Sunday, 15 January 2017

Tracy Chevalier — Girl with a Pearl Earring Jan 13, 2017

First edition, London 1999

After early neglect Johannes Vermeer's ascendancy in the world of art has been rapid. He painted what are regarded as some of the most precious paintings of northern Europe. People admired his colours and his compositional technique which produced quiet genre paintings of women going about everyday tasks. Every painting draws the viewer in, yet does not yield its mystery no longer how long one views it.

Jan Vermeer van Delft from the figure at left in black beret of the painting ‘The Procuress’, which critics hold to be an authentic effigy of the young Vermeer

He remained poor all his working life and never left Delft, his hometown. He had but one major patron (Van Ruijven) who left his own daughter a legacy of 20 paintings by Vermeer. 

Vermeer had eleven children to feed and depended on rents brought in by his mother-in-law, Maria Thins, for pursuing his passion to paint. In the end a ruinous war destroyed the art market and a defensive measure by the Dutch to flood the lowlands by opening the dykes inundated his mother-in-law's rental houses. That brought on destitution for the Vermeer family; he descended into despondency and mania and died, leaving behind 34 works, now considered priceless.

Meera, KumKum, Zakia, Saras

Tracy Chevalier mentions she must have seen three of Vermeer's paintings at the National Gallery of Art growing up in Washington, D.C., but none evoked a response at the time. It was later when she saw a poster of the Girl with a Pearl Earring in her sister's apartment that she was stirred and got one for herself. 

Girl with a Pearl Earring - Vermeer

Slowly the idea grew to write the story behind the painting as a historical novel, rooted faithfully in the times. It was to be Ms Chevalier's second novel, the one that made her famous and got her a film contract in addition.

Sunil, Thommo, & Hemjit

The novel is not literary, but there are several quotes that stand out:
But what is the story in the painting? — Griet's father asks her
I would never stop working on a painting if I knew it was not complete.— Vermeer to Griet

During the session the women readers graciously posed in the way Vermeer had Griet pose for his famous painting, the GWAPE pose. Here is the first by Priya:

Priya in GWAPE pose with nose-ring

The readers gathered for a picture after the enjoyable session which concluded with Hemjit's spread of sandwiches and cutlets, to celebrate his birthday on Jan 16:

seated - Pamela, KumKum, Hemjit - standing Joe, Thommo, Zakia, Sunil, Saras, Meera

Tracy Chevalier — Girl with a Pearl Earring
Full Account and Record of the Reading on Jan 13, 2017

Tracy Chevalier from a TED talk

Eight of us met for reading the novel by Tracy Chevalier, her second, and most famous one — selected by Shoba and Pamela. We also celebrated the proximate birthday of Hemjit on Jan 16; and sang for him before having the wonderful sandwiches and cutlets sent by his wife, Sugandhi.

The goodies Hemjit brought, made by his wife, Sugandhi

Present: Saras, Pamela, Zakia, Thommo, Sunil, Joe, KumKum, Hemjit
Guest: Meera, daughter of Saras, visiting from Mumbai
Absent: Kavita (busy with guests at her estate), Shoba (bereavement in the family), Priya (unwell), Preeti

The date for the next reading is as follows:
Sat Feb 11, 2017, noon – Poetry at Kavita's estate in Thodupuzha
Fri Mar 10, 2017, 5:30pm – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Procuress, 1656 - Vermeer self-portrait is on the left, critics think

Thommo showed us the replica of a white and blue Delft house which is given as a gift to every business-class traveller by KLM. His brother, Chax, worked in ABN AMRO Bank N.V., headquartered in Amsterdam, and used to travel there often. As a result he has a virtual row of Delft blue houses:

Thommo holds model of Delft house, which his brother used to get as a gift every time he flew KLM business class to the Netherlands

Pamela as a selector of this novel introduced it to the readers with a few words she read off the Web, which Joe has expanded below.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is universally recognised as one of Johannes Vermeer's masterworks. The work still poses significant questions. Who was the sitter and was the painting even intended as a portrait? Did Vermeer sell the painting during his lifetime? Why was the original background a deep transparent green rather than the black we see today? Was the pearl a real one? What significance did the turban have? Which painting procedures did Vermeer employ? What pigments did he use?
These are some of the questions that led Tracy Chevalier into the novel.

Meera visiting us from Mumbai, and Pamela

In an interview Tracy Chevalier says she grew up in Washington D.C. but has been an expat in London for long. She believes she has to describe the minutiae of her character’s lives and so visits the scenes she is going to use in her novels to absorb that. Here’s a quote about her writing methods:
I read what I wrote the day before, and then write longhand, into a notebook. I prefer paper and pen because it feels closer to my brain. I try to write 1,000 words a day – about three pages. When I reach 1,000 words I feel good. Less than that: a failure. More than that: tired.”

Thommo, Hemjit, Pamela, KumKum

She finds it very difficult to get the dialogue to sound as if it was of the period and we can see that in GWAPE. Usually her characters are made up, but surrounded by real stuff. In this novel even the characters are taken from history for the most part, except Griet herself, the central character and narrator. Chevalier has written 7 novels after GWAPE, none as successful as GWAPE, which has sold 4m copies worldwide and has been made into a successful film starring Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet in 2003, see

Pamela, Meera (daughter of Saras), KumKum, Saras

She says in another interview:
that it was wonderful to get the validation of her as a writer by attracting that wide readership, but claims it could not have happened without Vermeer himself having attained great fame in the twentieth century. That success made it harder to write her next novels - there are eight of them now and a book of short stories. Writing GWAPE in a single voice, that of Griet, was more or less an obvious choice for Chevalier but her later books have had several voices, and she considers multiple voices a technique worth using. That the story should be about this imagined maid-servant who stares out of the painting, rather than about the painter himself, was not so obvious. Perhaps this was the feminist in the author, believing artists have lots written about them, but not much is known, and even less written, about their models.

