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

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.

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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So we’ve got all the elements for our story. She’s in the studio with him for a long time. These paintings took a long time to make. They would have spent the 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.

Boy Building a House of Cards

The next painting I’m going to talk about is called “Boy Building a House of Cards” by Chardin. He’s an 18th-century French painter best known for his still lifes, but he did occasionally paint people. And in fact, he painted four versions of this painting, different boys building houses of cards, all concentrated. I like this version the best, because some of the boys are older and some are younger, and to me, this one, like Goldilocks’s porridge, is just right.

He’s not quite a child, and he’s not quite a man. He’s absolutely balanced between innocence and experience, and that made me stop in my tracks in front of this painting. And I looked at his face. It’s like a Vermeer painting a bit. The light comes in from the left, his face is bathed in this glowing light. It’s right in the center of the painting. And you look at it, and I found that when I was looking at it, I was standing there going, “Look at me. Please look at me.” And he didn’t look at me. He was still looking at his cards, and that’s one of the seductive elements of this painting is, he’s so focused on what he’s doing that he doesn’t look at us. And that is, to me, the sign of a masterpiece, of a painting when there’s a lack of resolution. He’s never going to look at me.

So I was thinking of a story where, if I’m in this position, who could be there looking at him? Not the painter, I don’t want to think about the painter. I’m thinking of an older version of himself. He’s a man, a servant, an older servant looking at this younger servant, saying, “Look at me. I want to warn you about what you’re about to go through. Please look at me.” And he never does.

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And that lack of resolution, the lack of resolution in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” — we don’t know if she’s happy or sad. I’ve written an entire novel about her, and I still don’t know if she’s happy or sad. Again and again, back to the painting, looking for the answer, looking for the story to fill in that gap. And we may make a story, and it satisfies us momentarily, but not really, and we come back again and again.


The last painting I’m going to talk about is called “Anonymous” by anonymous. This is a Tudor portrait bought by the National Portrait Gallery. They thought it was a man named Sir Thomas Overbury, and then they discovered that it wasn’t him, and they have no idea who it is.

Now, in the National Portrait Gallery, if you don’t know the biography of the painting, it’s kind of useless to you. They can’t hang it on the wall, because they don’t know who he is. So unfortunately, this orphan spends most of his time in storage, along with quite a number of other orphans, some of them some beautiful paintings.

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