UNLIKE MOST OF JAN VERMEER'S PAINTINGS WHICH place individuals in highly detailed interior spaces, with hangings in the background and meticulously rendered domestic objects in the foreground, "The Girl With a Pearl Earring" (c. 1665) surrounds its subject in black: a background as dark as our knowledge of the pearl-wearing girl's life. In her novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier paints a background in words, inventing a woman named Griet who narrates how, at age seventeen, she became a servant in Vermeer's household. Hired to wash clothes and clean the painter's studio, Griet is secretly recruited by Vermeer to help him grind colors for paint and, eventually, to sit for the portrait. When the artist's wife, Catharina, discovers that her own pearl earrings were worn by a servant girl in the secret painting, she evicts Griet from the house. While it is quite clear from Griet's narrative that she has fallen in love with Vermeer, his feelings toward her remain enticingly ambiguous.
Chevalier's 1999 novel, a New York Times Bestseller, was made into Girl With a Pearl Earring (2003), one of those rare films that enhances its literary source, largely due to the exquisite visuals. The art direction—a well-earned pun in this case—captures interiors reminiscent of seventeenth century paintings by Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, and Nicolaes Maes, as well as by Vermeer himself. In addition, warm yellows and reddish browns often bathe the mise en scene, generating the aura of Rembrandt van Rijn. This is a stunningly beautiful film, earning accolades for its relatively unknown director, Peter Webber, and Oscar nominations for art direction, set decoration, cinematography, and costume design. Significantly, the novel is about visual perception, and it seems only right that we see Girl With a Pearl Earring rather than merely read it. The film, in fact, does a better job than the novel of getting us to think about the different ways people look at art.
One element from the novel becomes especially provocative when it appears on the screen: a portable camera obscura. Histories of both painting and film often discuss this primitive ancestor of the movie camera. Originally, the camera obscura (the phrase means "darkened chamber") was a dark room with a hole in one wall, such that daylight entering from the outside would cast an inverted image of whatever was before it onto the opposite wall of the room. By Vermeer's day, the camera was a portable box with a viewing porthole and lenses: one lens was attached to the hole and another inside the box turned , the image right side up. Chevalier, who researched seventeenth century Holland as well as Vermeer, discovered that the artist employed a camera obscura to help him conceptualize how arrangements of subject matter might look when rendered on canvas. As Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., explains it, "A number of optical effects visible in the camera obscura seem to have attracted Vermeer, particularly its accentuated perspective, heightened colors, contrast of light and dark, and halation of highlights."
In Girl With a Pearl Earring, both the novel and the film, Vermeer invites Griet to look into a camera obscura set up in his studio. Shocked by how the image in the camera intensifies the scene that the artist has arranged to paint, Griet, in the novel, thinks of the image on glass as "a painting that was not a painting." The same could be said of 5 scenes within the film: arranged by a set designer and then captured by a movie camera, they are paintings that are not paintings, viewed on the surface of the screen. Significantly, in the film Vermeer describes the camera obscura image as "a picture made of light."
GIrl with a pearl earring, then, is about seeing, but especially about the seeing of Griet—in both senses. The novel, narrated by her, not only communicates what she sees, but also how people look at her, especially men, who often make unwanted advances. As she says of Vermeer's lascivious patron, van Ruijven, "I did not like the way he looked at me." In the film, the seeing of Griet is visualized when characters, including Griet, appear behind door jambs as they watch activity in a room, their viewing emphasized by medium shots as they face the camera, one eye hidden behind the door frame. At one point Vermeer, half his face hidden, surreptitiously watches Griet expose her seductive hair, and he leaves only when she sees him watching. In addition, several times we see the one eye of Cornelia, Vermeer daughter, spying on Griet around a door frame.
Cornelia is the one who tells her mother about the secret painting. When the outraged wife storms the studio, . the shot focuses on another painting van Ruijven had commissioned simultaneously: a Vermeer work called "The Concert" (c. 1665-1666). The annoyed Vermeer pulls "The Concert" off its easel, and we see Griet standing behind it, framed by its now empty limbs. The point, of course, is that the easel is not empty; it contains the form of Griet, the subject matter of Vermeer's secret painting, hidden behind the other commission. This framing by the easel, not mentioned in the novel, visualizes the novel's sense that Griet has become the focus of art, something far removed from her service to the Vermeer household. This echoes our experience of the film, where an actress, the extraordinary Scarlett Johanssen, has become something far removed from her service to film: a seventeenth century maid. We therefore see, as though through a camera obscura, both Scarlett Johansson and Griet become "The Girl With a Pearl Earring."