Meera, KumKum, Zakia, Saras

On the identity of the the girl in the painting she told an interviewer
In the painting the girl’s clothes are very plain compared to other Vermeer ladies, and yet the pearl is clearly luxurious. I was fascinated by that contrast, and it seemed to me that the pearl was not hers. At the same time, I also felt the girl knew Vermeer well, as her gaze is very direct and knowing. So I thought, "She knows him, she’s close to him, but she’s not well off. Who is she?" His servant. It just seemed right.

Chevalier also made Vermeer occupy a different part of the house, imagining he could not have had the calm to paint his tranquil scenes with 11 children around him. Chevalier saw Vermeer paintings first at the National Gallery of Art in DC where there are three Vermeers (A Lady Writing, Woman with a Balance, Girl in a Red Hat) but she did not respond to them. Her response came when she saw a poster of Girl with a Pearl Earring which her sister had hung in her apartment. She looked at it and thought, "My God, she’s striking," and went out the next day and bought a poster for herself.

Griet licks her lips on the master's orders

As she was writing the novel she had a bottle of linseed oil open, and a catalogue of Vermeer paintings beside her, because many of them are referenced in the book. Take a look at the website of the book

1. Pamela
Pamela in GWAPE pose

In the painting the pearl is small, said Thommo. But it seems larger than most pearls drooping from women's ears in modern times. Who commissioned the painting? Was it Van Ruijven, the patron of Vermeer, who ended up historically owning about 20 of Vermeer's paintings more than half his output? That is how the novel makes it out to be.
The maid-servant gets the unwelcome attention of the randy patron whenever he visits. Van Ruijven acted as though he had licence to grope her and the difference in power status gave him immunity. Sunil said it would not be much different in modern times . The film Maid in Manhattan was cited; but that's the case of a US senatorial candidate falling for a hotel room-service maid, thinking she is a socialite when he sees her trying on a wealthy woman's dress.
Pamela said the novel was full of gossip, everybody is talking about goings on elsewhere. Much like a Mallu village, she said. Thommo said ‘gossip’ is the same the world over.
Pamela noted that in the book Vermeer never says or hints that he is in love with Griet. True, said Joe, however the film, by contrast, makes out a certain closeness in scenes; for example, both of them get under the cloak of the camera obscura together in the film, whereas in the novel, they view the scene separately. The film also adds an erotic dimension in the ear-piercing, when Vermeer heats the needle to pierce her ears, a job she does herself in the novel. For a discussion see A Pearl of Great Price. From Vermeer's side there was not even the vague thought of a romance; from her side it was more awe than anything else, seeing a supreme master working at his craft.
Meera mentioned that the master of the house, Vermeer, was only interested in her as a model for his art, and was impressed by her sensitivity to colour, arrangement, and her attention to his painting needs.
Thommo raised the point that the whole story behind the pearl in the novel is fictional. There's no proof Vermeer used his wife's jewelry; the inventory of assets at his death (of which there is an accurate historical record) does not show it.
KumKum raised the point: how could a husband give away a portion of his wife's personal jewelry in his will? Joe said there's nothing unusual about it for the times. It was a patriarchal society. Even in 19th century America and UK women once married, did not own anything according to the law, not even what they brought upon entering into the marriage.
Joe thought that the reason for the gift of pearls to Griet from Vermeer as a legacy could be his sense of guilt at not having stood by her when she was falsely accused by his wife of stealing the pearls.
According to Hemjit, Catharina was out of her league with Vermeer, having no interest or curiosity in his work. This is evident from Vermeer's answer, “You and the children are not a part of this world. You are not meant to be.”
Thommo said it was a fecund excess of children that made him bankrupt; eleven born to Catharina, survived.
This immediately put Sunil in mind of someone he knew in Fort Kochi who had ten boys and four girls. Once when Sunil came to shop for bread at Elite Hotel on Princess Street, he saw this gentleman staggering out with a huge package, and asked him if he was having a party at home. The response was, “Are you making fun of me? Do you know how many loaves are needed to feed my offspring?”

2. Hemjit
Hemjit's two short passages convey Griet's appreciation of composition and colours, and her quick learning from the few words of Vermeer teaching her how to ‘see’ as an artist would. First it is the arrangement of five vegetables as she slices them in the kitchen: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. Then it is discovering that white clouds are often composed of several other colours as well.
Thommo confessed that all the men in the novel are attracted by the young maid-servant. She must have been a good looker. But Griet is repelled by Van Ruijven, the old lecher whose desire for the GWAPE painting of her must have corresponded to his desire to possess her. She is more responsive to Pieter the butcher's son, and seems to have formed an early hankering to marry him, for his meat and his blond curls. No real romance there, only a willingness of the flesh for meaty reasons.

3. Thommo
The central question of this passage is Griet's allegation that there is a difference between Catholic Painting and Protestant painting. Vermeer puts this to the test, since he has was born Protestant, and converted to Catholicism after his marriage to Catharina Bolnes. In the end Vermeer answers the question like this:
It’s not the painting that is Catholic or Protestant,” he said, “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.”

