I’ve always loved Art History, and Historical Fiction is one of my favorite literary genres, so it’s fitting that I fell in love with Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring before I even read it. Before we begin, I also highly recommend Marina Fiorato’s The Botticelli Secret and Lynn Cullen’s I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter (YA) for those of you who also love literature inspired by art.
Reading Between the Lines
Girl with a Pearl Earring was published by American-British author Tracy Chevalier in 1999, and was an immediate bestseller. Inspired by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s painting (featured on CF in 2013 ), the novel imagines the backstory of the model and her relationship with the artist. Mild spoiler alert: No, they aren’t lovers, though they do have an intimate connection.
Protagonist Griet is a young woman who comes to work in Vermeer’s household and feels more than she can understand, finding solace in his art studio. Her perspective is refreshingly relatable, from when she shies away from butcher (and love interest) Pieter’s blood-stained apron, until she is later faced with a brutal ultimatum that puts her reputation, security, and future on the line.
Chevalier’s lyricism and masterful storytelling creates an extravagant, profound narrative that will leave you reeling. Girl with a Pearl Earring has it all: a coming-of-age story, a fleshed-out historical setting, romance, family drama, and more.
I drew fashion inspiration from key moments in Griet’s journey and transformation, and ultimately put a definite focus on color and simplicity. (Note: This article is inspired only by the book, not the 2003 movie version.)
1. True Silver Color
When the light shone on the wall, I discovered, it was not white, but many colors. The pitcher and basin were the most complicated… They reflected the pattern of the rug, the girls’ bodice, the blue cloth draped over the chair – everything but their true silver color. And yet they looked as they should, like a pitcher and a basin.
After that I could not stop looking at things.
This moment comes at the first turning point of Griet and Vermeer’s relationship, when Vermeer recognizes her sensitivity to art and her ability to match his passion for capturing his subjects.
This look highlights the silver of the pitcher and basin. As a metallic color, silver already embodies the reflection and light of any surrounding colors. It also has a lot of movement and dimension.
The slight clash of the formal dress and clutch against the oversized cardigan, casual ear cuff, and iridescent nail polish represents Griet being caught between two worlds. Griet struggles with the duality of her position as a maid and artist’s assistant – and even as both a student and teacher to Vermeer – and later requests that he paint her neither as a lady nor as a maid.
2. Lemon Juice
I had grown used to the smell of linseed oil. I even kept a small bottle of it by my bed. In the mornings when I was getting dressed I held it up to the window to admire the color, which was like lemon juice with a drop of lead-tin yellow in it.
I wear that color now, I wanted to say. He is painting me in that color.
When Griet learns that she is to be painted, she struggles with the implications of being a painter’s model and the target of unwanted attention. She recognizes the vibrancy of the yellow color Vermeer captures her in, however, and describes it as a beacon incompatible with secrecy.
Yellow is often considered a happy color, however Griet is torn apart by personal conflict, including the weight of her decision to not tell her parents about the painting. This golden outfit, therefore, is heavy, despite being casual.
The reference to “lead-tin” appears in the reflective graphic on the tank top (with the cow skulls referencing Pieter the butcher), but the statement piece of this outfit is the embroidered yellow bomber, which is a similar color to the model’s attire in the Vermeer painting.
This outfit is based on practicality as well as individuality because of Griet’s long hours as a maid: the headband is more for functionality than appearances, and the sandals are intentionally flat because of the amount of walking she does each day.
3. But It Held
As I turned my head to look over my left shoulder, he glanced up. At the same time the end of the yellow cloth came loose and fell over my shoulder.
“Oh,” I breathed, afraid that the cloth would fall from my head and reveal all my hair. But it held – only the end of the yellow cloth dangled free. My hair remained hidden.
“Yes,” he said then. “That is it, Griet. Yes.”
Throughout the novel, Griet covers her hair to maintain some control over her identity. When Vermeer requests that she remove her cap for the painting, the compromise becomes an unusual cloth covering that embodies subtle sensuality and freedom while allowing her to keep a part of herself.
The headwrap reflects the personal significance the hair covering has to Griet, as a symbol of both restraint and empowerment. When she decides to loose her hair, it is for herself, and the references to her removing her cap indicate her personal transformation over the span of the novel.
Griet refuses to wear the clothing of Vermeer’s wife or any other lady, so this casual look is simple, comfortable, and age-appropriate, which is especially important considering how many people force her to grow up too fast: her mother, Prieter, Vermeer’s patron, etc.
The tote is also simple, though colorful, with an image of a Dutch cityscape to allude to the setting and historical background of Girl with a Pearl Earring.
And, of course, some pearl earrings polish off the look — though in this case, beauty is pain. Griet sits in agony while Vermeer works, after piercing her ears herself to wear the baubles.
How do you feel about the painting regarded as the Dutch Mona Lisa? Did the film adaptation live up to the novel? Let us know in the comments below!