Girl with a Studio Contract

John Haber
in New York City

Jan Vermeer: Girl with a Pearl Earring

As Girl with a Pearl Earring opens, Scarlett Johansson is peeling an onion, her knife pointed enough to strike fear into a four-star chef. Before long, she is dicing enough vegetables to feed the Dutch Republic. Call it ordinary home life for the Martha Stewart of seventeenth-century dutiful daughters.

It is all part of a curious mix of patient, period detail and contemporary clichés. Peter Webber's quiet film adaptation of the Tracey Chevalier novel shows enormous sympathy to its subject. It feels for the young woman. It lingers on the strong light familiar from a great painter. It lays out the craft of oil painting and the divisions of class, gender, and religion shaping a young nation. Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague, c. 1660–1665)

It sees them all, however, at a very modern distance. Except for the onion, the movie does not so much peel back layers as flatten them—like oil on canvas after a clumsy restoration. In the process, it makes one question one's own hope ever to look beneath the skin of art history to the lives and beliefs of the artist.

Let me use the film, then, as an excuse to ponder what it even means to describe an artist's world-view. I want to ask: what makes a world?

Surviving Vermeer

Packed off to the life of a servant, the poor girl makes her bed on a cramped, wooden palette. She hauls water from the canals in buckets, scalds herself on boiling laundry, cleans house from attic to basement, and gets down on her hands and knees to scrub the pavement. She is sent away by her own parents, commanded to speak only when spoken to, jeered at by children, dogged by the oafish attention of a working-class adolescent, subjected to the less subtle lechery of the master's wealthy patron, and ordered about for good measure by her fellow servant. "You'll get used to it." And one wonders whether she will.

You survived the tony wasteland of Tokyo in Lost in Translation, but can you survive sixteenth-century Delft? It must sound like reality television. The survivor gets her portrait painted by Jan Vermeer. The loser gets thrown out of the house and back to her parents, with less to show for it than would fit in a Prada handbag.

Johansson manages both. As Griet, the servant, her plain-spoken beauty and trembling curiosity inspires a classic image. It also throws her into some treacherous family dynamics.

Colin Firth plays a brooding artist unable to let go of his work. He has a distant, jealous wife and a mother-in-law more concerned for keeping up a proper income and lifestyle than for art. The older woman encourages anything to get a painting completed, even posing the servant with jewelry borrowed from her daughter. The wife catches on—and out she goes. I hate to give away the ending, but you saw it coming.

Like reality TV, the film's reality should be in scare quotes. The reenactment looks perfect, but consider the players. Take a promising but overly earnest director—making his transition, in fact, from British television. Add a tormented, misunderstood artist with too much integrity and despair ever to finish the art. Throw in a bond that overlooks social divisions. Top it all of with a simple explanation for a painting that famously defies explanation, the love and understanding of a good woman.

In short, one has an anachronism based on a best-seller. After her encounter with Bill Murray in Japan, Johansson must be sick of older men's unfulfilled longing. It makes one admire when Webber gets something right. It also makes one reflect a little harder on what he cannot explain.

The desire to believe

Many of the simplest things do not quite add up. The sex-starved husband is about to receive his third child. The patron has a connoisseur's eye for costly colors but an unconcern for much else and an inexplicable bounty of direct payments. Griet's Protestant family warns her against taking up Vermeer's Catholicism, but religion never enters the picture again. The class division grounds her anxiety, but no one else shows the slightest trace of fear. The drama sounds serious on paper, but one does not feel all that sorry for Griet or Vermeer when it ends.

In the real world, much that the film takes for granted remains unknown, perhaps even unknowable. There is no evidence that Vermeer, who bought and sold art, painted slowly, worked full time at painting, or depended on it to survive. There is no evidence of who sat for that elusive portrait—or indeed for anything else of his—not to mention when and why. One can date most of his work only by the evolution of his style. Even his religion remains a matter of speculation, whatever Griet's parents say. Firth's sullen perplexity hardly helps fill in the blanks.

