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The girl with the pearl earring


By Kathy Pillatzki
Assistant Director
Henry County Library System

  She gazes at you over her left shoulder, her expression so intimate you canít look away. A yellow and blue turban graces her head and trails down her back. Her eyes and lips are luminous, eclipsed only by the glow of the pearl dangling from her ear.

  She is the Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer in 1665, and on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through September 29. She is on loan, along with masterpieces by other Dutch artists including Rembrandt and Vermeer, from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands.

  As an artistic enigma, the painting is second only to the Mona Lisa. Like her slightly more famous counterpart, the girl looks at the viewer with a familiar yet inscrutable expression. Despite the best efforts of art scholars, there is no consensus regarding who she was, why the style of the painting differs from other portraiture of the time, or why she wears a unique headdress inconsistent with any known fashion of the day.

  Often when facts are thin on the ground, fiction can flesh out the story. Tracy Chevalier did that for the Girl with a Pearl Earring in her 1999 novel by the same name. Chevalier started with the known facts about Vermeerís career, his technique, and his life with his family in Delft. She filled in the gaps through extensive research about daily life and customs in 17th century Holl-and, then wove it all together with an imaginative tale about the identity of the girl.

  In Chevalierís novel, a teen named Griet is the sitter for the portrait. Grietís father, a skilled tile painter, is blinded in a kiln explosion, plunging the family into poverty. To keep starvation at bay, her parents send her to work as a maid for the wealthy widow Maria Thins, mother-in-law of Johannes Vermeer and owner of the home where he lives and has his studio.

  As Griet proves her competence and earns the trust of her employer, she is given more tasks, including the responsibility of cleaning the masterís studio. Gradually he notices her eye for color, light and composition, and trains her as his assistant. As Griet is drawn deeper into the painterís world and away from her other responsibilities, tensions begin to rise in her relationships with others in the household as well as her own family.

  It is unlikely that researchers will ever know the identity of the girl with any certainty, or the reason for her unusual headdress. Vermeer died in 1675 at age 43, leaving behind a very small body of work and precious little documentation about his life and career.

  I seldom read a book more than once, but I read Chevalierís novel when it was first released, and again recently in anticipation of viewing the painting at the High. The author masterfully blends fact and fiction, making an already intriguing subject even more spellbinding. If you are a lover of art, history, beauty or mystery, read the book, then go see the Girl with a Pearl Earring.



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