Tracy Chevalier and ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’

Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

Tracy Chevalier, author of multiple historical novels, was part of the TED Radio Hour on NPR last weekend.

In a sound bite from her TED Talk back in June, she explained how she came up with the story for her book “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” based on the painting by Vermeer. It is a fascinating look into the thought processes of a novelist.

Chevalier began by saying:

First of all, I thought I’ve got to get her into the house. How does Vermeer know her?

She rules out the possibility that the girl is Vermeer’s daughter in part because an open mouth in a Dutch painting of that era meant sexual availability.

So it’s not his daughter. But it’s somebody close to him, physically close to him. Well, who else would be in the house? A servant. A lovely servant. So, she’s in the house. How do we get her into the studio?

Chevalier goes on to say that Vermeer lived with his wife, mother-in-law and 11 children.

It would have been a chaotic, noisy household. And if you’ve seen Vermeer’s paintings before, you know that they’re incredibly calm and quiet. How does a painter paint such calm, quiet paintings with 11 kids around?

He had a studio in the house, so Chevalier surmises that he made it off-limits to everyone, except the maid, who was allowed to come in to clean.

He’s got her in the studio. They’re together and he decides to paint her.

He dresses her plainly, except for the lovely pearl earring, which Chevalier believes belonged to Vermeer’s wife because he had a habit of dressing his models in her clothes.

These paintings took a long time to make. They would have spent time alone. All that time. She’s wearing his wife’s pearl earring, she’s gorgeous, she obviously loves him, she’s conflicted. And does the wife know? Maybe not and if she doesn’t, well, that’s the story.

It all seems so natural and logical when Chevalier tells it. But each of her decisions built on the one before and arose from a complex alchemy of historical research, keen observation and a perceptive imagination.

Which just goes to show that historical fiction is the stuff of magic — and hard work.

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