To say that Tracy Chevalier was in some way responsible for elevating Vermeer’s masterpiece, Girl with a Pearl Earring, to the status of icon alongside the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers would not be an exaggeration. Her book, of the same name, has sold millions worldwide, there has been a block-buster film and merchandising has gone berserk – in bike dependent Holland you can not only buy a bicycle bell with the painting reproduced on it but a saddle as well, I kid you not.
The painting itself, fortunately, still lives in the Netherlands, in The Hague’s magnificent Mauritshuis museum, a mere seven miles from where it was painted in Delft in 1665 and someone had the brilliant idea of creating an event by bringing the two ladies, Ms Chevalier and Girl With a Pearl Earring, together, face to face.
The result was a memorable night at the museum. Ms Chevalier was given a curator’s hat and chose five portraits from the Mauritshuis’s superb collection each of which, to her mind, complemented the Vermeer. I was lucky enough to have a winning lottery ticket which entitled me to a personal guided tour by the author. Her observations on the late Rembrandt self-portrait and Jan Steen’s Girl Eating Oysters were fascinating and perceptive but it was with her insight and understanding of Girl With a Pearl Earring itself that made the juices really begin to flow.
I asked how her thirty-five year-old obsession with the painting had begun. ‘I was nineteen and my sister had a poster of Girl With a Pearl Earring in her house in Boston. I became fascinated by it and since then I have always had the poster with me, it’s in my office in London although now it’s getting a bit worn round the edges’. Perhaps obsession would be too strong a word, but it seems to be pretty close.
The more Ms Chevalier was drawn into the painting the more she wondered about the girl’s identity and her impenetrable expression. ‘It finally dawned on me that the girl was not just looking, she was looking at the man who was painting her. And was it love that her eyes revealed? The girl was not Vermeer’s wife and certainly not his daughter because the slightly parted lips have sexual connotations, and I thought she looked more like a servant.’ Bingo, the seeds of her best-selling book had been sown and the rest, as they say, is history.
The evening’s theme was portraiture and there were lots of fun and games to be had, including a workshop on how to take better selfies, and you could even have your picture taken in a makeshift frame wearing a blue and white head-scarf, a mustard coloured dress and, you guessed it, a pearl earring. Ms Chevalier concluded the evening by reading from her book, accompanied by a cello. A very good time was had by one and all.
Tracy Chevalier’s choice of paintings, including of course Girl With a Pearl Earring, can be seen at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Michael Hasted 13th October 2017
Reproduction of Johannes Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring part of the collection of and courtesy of Mauritshuis in The Hague.