By exploring different ways Griet is seen, the novel and the film thus comment on different attitudes toward art. Van Ruijven, for example, gropes Griet's body every chance he gets, squeezing her breast as she hangs out the wash, running a hand up her thigh when she serves him at dinner. His attitude toward art is the same; it is the object of his desire, something that he wants to possess, to control. Owning paintings, like groping Griet, adds to van Ruijven's sense of power. When Griet repeatedly rebuffs his advances, van Ruijven commissions a painting of her: the portrait that becomes "The Girl With a Pearl Earring." If he can't have her one way, he'll have her in another.
In stark contrast is Maria Thins, Vermeer's mother-in-law, who, true to historical accounts, owns and runs the house where the painter lives with her daughter, Catharina. Unlike the flamboyantly dressed van Ruijven, who wants to possess art, the angular Maria, always dressed in Puritan black, only wants to sell art. For her, Vermeer's painting is not about beauty, it is about income. Deciding that Griet is "useful" because she helps the artist paint faster, and hence earn money more quickly, Maria, behind Catharina's back, allows Griet to help Vermeer prepare paint, going so far as to abscond with her daughter's earrings so that Vermeer can add them to Griet's portrait.
Catharina considers both art and Griet a nuisance: impediments to intimacy with her husband. Indifferent to the beauty and income-generating power of his paintings, Catharina is interested only in herself, showing very little affection even for her children. Constantly pregnant (historians note that she delivered at least eleven babies), Catharina responds to Vermeer the man, but seems to fear Vermeer the artist. He, in fact, will not allow her to enter his studio because her carelessness—in both senses of the word—interferes with his art.
This is quite a contrast to his attitude toward Griet. Recognizing her passionate love for artistic beauty, Vermeer arranges for her to sleep in an attic connected to his studio so she can better serve his work. Not only does Griet help mix paints, she makes valuable aesthetic judgements. At one point in the novel, she becomes disturbed by a subtle lack of balance in a scene that Vermeer is painting— "A Lady Writing" (c. 1665-1666)—and therefore rearranges a blue cloth in the still life. The film uses a different painting, "Young Woman with a Water Jug" (1665-1666), showing that Griet, who wears the same white cap as the woman in the picture, inspired the image. After intently surveying "Young Woman with a Water Jug," holding her hand in front of its various shapes, Griet finally drags a chair out of the subject matter scene. Vermeer, in both the novel and the film, changes his painting to incorporate Griet's aesthetically astute alteration.
Thus, while Catharina's body meets Vermeer's sexual needs, Griet's body meets his artistic needs. In the novel this is symbolized by the way Griet cleans his studio (something the film could have better visualized). Having been instructed not to disrupt his still life arrangements, Griet uses her body to make sure she returns dusted items to their correct locations: "I measured each thing in relation to the objects around it and the space between them. The small things on the table were easy, the furniture harder—I used my feet, my knees, sometimes my shoulders and chin with the chairs." The film, instead, shows luminous rapture on Griet's face every time she looks at Vermeer's art.
An erotic connection, then, is established between Vermeer and Griet not through body love but through beauty love. Consummation occurs not in the flesh but through art, seen as the two interact over color and form, as well as when she becomes his art, his "Girl With the Pearl Earring." In order to wear the earring, however, Griet must have her ears pierced. While in the novel she does the task herself, the film shows Vermeer piercing her ears with a hot needle, implying that he penetrates her with his art rather than his flesh.
This is not to suggest that Griet feels no fleshly desire for Vermeer. While the novel can make explicit Griet's hidden attraction to the artist through the way she writes about him, the film had the more difficult task of suggesting unspoken, undemonstrated sexual desire. One way it does so is through smoldering looks passed between the painter and his servant—his lingering, hers furtive, reflecting their stations in life. Once again, it is about the eye. But even then, Vermeer's eye is that of the artist, and in both texts it is not clear whether it looks at Griet sexually as well as aesthetically.
Played with brooding virility by the incomparable Colin Firth, the film's Vermeer evinces a submerged passion that erupts when Griet is accused of stealing his wife's comb. In a scene not in the novel, he throws around the house's furnishings in search of the comb, making us aware that a wild animal is caged under Vermeer's restrained demeanor. Hence, when the fingers of Griet and Vermeer accidentally touch while preparing paint, we sense electricity between them.
THE EROTICISM REACHES ITS HEIGHT AS GRIET SITS FOR the portrait, wetting her lusciously full lips with her tongue in response to his request. Later, he tenderly wipes away tears generated when he inserts the pearl earring into her infected ear. The film captures Griet's description of the incident with erotic power: "His fingers brushed against my neck and along my jaw. He traced the side of my face up to my cheek, then blotted the tears that spilled from my eyes with his thumb. He ran this thumb over my lower lip. I licked it and tasted salt." However, as soon as Griet turns toward Vermeer with lip-swollen desire, he turns toward the canvas to capture her aroused beauty. Immediately after the sitting, therefore, she goes in search of Pieter, a young butcher who has been courting her, in order to offer her virginity to him. Significantly, in the novel Griet tells us that the first time Pieter kissed her, he was "so eager that he bit my lips. I did not cry out—I licked away the salty blood": an obvious foreshadowing of the salt licked from her lips as she sits for Vermeer.