All that makes it amazing how much one wants to believe. Johansson deserves much of the credit. She has the ability to look wide-eyed one moment and plain the next, without one's ever doubting her beauty. She communicates intellect, even as she falls all over herself in puzzlement over the camera obscura. When Griet hesitates to clean a window, for fear of altering the light, one truly believes that she recognizes the painter's art along with his craft. If her trembling lower lip starts to become a tic after a while, Johansson still does her best to dig the film out from under its own stereotypes.

The director, too, wants to believe. His harsh opening scene already manages to reinsert a presumably timeless artist into a specific place and time. Webber captures a culture's peculiar blend of sobriety and luxury, clean clothes and dirty hands, firm social structures and religious tolerance. He decorates the walls with paintings that may well have served Vermeer as influences.

If his Vermeer rises above sex and class, I can almost believe that, too. Think of Vermeer's Milkmaid. Other painters represented homes divided between masters and servants. Vermeer prefers the borderline cases, where soldiers pursue women on the edge of refinement. His urban panorama, like that of Rackstraw Downes, takes the long view.

Webber and his director of photography, Eduardo Serra, linger on the details—above all, the studio and the light. His slow pace and unconcern for events risk tedium, but they redeem a plot-heavy script. They also suit an artist with the power to invoke old stories while withholding narrative. In his own art, Vermeer succeeds because the viewer wants to believe more than the painter ever can.

The very idea of a conceptual scheme

A contemporary view of art and the self makes one want to reach into the past. One wants to get into an artist's head. One wants to understand the world in which the artist struggled. Even nasty postmodern theorists invoke temporal paradigms, what Michel Foucault called an episteme. But can even the impersonal structures of the past fully revive for today a Romantic's striving for a weltenshauung? Try to locate Vermeer's world-view—or even his world.

No artist stands so majestically for the great age of Dutch painting, the art of Protestant Holland. Vermeer could flourish because Holland had won its long war of national and religious independence. If any city can claim the values of the Dutch Republic, surely Delft has bragging rights. William I, its leader in war and its symbol of triumph and rebellion, has his tomb there.

The city also held one of the proud nation's key arsenals. Yet it, too, belonged to history. In fact, Vermeer's great View of Delft became possible only because a new landscape had sprung from its demise. It blew up, no doubt by accident, early in Vermeer's life. The accident took with it Carel Fabritius, Rembrandt's finest pupil and the town's other famous artist.

Yet Vermeer's art may also represent defiance and dissent. Was he indeed Catholic, as in the film—and did it matter to his art any more than to Griet? He grew up in a prosperous Protestant family. As a tailor and a dealer in fine fabrics, his father typified the new middle-class wealth. Vermeer, however, wed a Catholic. Could this explain his early religious subject matter, his late piety, and the reluctant symbols in between?

One will never know Vermeer's religion without going back in time and asking, perhaps over a pint of strong beer. The Dutch consumed the stuff from breakfast well into the night, as if glad to dispense with Rome's sacramental wine. Then again, he might have found it safer, or at least more discrete, to withhold an answer. Consider, then, the particulars one knows. Can I truly try to imagine for you Vermeer's view of the world?

For starters, the Reformation had begun over a century ago, and artists since Flemish Mannerism had built an independent tradition. Still, Catholicism colored art's past as well as the republic's. Rembrandt took Peter Paul Rubens, from the Catholic side of war's divide, as his standard. One can hardly imagine the transition the Baroque without religious upheaval and Protestantism's elevation of the individual. Yet paradoxically it began in Italy and reached the north thanks to Rubens and the Flemish.

A catholic education—or a Catholic one?

In any case, the republic's ethos demanded tolerance. In fact, it depended on tolerance for its sheer survival. About a quarter of Delft called itself Catholic. Believers could live in peace, so long as they did not celebrate Mass—at least not openly.

Vermeer's marriage took place in a small town, where Catholics had held public office. Did the couple seek a religious ceremony impossible at home? No document confirms that the artist converted. His children had a Catholic baptism, but perhaps he deferred to his wife's strict family as the cost of love.

