Transcript: Tracy Chevalier on Finding The Story Inside The Painting at TED Conference

So I went to find out. I did some research and discovered, we have no idea who she is. In fact, we don’t know who any of the models in any of Vermeer’s paintings are, and we know very little about Vermeer himself. Which made me go: “Yippee! I can do whatever I want, I can come up with whatever story I want to”.

So here’s how I came up with the story. First of all, I thought, I’ve got to get her into the house. How does Vermeer know her? Well, there’ve been suggestions that she is his 12-year-old daughter. The daughter at the time was 12 when he painted the painting. And I thought, no, it’s a very intimate look, but it’s not a look a daughter gives her father. For one thing, in Dutch painting of the time, if a woman’s mouth was open, it was indicating sexual availability. It would have been inappropriate for Vermeer to paint his daughter like that.

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? We don’t know very much about Vermeer, but the little bits that we do know, one thing we know is that he married a Catholic woman, they lived with her mother in a house where he had his own room where he — his studio. He also had 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? Well, he compartmentalizes his life. He gets to his studio, and he says, “Nobody comes in here. Not the wife, not the kids. Okay, the maid can come in and clean.” She’s in the studio. He’s got her in the studio, they’re together. And he decides to paint her.

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He has her wear very plain clothes. Now, all of the women, or most of the women in Vermeer’s other paintings wore velvet, silk, fur, very sumptuous materials. This is very plain; the only thing that isn’t plain is her pearl earring. Now, if she’s a servant, there is no way she could afford a pair of pearl earrings. So those are not her pearl earrings. Whose are they? We happen to know, there’s a list of Catharina, the wife’s clothes. Amongst them a yellow coat with white fur, a yellow and black bodice, and you see these clothes on lots of other paintings, different women in the paintings, Vermeer’s paintings. So clearly, her clothes were lent to various different women. It’s not such a leap of faith to take that that pearl earring actually belongs to his wife.

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