Yet the servant girl despite her being untutored has hinted at a difference: Catholic painters made many more paintings with a religious purpose than Protestant painters. Perhaps it arose purely from a difference of patronage, with the Church and Catholic royalty funding many of the paintings on the one hand, whereas rich merchants (like Van Ruijven) commissioned paintings in the Protestant north of Europe.
Thommo thought it fantastic that a simple house-maid could fathom her master's psychology from his movements to such a depth as this passage reveals:
I had learned to gauge his mood, not from the little he said or the expression on his face—he did not show much—but from the way he moved about the studio and attic. When he was happy, when he was working well, he strode purposefully back and forth, no hesitation in his stride, no movement wasted. If he had been a musical man, he would have been humming or singing or whistling under his breath.

The author has gone overboard in trying to endow Griet with the ability to divine her master's moods. KumKum said Tracy Chevalier had to bring Griet out of the painting and make her a living character as part of her novelistic attempt to find the story behind the painting.

4. Sunil
Griet has grown in artistic sensibility by watching her master at work and the fruit of that progress is her intervention in a painting to add an element which was not there at the beginning. She realised some ‘disorder’ was needed as an element in the picture A Lady Writing ‘to snag the eye.’ She waited for Vermeer to make the change she thought necessary and when that did not happen she took the initiative and boldly
pulled the front part of the blue cloth onto the table so that it flowed out of the dark shadows under the table and up in a slant onto the table in front of the jewelry box.

At night she checks if Vermeer had made the change corresponding to the blue cloth and finds
he had re-sketched in reddish brown the folds of the blue cloth. He had made my change.

When Vermeer asks next day why she made the change, Griet gives an erudite reply befitting a student of the fine arts. And Vermeer has to concede, “I had not thought I would learn something from a maid.”

Joe provided some background he had gathered from a video on Youtube (The madness of Vermeer part 4) about how Vermeer went bankrupt and died. The war with Spain in 1672 had destroyed the art market. On top of that the Dutch resorted to their standard defensive manoeuvre when faced by invaders: they flooded the land which is on average 2m below sea-level, by opening the dykes. To Vermeer's misfortune the houses of Maria Thins on rent were inundated and that stopped the only other source of income. Catharina Bolnes in a testamentary document gives witness that Vermeer lapsed into decay and decadence thereafter, and died.

5. Joe
In the passage Joe chose, Catharina confronts Griet about the earrings she is wearing in the painting, her earrings. Though Maria Thins and Vermeer are there and could defend her from the charge of having stolen the earrings, they remain silent. Enraged, Catharina lunges for the palette knife of Vermeer and makes a dash to slash the painting with it, but Vermeer is quicker, and restrains her; the knife falls and spins pointing toward Griet's feet. It is the most dramatic scene in the novel.
Thommo recounted that the novel starts with a knife, where she is chopping vegetables and arranging them according to colours in a circular fashion. And near the end of the novel also here is a scene with a knife. Perhaps it is a dramatic reinforcement, said KumKum, but violence is hardly the theme of the novel.
Thommo raised the question of how a man could will his wife's earrings to a another person. It seems the man owned everything. The law was like that.
How they tortured us!”, KumKum cried out, in a general denunciation of male patriarchy. The rest of the readers chimed in satirically.
Pamela declared that Joe would claim, Njan oru paavam aney (I am a hapless bloke, in Malayalam). She alluded to the image of the Tree of Life in the Bible which occurs in the first book, Genesis, and recurs in the last book, Revelation, analogous to the knife in this novel. 

6. Saras
Saras in GWAPE pose

Griet has been working at the Vermeer household for a while. When she visits her parents on Sunday her father, a tile-painter, now gone blind from an accident, interrogates her about her master's paintings. She describes the painting Woman With a Water Jug in graphic terms so he could envision it in his mind. 

Woman with a Water Jug - Vermeer

He gets confused by her description and asks in the end for clarification: “But what is the story in the painting?” Griet answers that her master's paintings ‘don't tell stories.’
Ironical said Joe, for in one sense, the entire novel is an attempt to find the story behind a single painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. One art critic has said that Vermeer is absent from the scenes he paints, and he always leave the viewer guessing what is the story. In a sense that is what makes for the lasting allure of a painting such as GWAPE, or the Mona Lisa.

7. Zakia
Zakia in GWAPE pose

Griet accompanies the senior servant, Tanneke, to the meat market to buy stuff for the Vermeers. It was to a different butcher she went, not the one her father's household used. She feels the tang of blood in the air and the smell of meat markets, and notes that Pieter, the butcher for the Vermeer household, is less meticulous about keeping his apron clean of spots of blood. Further on Griet confesses: “I crushed lavender and hid it under my chemise to mask the smell of meat that seemed to hang about me even when I was far from the Meat Hall.”
The ‘display of joints, chops, tongue, pigs’ feet, sausages’ would be enough to make any vegetarian blanch. Sunil called them ‘spare parts’ of animals and referred to boti curry, often cooked in Fort Kochi, defined as a curry made with lamb gizzards cooked in a spicy gravy. It is also referred to as tripe in Western countries.
Saras recounted an experience when she was invited by a patient of her husband in Vypeen and a large table was set out with nothing but meat dishes. She being a complete vegetarian could not find anything to eat; in desperation her hostess offered fish curry; when that was declined, then egg curry. In the end curd and rice saved the day.
KumKum had a similar experience in her early days when a table was set at Kurishinkal House, laden with the meat of ‘big animals’ which she couldn't eat (nor that of beautiful animals like rabbits); she inquired if there were any vegetables. Santosh, Joe's cousin, replied that since their practice was to feed their animals only with vegetarian fodder, the Kurishinkals derived all their veg intake at one remove by eating animals.