He may have studied with a Delft master. Only Fabritius anticipates so well the gorgeous yellow light, quiet surfaces, and fascination with the camera obscura. However, he may instead have apprenticed in the Catholic provinces, present-day Belgium. No one knows. Vermeer had the self-awareness to turn a device like the camera obscura into a conscious style, a painter's turn on the world.

He understood Italian art, but one cannot say for certain that he ever traveled. He had more than enough other ways to school himself in Italy. His wealthy family would have owned pictures, and he himself sometimes earned an acceptable living as a dealer. Prints of the Old Masters had made them a kind of currency anyhow.

His early Christ in the House of Mary and Martha may tell a covert Catholic story. Its central pyramid rises to Martha's offering of bread, as in the sacrament. By presenting it, she may demonstrate that good works matter as much as plain faith. Yet Vermeer has painted the archetypical Protestant image, with a striking humanity and emotional restraint that colors his whole career. Protestants scorned worship of the Virgin, and Vermeer offers the other Mary, the sinner. Jesus may have a mission, but he lacks the swagger of all those boastful soldiers in Vermeer's later paintings.

The film's light covers Delft like a soothing blanket, but Vermeer's women in their closeted interiors lean toward the sun, as if to an Annunciation. One weighs pearls in front of a Last Judgment. Does that set a higher world above their human vanity? Perhaps, or it may show the triumph of ordinary life, love, and sex over eternal verities. Even more, it may defer the only true last judgment to the viewer. Surely the painter of Girl with a Pearl Earring cannot judge too harshly an attachment to worldly goods.

Girl with an allegory

Somewhere, somehow, one still wants answers. Vermeer must, one would think, have put his core values into an Allegory of Painting. If he had a system of beliefs, including religion, surely he would put it on display here. Instead, one sees emblems of fame, in the hands of the muse of history. That means a pagan, presiding over human rather than divine history. Above her head hangs a map of the Dutch Republic.

A late Allegory of Faith, most agree, makes Catholicism into a bad costume drama. Yet why does it stand so alone in Vermeer's output? It could reflect the demands of patronage, through his wife's connections. It could serve as an older artist's plea for respectability, after a career of representing men and women, petty quarrels, and hopeful loves. According to one historian, the painting's subject has to have discomforted Vermeer. What else can account for such an uncharacteristically awful work?

An early Saint Praxidis could settle things, but only if Vermeer painted it. A major scholar made its discovery the centerpiece of the Vermeer retrospective a few years ago, but on stylistic rather than documentary grounds. Most historians strongly disagree, too, as do I.

Maybe the Allegory of Painting does say it best. One remembers the priority of paint and painting. One remembers the artist's anonymity, back to the viewer. One remembers the canvas, still almost blank, as he works from top to bottom without blocking out the scene in underpainting—like Vermeer himself but not, alas, like Vermeer in the movie. Both in the muse's hands and on the table, one remembers something else as well, a closed book. So much for allegory or, indeed, for an artist's world-view apart from his art and his world.

Then, too, one has Girl with a Pearl Earring, the painting. People like it so much because it appears to transcend portraiture or genre, even more than his other possible close-up, a Young Woman Seated at the Virginals. One often hears it compared to The Mona Lisa, which removes a sitter from the particulars of place and status. Leonardo da Vinci adopts a background more appropriate to a Madonna, and Vermeer erases even that much. In his courtship scenes, my own favorites, the gap between promise and resolution looms larger still.

And yet people like the painting because it lets them supply a narrative. A pearl and a headdress would have struck the Dutch as imports from the east and as signs of wealth, but one must find one's own story, beyond their role in expanding a narrow niche into a precise record of light and space. The movie serves as proof of that. If only it did not encourage viewers to expect what it must not deliver—art at once beyond words and within a tidy story. Better to learn to live with neither premise. As the movie says, "You'll get used to it."

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Girl with a Pearl Earring, directed by Peter Webber, was released in 2003. For some of the background on Catholicism in relation to Vermeer, I drew particularly on the Washington retrospective, with catalog by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., and on A Study of Vermeer by Edward A. Snow (University of California Press, 1994), one of the better popular introductions to an artist.


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