   She even asks Catharina if she should clean the windows because it could change the light.   Over time, Vermeer, (played by Colin Firth), notices her beauty and her interest in art, and begins to teach her about color and light.   On top of her other duties, he insists that she mix the colors for his oil paintings.

Colors for the paint came from many sources, animal, plant or mineral.   In the movie, Vermeer's patron, Peter Van Ruijven, had commissioned Vermeer to do a painting of his wife.   During the unveiling in the Vermeer home, Van Ruijven asks Vermeer what color yellow he used to achieve the glow in his wife's portrait.   Vermeer quietly tells him that it was the color Indian Yellow.   Van Ruijven embarrassed his wife greatly by saying that she was glazed over by cow piss, the urine of cows fed only mango leaves in India and urinating into buckets.   According to Victoria Finlay, there is no evidence that Indian Yellow was made in Mirzapur, India.   Moreover, it would have been unheard of for the Indians to abuse a cow, a sacred animal, in this manner.   One of the color techniques that Vermeer actually used in his portraits was that of using luminescent whites; alabaster and quartz that took the light reflected in the painting and made it dance (5).

During this time period, patrons began to replace the church in supporting the arts.   Baroque is an art movement of the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century, appearing in Catholic Counties, and also among some Dutch painters.   Baroque is more realistic, less complex, and more emotional than the Mannerist style of art in the late Renaissance.   Vermeer was one among several artists who helped to develop the style.   The Catholic Church, an important patron of the arts, encouraged the art movement to return to tradition and spirituality (6).

Pieter Van Ruijven, (played by Tom Wilkinson), was Vermeer's wealthy patron.   He commissioned Vermeer to paint Griet.   The feeling, subtly presented in the movie, is that Vermeer is in love with Griet himself and does not want to paint her for a lecherous individual such as Van Ruijven.   His mother-in-law insists that he accept the commission to paint Griet's portrait because the family needs the money.   Later, after some discussions with Griet about the portrait, Vermeer sees the light playing on his wife's pearls and tells Griet that she must wear them for the portrait.   Her ears are not pierced so Vermeer pierces one of her ears.   It seems so painful for her and Vermeer is sensitive to her pain, so he decides not to pierce the other ear.

The movie is a wonderful piece of work depicting the history of the time period and displaying Vermeer's use of light and color.   Chevalier's story, as recreated in the film, is choppy and confusing at times.   As in the novel, the viewer is left at times to assume too much of the story.   Director Peter Webber, Producers Andy Paterson and Anand Tucker, Director of Photography Eduardo Serra, and Production Designer Ben van Os created a wonderful 17 th century setting for the film.   Even though the focus of the movie is Vermeer and his art, and to some degree the romantic tension between him and Griet, Holland's history comes alive on the screen.

Johannes Vermeer was the son of Digna and Revnier Vermeer, a silk weaver and an art dealer, and born in October 1632 in Delft, Holland.   He was baptized in the Reformed Church in Delft on October 31, 1632.   Vermeer married Catholic born Catharina Bolnes in April 1653 and he converted to Catholicism a short time before the marriage.   The couple moved in with Catharina's mother, Maria Thins, in 1672 after financial difficulties forced them to leave Vermeer's childhood home.   Catharina and Johannes had fourteen children together, three of whom died shortly after birth.  

Vermeer was probably introduced to the art world by his father and began an apprenticeship as a painter.   It is not known exactly whom he studied under or where; however two possibilities among teachers are Carel Fabritius and   Leonaert Bramer in Delft, Utrecht or Amsterdam.   It is known that on December 29, 1653, Vermeer is recorded as a member of the Saint Luke's Guild, a trade association for painters, even though he was not able to pay the admission fee.   Later in 1662, 1663, 1670, and 1671, he was elected head of the Guild and named hoofdman; which reflects how his peers respected him and his leadership (7).  

Vermeer painted simple everyday life of objects and people.   He especially seemed to enjoy painting women in their daily life, and avoided painting the common commissioned portraits.   He considered the face no more important than the clothes and objects he was painting.   Most of the faces in his paintings are in profile with the eyes shut, as things speak more loudly with the eyes closed.

The new lenses, magnifying glasses that were being invented at the time, also fascinated Vermeer.   He investigated the measurement of depth and focus and how different things looked in and out of focus.   He was very precise in his work, painting within a structure of a box, tactile surfaces and people, as if he was looking through a camera lens.  

Vermeer's most notable quality as an artist lies in the way he brings out the light of the objects and people he painted.   He studied in depth how light reflected off objects and then regulated the light by doing his painting in his studio.   The light in his works rebounds from object to object and he is a master of diffusing the light.   In one of his paintings, a white collar receives the light, and then reflects the light onto the face.   Vermeer is magnificent in the way he uses colors to bring the light to life (8).

Johannes Vermeer died in 1675, a poor man, leaving his wife, Catharina, and the children in debt.   The estate trustee and Catharina sold most of his paintings after his death to pay the debts (9).   For many years his works were forgotten.   Even though he seems to have been well respected at the time, there seems to be no evidence that he sold his paintings.   Most of his works were not known outside of Delft because a patron in Delft held most of the collection.   There are no drawings by Vermeer on record; over a hundred of his paintings are recorded, although only thirty-six of them are accepted today (10).  

Vermeer was virtually unknown as an artist until the 19th century, when his paintings in private collections started circulating.   In 1882, Vermeer's painting, Girl With A Pearl Earring, was purchased for 2.30 guilders, about $1.40, and about twenty years later it was valued at 40,000 guilders, $24,395.47.   Today it is priceless and is home in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.   Another painting of Vermeer, Young Woman at the Virginals, was sold at Sotheby's Auction Rooms in London for $30,137,000 to an anonymous telephone bidder on July 7, 2004 (11).  

Johannes Vermeer may have been unknown for years and may have died a poor man, but today his works are considered some of the best of the Golden Age paintings.   He was a meticulous artist and unmatched in the use of color to express light, texture and depth.   Today he is considered to be one of the greatest of all the Dutch painters.

 

For further reading the following works are recommended: Vermeer : A View of Delft

by Anthony Bailey; Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces
by Philip Steadman; and two studies by Arthur K. Wheelock: Johannes Vermeer and Illuminating Vermeer.

 
Notes

1. Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London: Darling Kindersley, 1994) 382.

2. William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 310.

3. "History of Flanders: The Medieval Counts of Flanders" Medieval Flanders , Feb. 6, 2004, 2 Oct. 2004 <http://www.theotherside.co.uk/tm-heritage/background/flanders-medieval.htm

4. E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (New York: Phaidon Press, 1995) 688.

5. Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette (Toronto: Random House, 2004) 108, 205.

6. Dr. Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe, "Artists of the Baroque Period," Artcyclopedia, Sept. 10, 2004, 2 Oct. 2004 <http://witcombe.sbc.edu/ARTbaroque.html>

7. http://www.nga.gov/feature/vermeer/bio.shtm

8. Vermeer - The Magical Light   (The Discovery of Art, Documentary, Kultur 1999)

9. http://www.nga.gov/feature/vermeer/bio.shtm

10. Vermeer - The Magical Light

11. Max, Arthur (2004, May 10). Mystery persists over girl with the pearl earring. [Electronic version]. Columbia Daily Tribune. http://www.showmenews.com