8. KumKum
KumKum in GWAPE pose

In this passage Griet humours her father who smells linseed oil on her and wants to know what Vermeer is painting. But instead of describing the painting being done of her (Girl with a Pearl Earring), which would have been awkward, she describes the second painting Vermeer was doing at the same time, (The Concert). “A young woman sits at a harpsichord, playing. She is wearing a yellow and black bodice ....” Griet's father is amused that Van Ruijven appears in the painting in the pose of playing a lute, for he plays the lute badly.

Vermeer - The Concert

Pieter comes on Sundays to their home in the form of a suitor, accepted, nay encouraged, by Griet's mother. He never inquired why Griet smelled of linseed oil, or sought any other particulars of her life in the Vermeer household.
Hemjit thought this was because he was confident, knowing she would belong to him ultimately (she had had sex with him, after all) and was waiting until she came out of that phase of her life.
KumKum chimed in that Pieter could see he was destined for her.
Saras noted Vermeer was doing two paintings at the same time, which was unusual for the painter.
KumKum alluded to the astonishing colours in his painting, mentioning indigo blue and cow's urine, imported from India. Indian yellow, also called euxanthin or euxanthine, is transparent yellow pigment used in oil painting and watercolours. The wikipedia entry does consider KumKum's hypothesis and rejects it for lack of evidence. See

Joe said Vermeer used exotic and expensive colours in his painting, for example grinding lapis lazuli for blue. In the novel it is mentioned
The only colour he did not allow me to handle was ultramarine. Lapis lazuli was so expensive, and the process of extracting a pure blue from the stone so difficult, that he worked with it himself.

KumKum claimed Vermeer was the first to use lapis for ultramarine blue. Using such expensive pigments when his output was modest may have contributed to his falling into debt, and his subsequent impoverishment. The prices he got were nothing like what you could get from royal patrons. Vermeer was insular, he never travelled from Delft to other wealthy cities to sell his paintings or obtain commissions.

Zakia referred to a large mural on exhibit in the Kochi Muziris Biennale currently in session. Lots of colours have been kept beside the mural to show the sources from which they have been obtained. The muralist P.K. Sadanandan does not use chemically derived dyes and this entails his having to do a lot of research to find the exact shades required. See
Sadanandan Mural at KM Biennale

Sadanandan's mural is painted with natural colours alone (laterite, stone, organic pigment etc)


1. Pamela Griet receives the gift of Christina's pearl earrings and sells it for twenty guilders.

Scarlett Johansson as Griet in GWAPE

The last thing I had expected from Catharina was an explanation of why they ran into debt. Fifteen guilders after all this time is not so very much, I wanted to say. Pieter has let it go. Think no more of it. But I dared not interrupt her. “And then there were the children. Do you know how much bread eleven children eat?” She looked up at me briefly, then back down at the powder-brush. One painting’s worth over three years, I answered silently. One very fine painting, to a sympathetic baker. I heard the click of a tile in the hallway, and the rustle of a dress being stilled by a hand. Cornelia, I thought, still spying. She too is taking her place in the drama. I waited, holding back the questions I wanted to ask.
Van Leeuwenhoek finally spoke. “Griet, when a will has been drawn up,” he began in his deep voice, “an inventory of the family’s possessions must be taken to establish the assets while considering the debts. However, there are private matters that Catharina would like to attend to before this is done.” He glanced at Catharina. She continued to play with the powderbrush.
They do not like each other still, I thought. They would not even be in the same room together if they could help it.
Van Leeuwenhoek picked up a piece of paper from the table. “He wrote this letter to me ten days before he died,” he said to me. He turned to Catharina. “You must do this,” he ordered, “for they are yours to give, not his or mine. As executor of his will I should not even be here to witness this, but he was my friend, and I would like to see his wish granted.”
Catharina snatched the paper from his hand. “My husband was not a sick man, you know,” she addressed herself to me. “He was not really ill until a day or two before his death. It was the strain of the debt that drove him into a frenzy.”
I could not imagine my master in a frenzy.
Catharina looked down at the letter, glanced at van Leeuwenhoek, then opened her jewelry box. “He asked that you have these.” She picked out the earrings and after a moment’s hesitation laid them on the table. I felt faint and closed my eyes, touching the back of the chair lightly with my fingers to steady myself.
I have not worn them again,” Catharina declared in a bitter tone. “I could not.”
I opened my eyes. “I cannot take your earrings, madam.”
Why not? You took them once before. And besides, it’s not for you to decide. He has decided for you, and for me. They are yours now, so take them.” I hesitated, then reached over and picked them up. They were cool and smooth to the touch, as I had remembered them, and in their grey and white curve a world was reflected.
I took them.
Now go,” Catharina ordered in a voice muffled with hidden tears. “I have done what he asked. I will do no more.” She stood up, crumpled the paper and threw it on the fire. She watched it flare up, her back to me. I felt truly sorry for her. Although she could not see it, I nodded to her respectfully, and then to van Leeuwenhoek, who smiled at me. “Take care to remain yourself,” he had warned me so long ago. I wondered if I had done so. It was not always easy to know. I slipped across the floor, clutching my earrings, my feet making loose tiles clink together. I closed the door softly behind me. Cornelia was standing out in the hallway. The brown dress she wore had been repaired in several places and was not as clean as it could be. As I brushed past her she said in a low, eager voice, “You could give them to me.” Her greedy eyes were laughing. I reached over and slapped her.

