Beyond Light and Shade | Daily News

Beyond Light and Shade

 Scarlett Johansson  as Griet, and Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer
Scarlett Johansson as Griet, and Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer

How often have we gazed at a painting and tried to see beyond the colours and lines and the play of light on the canvas; tried to get an insight into why the painter chose that particular subject...why do the eyes gazing at us from the canvas look so happy? Or, could it be they are smiling, not with us, but with the painter as he mixes the paint, drags his brush over the canvas, tilts his head and gazes at the work in progress?

We can almost always never find the exact answers. But, every now and then, a writer lets go of her imagination and creates with words a beautiful painting of the intriguing story behind the brush strokes of the painter. Such a book is Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Britannica, Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch artist who lived in Delft, Netherlands, in the 17th century, painted the “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” using his imagination. But anyone who has seen pictures of the painting: the young woman, wearing a blue and golden turban, the iconic pearl earring, and a gold jacket with a visible white collar beneath, who is not concentrating on a daily chore like Vermeer’s other subjects, would surely come to the conclusion that she was a living, breathing being, when Vermeer painted her. She gives us the impression she was caught by surprise as she looks at us over her shoulder, with her mouth slightly open, as if about to say something.

Arthur K. Wheelock, Curator of Northern Baroque Painting at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. says, “The work attests to Vermeer’s technical expertise and interest in representing light. The soft modeling of the subject’s face reveals his mastery of using light rather than line to create form, while the reflection on her lips and on the earring show his concern for representing the effect of light on different surfaces.” Meanwhile, researchers who tested Vermeer’s materials, mapping the sources of his pigments have discovered that he liberally used the costly ultramarine, a pigment derived from the semiprecious stone lapsi lazuli, found only in what is now Afghanistan, for the headscarf. He also used a red pigment derived from an insect living in Mexico and South America for the woman’s lips.

Chevalier, who saw in her mind’s eye, the story behind Vermeer’s girl with the earring, says, “I think there are three qualities that make Girl with a Pearl Earring so seductive. It is very beautiful, for one thing. The striking blue and yellow of the girl’s headscarf, set against a black background, the glistening pearl created in a few swift strokes, the expert capturing of light and shade on her luminous skin, the liquid pools of her eyes: all add up to a work of sublime beauty.

“Its second seductive characteristic is that the girl looks familiar. We may not know who she is, but we feel we know her because she is looking at us with such intimacy. We mistake this look for familiarity. However, we don’t really know what she looks like – not even the basics like hair or eye color. With her face turned partially away, we can’t really discern its shape. The line of her nose blends into her check so we don’t know if it’s wide, snub, or round. Her look is universal rather than specific. In fact, the painting is not actually a portrait of a particular person, but what the Dutch called a tronie – the head of an ideal “type,” like “a soldier” or “a musician” – or, in this case, “a young beauty.”

“This leads to the third and most powerful quality of the painting: its mystery. We don’t know who the girl is or what she’s thinking. Indeed, we know very little about Vermeer. He lived his whole life in the Dutch town of Delft. He married a Catholic woman and probably converted, he lived at his mother-in-law’s, and had 11 children. He was in debt several times. He was an art dealer as well as an artist – and that’s about the extent of our knowledge, apart from his work.”Taking into account, Vermeer created 36 paintings that we are aware of, many of them depicting women on their own, doing everyday things like pouring milk, writing letters, or playing lutes, Chevalier comes to the conclusion that they are likely members of the family household. If the girl too was a part of the household, we do not know what the relationship is between the girl wearing the pearl earring and the painter.

Chevalier explains that after studying a copy of the painting for years, it dawned on her that the girl is not gazing at whoever is looking at the painting. “She’s looking at the painter with that curious wide-eyed gaze. It made me wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that at him. That curiosity was what led me to write a novel about the painting: I wanted to explore the mystery of her gaze. To me Girl with a Pearl Earring is neither a universal tronie, nor a portrait of a specific person. It is a portrait of a relationship.”

Chevalier’s slim novel, with the same title as the painting, has an enchanting first chapter. Griet, who will soon join Vermeer’s household as a maid, is cutting vegetables at home. “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 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?” Her answer makes him arch his eyebrows in surprise. “The colors fight when they are side by side, sir.”

It is later, after they have agreed to employ her as a maid in their household that Griet learns the man with the voice as “low and dark like the wood of the table” is Johannes Vermeer.In the sharp, sensitive and absorbing story that unfolds when Griet is given the task of cleaning Vermeer’s studio without moving a single object in the room, the reader gets a glimpse of an artist’s life. “He saw things in a way that others did not, so that a city I had lived in all my life seemed a different place, so that a woman became beautiful with the light on her face.”

Vermeer is noted for his use of light, and Chevalier is wise in choosing Griet - the girl who cleans his windows, and who controls the light in his studio - to explain him. Griet observes Vermeer’s process: “I thought that you painted what you saw, using the colors you saw. Instead he painted patches of color - black where her skirt would be, ochre for the bodice and the map on the wall, red for the pitcher and the basin it sat in, another gray for the wall. They were the wrong colors - none was the color of the thing itself.”

Having observed Vermeer paint other models, when he decides to paint her, Griet is simultaneously overjoyed and dreadfully scared. “I wanted to wear the mantle and the pearls. I wanted to know the man who painted her like that.” When her dream comes true, the touch of a hand, the glance of an eye, her name whispered softly in his deep voice, lead to an elusive, fragile bond between the painter and the maid.

It takes courage to mix history and fiction, to allow a wide-eyed girl in a painting let you imagine her story. Tracy Chevalier rises to the challenge. If Vermeer’s painting is like a song that ends on the second-to-last chord: if we are drawn to look at it again in the hope that this time the last chord will be played, this time, the painting will unravel the mystery, that last chord is Chevalier’s novel.

Beauty, familiarity, mystery mingle on the pages of the book in the same way, black, ocher and grey come together on Vermeer’s canvas in a city described just as beautiful as Vermeer painted it in his View of Delft: the famous painted tiles; the vibrant sound of the bells of the New Church visible from the window in the studio; the movement of goods by canal and hand cart, the windmills, the streets and houses and the star with the points in the market square, and the girl, her ears throbbing with pain from wearing the earrings, her heart yearning to be someone more than a maid in the painter’s life.

Her eyes will never look the same again.

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