The butcher does for Griet, then, what Catharina does for Vermeer: satisfy the desires of the body, desires that only dimly reflect the erotics of art. The novel makes the parallel explicit, not only by describing both Catharina and Pieter with blonde curls, but also through a knife motif. The first time we see Griet in both texts, she is cutting vegetables for her mother with a huge knife, arranging the pieces into a pleasing pattern. Intensely engaged with the beauty of her creation, she is interrupted by the entrance of the Vermeers, who want to hire her as a servant. During the interview, Catharina accidentally knocks the knife off the table, disrupting the aesthetics of the vegetable pattern, something she doesn't even notice. Then, two years later, when she discovers the painting of Griet in her husband's studio, Catharina grabs his palette knife and attempts to destroy "The Girl With a Pearl Earring." Vermeer catches her by the wrist just before the blade cuts into the eye, the organ that regards art.
Pieter also wields a knife in total disregard for art. His knife, of course, is part of his profession as a butcher, and he seeks to lure Griet away from Vermeer's palate knife through a proposal of marriage, asking her to join him in his profession. Though such a union would elevate Griet's status, it is clear that she would rather have her hands stained red by the vermilion of Vermeer's business than the blood of Pieter's, drawing attention, once again, to a tension between the illusion of art and the desires of flesh. The film symbolizes the tension when Griet watches clouds out the kitchen window after Vermeer has taught her to see their color. The cook, seeing Griet's rapturous expression, teases, "Thinking of your butcher boy, eh?"
The novel also sets up a related tension that the film only touches upon: one between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. When Griet is first hired, she worries about living with the Vermeers in "Papists' Corner, where the Catholics lived," so she returns to her family every Sunday in order to attend Protestant services in a church that Pieter starts frequenting. However, she can't escape paintings of the Crucifixion hanging in the Vermeer house. Believing that religious paintings are idolatrous, since only "the Word" is necessary for Christian worship, Griet tries to cover a crucifixion scene by her bed with an apron. Though the offensive paintings were not by Vermeer, who was an art dealer as well as a painter, Griet asks him "Are your paintings Catholic paintings?" Vermeer responds, "It's not the painting that is Catholic or Protestant... but the people who look at it, and what they expect to see. A painting in a church is like a candle in a dark room—we use it to see better. It is the bridge between ourselves and God. But it is not a Protestant candle or a Catholic candle. It is simply a candle."
Consonant with the overarching theme of Girl With a Pearl Earring, Vermeer thus addresses the way we look at paintings, how we see art. Even a painting in a church might be used self-interestedly, to create ecstasy, for example, the way van Ruijven attempts to use Griet. Or it may be valued only for its price, reminiscent of Maria Thins. It may be regarded with indifference, as by Pieter, or resentment, as by Catharina. To see a painting as a bridge between ourselves and God, however, may be to recognize the imago Dei in its creator. As Nikolai Berdyaev argues in The Destiny of Man (1937), "Free creativeness is the creature's answer to the great call of its creator. Man's creative work is the fulfillment of the Creator's secret will." Significantly, Vermeer goes on to tell Griet, "Paintings may serve a spiritual purpose for Catholics, but remember too that Protestants see God everywhere, in everything. By painting everyday things—tables and chairs, bowls and pitchers, soldiers and maids—are they not celebrating God's creation as well?"
The elimination of this conversation from the film might seem an unfortunate oversight, or worse, a concession to the Maria Thins of Hollywood. However, I would suggest that the film practices what the novel preaches. While Chevalier's book is Protestant like Griet, reliant on the word even to the point of describing famous works of art, the film is Catholic like Vermeer, reliant on the visual to mediate the message. Indeed, the Vermeer of the film speaks one tenth as much as that of the novel and Griet, who narrates the tale, speaks hardly at all in the film. Instead, she martyrs herself for love of Vermeer and his art, pierced not in the hands and feet, but in the ears, leaving the world she loves after her martyrdom is complete.
Unlike the angular words on the pages of the novel, black on white like the severely dressed Maria Thins, the film gives us a painting that is not a painting-"a picture made of light"—its accentuated perspective, heightened colors, contrast of light and dark, and halation of highlights intensified by the darkened chamber—the camera obscura-of a movie theater.
Crystal Downing teaches at Messiah College. Her book, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.