When I got back to Market Square I stopped by the star in the
center and looked down at the pearls in my hand. I could not keep them. What would I do with them? I could not tell Pieter how I came to have them—it would mean explaining everything that had happened so long ago. I could not wear the earrings anyway—a butcher’s wife did not wear such things, no more than a maid did.
I walked around the star several times. Then I set out for a place I had heard of but never been to, tucked away in a back street behind the New Church. I would not have visited such a place ten years before. The man’s trade was keeping secrets. I knew that he would ask me no questions, nor tell anyone that I had gone to him. After seeing so many goods come and go, he was no longer curious about the stories behind them. He held the earrings up to the light, bit them, took them outside to squint at them.
Twenty guilders,” he said.
I nodded, took the coins he held out, and left without looking back. There were five extra guilders I would not be able to explain. I separated five coins from the others and held them tight in my fist. I would hide them somewhere that Pieter and my sons would not look, some unexpected place that only I knew of.
I would never spend them. Pieter would be pleased with the rest of the coins, the debt now settled. I would not have cost him anything. A maid came free.

2. Hemjit
Griet's artistic vision of colours and composition comes out.
Arrangement of five vegetables

What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked.
I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.”
I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.
The man tapped his finger on the table. “Are they laid out in the order in which they will go into the soup?” he suggested, studying the circle. “No, sir.” I hesitated. I could not say why I had laid out the vegetables as I did. I simply set them as I felt they should be, but I was too frightened to say so to a gentleman.
I see you have separated the whites,” he said, indicating the turnips and onions. “And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?” He picked up a shred of cabbage and a piece of carrot and shook them like dice in his hand. I looked at my mother, who nodded slightly.
The colors fight when they are side by side, sir.”
I looked out. It was a breezy day, with clouds disappearing behind the New Church tower.
What color are those clouds?”
Why, white, sir.” He raised his eyebrows slightly. “Are they?” I glanced at them. “And grey. Perhaps it will snow.”
Come, Griet, you can do better than that. Think of your vegetables.” “My vegetables, sir?”
He moved his head slightly. I was annoying him again. My jaw tightened. “Think of how you separated the whites. Your turnips and your onions—are they the same white?” Suddenly I understood. “No. The turnip has green in it, the onion yellow.” “Exactly. Now, what colors do you see in the clouds?”
There is some blue in them,” I said after studying them for a few minutes. “And—yellow as well. And there is some green!” I became so excited I actually pointed. I had been looking at clouds all my life, but I felt as if I saw them for the first time at that moment.
He smiled. “You will find there is little pure white in clouds, yet people say they are white. Now do you understand why I do not need the blue yet?” “Yes, sir.” I did not really understand, but did not want to admit it. I felt I almost knew.

3. Thommo
Griet asks Vermeer about the difference between Catholic paintings and Protestant paintings.
The next morning it was painful to look at the painting. The blocks of false colors had been painted, and he had built up her eyes, and the high dome of her forehead, and part of the folds of the mantle sleeve. The rich yellow in particular filled me with the guilty pleasure that my mother’s words had condemned. I tried instead to picture the finished painting hanging at Pieter the father’s stall, for sale for ten guilders, a simple picture of a woman writing a letter.
I could not do it.
He was in a good mood that afternoon, or else I would not have asked him. I had learned to gauge his mood, not from the little he said or the expression on his face—he did not show much—but from the way he moved about the studio and attic. When he was happy, when he was working well, he strode purposefully back and forth, no hesitation in his stride, no movement wasted. If he had been a musical man, he would have been humming or singing or whistling under his breath. When things did not go well, he stopped, stared out the window, shifted abruptly, started up the attic ladder only to climb back down before he was halfway up. “Sir,” I began when he came up to the attic to mix linseed oil into the white lead I had finished grinding. He was working on the fur of the sleeve. She had not come that day, but I had discovered he was able to paint parts of her without her being there. He raised his eyebrows. “Yes, Griet?”
He and Maertge were the only people in the house who always called me by my name.
Are your paintings Catholic paintings?”
He paused, the bottle of linseed oil poised over the shell that held the white lead. “Catholic paintings,” he repeated. He lowered his hand, tapping the bottle against the table top. “What do you mean by a Catholic painting?” I had spoken before thinking. Now I did not know what to say. I tried a different question. “Why are there paintings in Catholic churches?” “Have you ever been inside a Catholic church, Griet?”
No, sir.”
Then you have not seen paintings in a church, or statues or stained glass?” “No.”
You have seen paintings only in houses, or shops, or inns?”
And at the market.”
Yes, at the market. Do you like looking at paintings?”
I do, sir.” I began to think he would not answer me, that he would simply ask me endless questions.
What do you see when you look at one?”
Why, what the painter has painted, sir.”
Although he nodded, I felt I had not answered as he wished.
So when you look at the painting down in the studio, what do you see?” “I do not see the Virgin Mary, that is certain.” I said this more in defiance of my mother than in answer to him.
He gazed at me in surprise. “Did you expect to see the Virgin Mary?” “Oh no, sir,” I replied, flustered. “Do you think the painting is Catholic?” “I don’t know, sir. My mother said—”
Your mother has not seen the painting, has she?” “No.” “Then she cannot tell you what it is that you see or do not see.” “No.” Although he was right, I did not like him to be critical of my mother. “It’s not the painting that is Catholic or Protestant,” he said, “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.” “We do not need such things to help us to see God,” I countered. “We have His Word, and that is enough.”
He smiled. “Did you know, Griet, that I was brought up as a Protestant? I converted when I married. So you do not need to preach to me. I have heard such words before.”
I stared at him. I had never known anyone to decide no longer to be a Protestant. I did not believe you really could switch. And yet he had.

