This was not the first time that I’ve entered the quiet world of Johannes Vermeer at the hands of Tracy Chevalier, but it has been a few years since the last time I read this beautifully paced novel. The subject of the novel is self-evident; Chevalier makes a guess at the events that inspired one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, which is of the same title as the novel. In Chevalier’s version of the painting’s origin, the subject is seventeen-year-old Griet, who has been forced by the loss of her father’s career to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in order to support her parents.
Chevalier’s characterization of Griet as an outsider looking in is quite brilliant. Griet is filled with apprehension as she realizes that she must leave her home to live among Catholics but she is also interested in the possibilities of living in an upper class household, even as a servant. These differences of class and religion give Griet an insight into the world of the Vermeers that pulls the reader right into their household and gives an idea of the larger conflicts of 17th century Dutch society.
But again it was the paintings that struck me. More hung in this room than anywhere else. I counted to nineteen silently. Most were portraits–they appeared to be members of both families There was also a painting of the Virgin Mary, and one of the three worshipping the Christ Child. I gazed at both uneasily.
The beauty of Chevalier’s writing lies in small details and a simple narrative style that fits naturally into the mouth of a teenaged maid, while teasing the reader’s senses with lush descriptions.
I took up my candle, found the mirror in the storeroom and climbed to the attic. I propped the mirror against the wall on the grinding table and set the candle next to it. I got out my needlecase and, choosing the thinnest needle, set the tip in the flame of the candle. Then I opened the bottle of clove oil, expecting it to smell foul, of mould or rotting leaves, as remedies often do. Instead it was sweet and strange, like honeycakes left out in the sun. It was from far away, from places Frans might get to on his ships.
Picked for the job as a maid in the Vermeer household partially because of her father’s professional associations, but also because of her artistic eye, Griet quickly becomes fascinated by Vermeer’s work. It isn’t long before Vermeer recognizes her talent and asks her to assist him in mixing paints. As she spends more time with him, developing talents that would be unexpressed in any other household, Griet begins to develop a devotion for Vermeer that threatens her position in the household.
Although the daily world of the Vermeer household is filled with many small conflicts and jealousies, the pace of the novel picks up when Griet is exposed to Vermeer’s patron, de Reis, who serves as the villain of the novel. A rich man, he clearly believes that serving girls are one of the many luxuries that his wealth brings to him. When he discovers Griet’s captivating wide eyes, he becomes obsessed with having her sit in a painting with him. As the Vermeer household scheme to protect her without offending the patron that pays their monthly bills, her own family begins pushing her towards a young butcher that has his eye on her. Torn between heart and head, Griet must figure out how to appease her employers, her family and her own heart and mind.
Chevalier brings us on a coming-of-age journey that rings true, as Griet enters her adulthood in a complex but captivating world. This is a novel that I come back to again and again for its complex simplicity and honest prose, as well as the immersion into an exotic and fascinating world.
Published: 1999 by Dutton, 256 pg.