Before I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I knew nothing about the Dutch painter Vermeer. I can’t claim I know any more of him now, except that I like his painting technique. Enjoyment of these books has led me to seek out images of his paintings on the Internet. I will direct you to this site, as I think it has very good scans. The colors are vibrant. The scans at Web Museum are so dark — it’s hard to see some of the detail. Of all of the paintings I saw, however, this one, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is my favorite. I like the way the light hits the girl’s face — the way her eyes shine, the moist sheen on her lips, the way the pearl glistens. It’s been compared to Mona Lisa.
The book? Well, I think technically it was better than Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue, which I reviewed here, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way that The Virgin Blue did. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the book. I think it is part of a fascinating genre of literature that seems to be really hitting its stride right now — art-inspired literature, something I previously wrote about here. I think the only thing that really troubled me about the book is the same thing that art historians have complained about — the negative portrayal of Vermeer and his wife Catharina. Susan Vreeland portrayed them, especially Catharina, very differently in Girl in Hyacinth Blue. For one thing, Vreeland emphasized their poverty. When Vermeer died, the family was deeply in debt. One story that seems veriafiably accurate is that his family’s debt with their baker was settled because the baker was willing to take Vermeer’s artwork in trade. I wondered how they could afford a maid, let alone two maids, as they had in the book. However, Chevalier pointed out that a maid, Tanneke, was mentioned in Vermeer’s will. I have to be fair and say that Chevalier never described the Vermeers as wealthy, and she emphasized that they fell into debt after the departure of Griet, the novel’s protagonist. I guess I just feel, in my modern mindset, that a maid is a luxury only wealthy people can afford. I don’t know a thing about it, so I can’t say exactly when Vermeer became poor, or whether he was always poor. He was portrayed as someone who used people for what they could bring to his artwork. There is this sense that he and Catharina do not get along, when they had 15 children together (11 of whom survived). You have to like each other a bit more than the novel portrays to have so many children, I’d think.
All that said, it was a great story. It’s sort of a story you almost want to believe. I have to say I felt the same way about Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and the painting described in that novel was completely fictional. I liked Griet a great deal. I had sympathy for her as a peasant woman living in a time when her lot in life was to serve, first the Vermeers as her masters, then her husband. I haven’t seen the movie, but the pictures I have seen make me want to — it seems the world of 17th century Delft is captured beautifully, and Scarlett Johansson is the very image of the mysterious girl in the painting. In an interesting aside, Chevalier chose the name Griet sort of on a whim. It was on a list of 17th century Dutch names she was pondering. I recognized right away that the name must be short for Margriet, or Margaret, a name that seems to have its counterpart in almost every Western language. You’d think as the mother of a Margaret, I’d have remembered that the name means “pearl.” Chevalier was happy to discover that little tidbit after the fact. One of those really fascinating moments of serendipity of a sort.
In many ways, the novel was a subtle as a Vermeer painting. I could perfectly see the settings. They were not described in so much detail that they overshadowed the story, but the imagery was still very strong. The characters thought and felt much that went unsaid. There were layers to every action — motivations both explicit and implicit. In the end, you wonder — what did Vermeer really feel for the girl? The sexual tension was rendered in such an artistic fashion. I was so glad that Chevalier didn’t ruin that by having the characters consummate their implied attraction. Chevalier said that this is a quiet book. That’s a great way to describe it. Quiet.
I will say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Girl in Hyacinth Blue, but it is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. If you find yourself wanting to learn about the painting, then I direct you to Girl with a Pearl Earring: An In-Depth Study. It’s extremely informative and very thorough.