4. Sunil
Griet rearranges the scene of a painting to add something ‘to snag the eye’.
A Lady Writing a Letter - Vermeer (c. 1665-1666)

It came to me then that the scene was too neat. Although I valued tidiness over most things, I knew from his other paintings that there should be some disorder on the table, something to snag the eye. I pondered each object—the jewelry box, the blue table rug, the pearls, the letter, the inkwell—and decided what I would change. I returned quietly to the attic, surprised by my bold thoughts.
Once it was clear to me what he should do to the scene, I waited for him to make the change.
He did not move anything on the table. He adjusted the shutters slightly, the tilt of her head, the angle of her quill. But he did not change what I had expected him to.
I thought about it while I was wringing out sheets, while I was turning the spit for Tanneke, while I was wiping the kitchen tiles, while I was rinsing colors. While I lay in bed at night I thought about it. Sometimes I got up to look again. No, I was not mistaken. He returned the camera to van Leeuwenhoek.
Whenever I looked at the scene my chest grew tight as if something were pressing on it.
He set a canvas on the easel and painted a coat of lead white and chalk mixed with a bit of burnt sienna and yellow ocher.
My chest grew tighter, waiting for him.
He sketched lightly in reddish brown the outline of the woman and of each object.
When he began to paint great blocks of false colors, I thought my chest would burst like a sack that has been filled with too much flour. As I lay in bed one night I decided I would have to make the change myself.
The next morning I cleaned, setting the jewelry box back carefully, relining the pearls, replacing the letter, polishing and replacing the inkwell. I took a deep breath to ease the pressure in my chest. Then in one quick movement I pulled the front part of the blue cloth onto the table so that it flowed out of the dark shadows under the table and up in a slant onto the table in front of the jewelry box. I made a few adjustments to the lines of the folds, then stepped back. It echoed the shape of van Ruijven’s wife’s arm as she held the quill.
Yes, I thought, and pressed my lips together. He may send me away for changing it, but it is better now.
That afternoon I did not go up to the attic, although there was plenty of work for me there. I sat outside on the bench with Tanneke and mended shirts. He had not gone to his studio that morning, but to the Guild, and had dined at van Leeuwenhoek’s. He had not yet seen the change. I waited anxiously on the bench. Even Tanneke, who tried to ignore me these days, noted my mood. “What’s the matter with you, girl?” she asked. She had taken to calling me girl like her mistress. “You’re acting like a chicken that knows it’s for the slaughter.” “Nothing,” I said. “Tell me about what happened when Catharina’s brother came here last. I heard about it at the market. They still mention you,” I added, hoping to distract and flatter her, and to cover up how clumsily I moved away from her question. For a moment Tanneke sat up straighter, until she remembered who was asking. “That’s not your business,” she snapped. “That’s family business, not for the likes of you.”
A few months before she would have delighted in telling a story that set her in the best light. But it was me who was asking, and I was not to be trusted or humored or favored with her words, though it must have pained her to pass up the chance to boast. Then I saw him—he was walking towards us up the Oude Langendijck, his hat tilted to shield his face from the spring sunlight, his dark cloak pushed back from his shoulders. As he drew up to us I could not look at him. “Afternoon, sir,” Tanneke sang out in a completely different tone. “Hello, Tanneke. Are you enjoying the sun?”
Oh yes, sir. I do like the sun on my face.” I kept my eyes on the stitches I had made. I could feel him looking at me. After he went inside Tanneke hissed, “Say hello to the master when he speaks to you, girl. Your manners are a disgrace.” “It was you he spoke to.” “And so he should. But you needn’t be so rude or you’ll end up in the street, with no place here.” He must be upstairs now, I thought. He must have seen what I’ve done.
I waited, barely able to hold my needle. I did not know exactly what I expected. Would he berate me in front of Tanneke? Would he raise his voice for the first time since I had come to live in his house? Would he say the painting was ruined?
Perhaps he would simply pull down the blue cloth so that it hung as it had before. Perhaps he would say nothing to me.
Later that night I saw him briefly as he came down for supper. He did not appear to be one thing or the other, happy or angry, unconcerned or anxious. He did not ignore me but he did not look at me either. When I went up to bed I checked to see if he had pulled the cloth to hang as it had before I touched it.
He had not. I held up my candle to the easel—he had resketched in reddish brown the folds of the blue cloth. He had made my change.
I lay in bed that night smiling in the dark.
The next morning he came in as I was cleaning around the jewelry box. He had never before seen me making my measurements. I had laid my arm along one edge and moved the box to dust under and around it. When I looked over he was watching me. He did not say anything. Nor did I—I was concerned to set the box back exactly as it had been. Then I sponged the blue cloth with a damp rag, especially careful with the new folds I had made. My hands shook a little as I cleaned.
When I was done I looked up at him.
Tell me, Griet, why did you change the tablecloth?” His tone was the same as when he had asked me about the vegetables at my parents’ house. I thought for a moment. “There needs to be some disorder in the scene, to contrast with her tranquillity,” I explained. “Something to tease the eye. And yet it must be something pleasing to the eye as well, and it is, because the cloth and her arm are in a similar position.” There was a long pause. He was gazing at the table. I waited, wiping my hands against my apron.
I had not thought I would learn something from a maid,” he said at last.

5. Joe
Griet’s dramatic confrontation with Catharina about the earrings (724 words).
It was Maria Thins who finally spoke.
Well, girl, my daughter wants to know how you came to be wearing her earrings.” She said it as if she did not expect me to answer.
I studied her old face. She was not going to admit to helping me get the earrings. Nor would he, I knew. I did not know what to say. So I did not say anything.
Did you steal the key to my jewelry box and take my earrings?”
Catharina spoke as if she were trying to convince herself of what she said. Her voice was shaky.
No, madam.” Although I knew it would be easier for everyone if I said I had stolen them, I could not lie about myself.
Don’t lie to me. Maids steal all the time. You took my earrings!”
Are they missing now, madam?”
For a moment Catharina looked confused, as much by my asking a question as by the question itself. She had obviously not checked her jewelry box since seeing the painting. She had no idea if the earrings were gone or not. But she did not like me asking the questions. “Quiet, thief. They’ll throw you in prison,” she hissed, “and you won’t see sunlight for years.” She winced again. Something was wrong with her.
But, madam—”
Catharina, you must not get yourself into a state,” he interrupted me. “Van Ruijven will take the painting away as soon as it is dry and you can put it from your mind.”
He did not want me to speak either. It seemed no one did. I wondered why they had asked me upstairs at all when they were so afraid of what I might say.
I might say, “What about the way he looked at me for so many hours while he painted this painting?” I might say, “What about your mother and your husband, who have gone behind your back and deceived you?”
Or I might simply say, “Your husband touched me, here, in this room.”
They did not know what I might say.
Catharina was no fool. She knew the real matter was not the earrings. She wanted them to be, she tried to make them be so, but she could not help herself. She turned to her husband.
Why,” she asked, “have you never painted me?”
As they gazed at each other it struck me that she was taller than he, and, in a way, more solid.
You and the children are not a part of this world,” he said. “You are not meant to be.”
And she is?” Catharina cried shrilly, jerking her head at me.
He did not answer. I wished that Maria Thins and Cornelia and I were in the kitchen or the Crucifixion room, or out in the market. It was an affair for a man and his wife to discuss alone.
And with my earrings?”
Again he was silent, which stirred Catharina even more than his words had. She began to shake her head so that her blond curls bounced around her ears. “I will not have this in my own house,” she declared. “I will not have it!” She looked around wildly. When her eyes fell on the palette knife a shiver ran through me. I took a step forward at the same time as she moved to the cupboard and grabbed the knife. I stopped, unsure of what she would do next.
He knew, though. He knew his own wife. He moved with Catharina as she stepped up to the painting. She was quick but he was quicker—he caught her by the wrist as she plunged the diamond blade of the knife towards the painting. He stopped it just before the blade touched my eye. From where I stood I could see the wide eye, a flicker of earring he had just added, and the winking of the blade as it hovered before the painting. Catharina struggled but he held her wrist firmly, waiting for her to drop the knife. Suddenly she groaned. Flinging the knife away, she clutched her belly. The knife skidded across the tiles to my feet, then spun and spun, slower and slower, as we all stared at it. It came to a stop with the blade pointed at me.

6. Saras
Griet's father wants her to describe the painting and the story behind it.


My father wanted me to describe the painting once more. “But nothing has changed since the last time,” I said. “I want to hear it again,” he insisted, hunching over in his chair to get nearer to the fire. He sounded like Frans when he was a little boy and had been told there was nothing left to eat in the hotpot. My father was often impatient during March, waiting for winter to end, the cold to ease, the sun to reappear. March was an unpredictable month, when it was never clear what might happen. Warm days raised hopes until ice and grey skies shut over the town again.
March was the month I was born.
Being blind seemed to make my father hate winter even more. His other senses strengthened, he felt the cold acutely, smelled the stale air in the house, tasted the blandness of the vegetable stew more than my mother. He suffered when the winter was long. I felt sorry for him. When I could I smuggled to him treats from Tanneke’s kitchen—stewed cherries, dried apricots, a cold sausage, once a handful of dried rose petals I had found in Catharina’s cupboard. “The baker’s daughter stands in a bright corner by a window,” I began patiently. “She is facing us, but is looking out the window, down to her right. She is wearing a yellow and black fitted bodice of silk and velvet, a dark blue skirt, and a white cap that hangs down in two points below her chin.” “As you wear yours?” my father asked. He had never asked this before, though I had described the cap the same way each time. “Yes, like mine. When you look at the cap long enough,” I added hurriedly, “you see that he has not really painted it white, but blue, and violet, and yellow.”
But it’s a white cap, you said.”
Yes, that’s what is so strange. It’s painted many colors, but when you look at it, you think it’s white.”
Tile painting is much simpler,” my father grumbled. “You use blue and that’s all. A dark blue for the outlines, a light blue for the shadows. Blue is blue.”
And a tile is a tile, I thought, and nothing like his paintings. I wanted him to understand that white was not simply white. It was a lesson my master had taught me.
What is she doing?” he asked after a moment.
She has one hand on a pewter pitcher sitting on a table and one on a window she’s partly opened. She’s about to pick up the pitcher and dump the water from it out the window, but she’s stopped in the middle of what she’s doing and is either dreaming or looking at something in the street.” “Which is she doing?”
I don’t know. Sometimes it seems one thing, sometimes the other.” My father sat back in his seat, frowning. “First you say the cap is white but not painted white. Then you say the girl is doing one thing or maybe another. You’re confusing me.” He rubbed his brow as if his head ached. “I’m sorry, Father. I’m trying to describe it accurately.”
But what is the story in the painting?”
His paintings don’t tell stories.” He did not respond. He had been difficult all winter. If Agnes had been there she would have been able to cheer him. She had always known how to make him laugh.

7. Zakia
Griet meets Pieter the butcher at the Meat Hall.
The Meat Hall was just behind the Town Hall, south and to the west of Market Square. Inside were thirty-two stalls—there had been thirty-two butchers in Delft for generations. It was busy with housewives and maids choosing, bartering and buying for their families, and men carrying carcasses back and forth. Sawdust on the floor soaked up blood and clung to shoes and hems of dresses. There was a tang of blood in the air that always made me shiver, though at one time I had gone there every week and ought to have grown used to the smell. Still, I was pleased to be in a familiar place. As we passed between the stalls the butcher we used to buy our meat from before my father’s accident called out to me. I smiled at him, relieved to see a face I knew. It was the first time I had smiled all day.
It was strange to meet so many new people and see so many new things in one morning, and to do so apart from all the familiar things that made up my life. Before, if I met someone new I was always surrounded by family and neighbours. If I went to a new place I was with Frans or my mother or father and felt no threat. The new was woven in with the old, like the darning in a sock.
Frans told me not long after he began his apprenticeship that he had almost run away, not from the hard work, but because he could not face the strangeness day after day. What kept him there was knowing that our father had spent all his savings on the apprentice fee, and would have sent him right back if he had come home. Besides, he would find much more strangeness out in the world if he went elsewhere.
I will come and see you,” I whispered to the butcher, “when I am alone.” Then I hurried to catch up with Tanneke and Maertge. They had stopped at a stall farther along. The butcher there was a handsome man, with graying blond curls and bright blue eyes.
Pieter, this is Griet,” Tanneke said. “She will be fetching the meat for us now. You’re to add it to our account as usual.”
I tried to keep my eyes on his face, but I could not help glancing down at his blood-splattered apron. Our butcher always wore a clean apron when he was selling, changing it whenever he got blood on it. “Ah.” Pieter looked me over as if I were a plump chicken he was considering roasting. “What would you like today, Griet?”
I turned to Tanneke. “Four pounds of chops and a pound of tongue,” she ordered.
Pieter smiled. “And what do you think of that, miss?” he addressed Maertge. “Don’t I sell the best tongue in Delft?”
Maertge nodded and giggled as she gazed at the display of joints, chops, tongue, pigs’ feet, sausages.
You’ll find, Griet, that I have the best meat and the most honest scales in the hall,” Pieter remarked as he weighed the tongue. “You’ll have no complaints about me.” I stared at his apron and swallowed. Pieter put the chops and tongue into the pail I carried, winked at me and turned to serve the next customer. We went next to the fish stalls, just beside the Meat Hall. Seagulls hovered above the stalls, waiting for the fishheads and innards the fishmongers threw into the canal. Tanneke introduced me to their fishmonger—also different from ours. I was to alternate each day between meat and fish. When we left I did not want to go back to the house, to Catharina and the children on the bench. I wanted to walk home. I wanted to step into my mother’s kitchen and hand her the pailful of chops. We had not eaten meat in months.

8. KumKum
Griet's father smells linseed oil on her and suspects something (537 words).
You smell of linseed oil.”
My father spoke in a baffled tone. He did not believe that simply cleaning a painter’s studio would make the smell linger on my clothes, my skin, my hair. He was right. It was as if he guessed that I now slept with the oil in my room, that I sat for hours being painted and absorbing the scent. He guessed and yet he could not say. His blindness took away his confidence so that he did not trust the thoughts in his mind.
A year before I might have tried to help him, suggest what he was thinking, humour him into speaking his mind. Now, however, I simply watched him struggle silently, like a beetle that has fallen onto its back and cannot turn itself over. My mother had also guessed, though she did not know what she had guessed. Sometimes I could not meet her eye. When I did her look was a puzzle of anger held back, of curiosity, of hurt. She was trying to understand what had happened to her daughter. 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 colour, which was like lemon juice with a drop of lead-tin yellow in it. I wear that colour now, I wanted to say. He is painting me in that colour.
Instead, to take my father’s mind off the smell, I described the other painting my master was working on. “A young woman sits at a harpsichord, playing. She is wearing a yellow and black bodice—the same the baker’s daughter wore for her painting—a white satin skirt and white ribbons in her hair. Standing in the curve of the harpsichord is another woman, who is holding music and singing. She wears a green, fur-trimmed housecoat and a blue dress. In between the women is a man sitting with his back to us—”
Van Ruijven,” my father interrupted.
Yes, van Ruijven. All that can be seen of him is his back, his hair, and one hand on the neck of a lute.”
He plays the lute badly,” my father added eagerly.
Very badly. That’s why his back is to us—so we won’t see that he can’t even hold his lute properly.”
My father chuckled, his good mood restored. He was always pleased to hear that a rich man could be a poor musician. It was not always so easy to bring him back into good humour. Sundays had become so uncomfortable with my parents that I began to welcome those times when Pieter the son ate with us. He must have noted the troubled looks my mother gave me, my father’s querulous comments, the awkward silences so unexpected between parent and child. He never said anything about them, never winced or stared or became tongue-tied himself. Instead he gently teased my father, flattered my mother, smiled at me.
Pieter did not ask why I smelled of linseed oil. He did not seem to worry about what I might be hiding. He had decided to trust me.
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