History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

18 May 2007

Girl with the Pearl Earring, or Not....

I took an unplanned excursion to my local bookstore a couple of weeks ago, and who should be there on a quiet Friday night---but one of my favorite authors, Tracy Chevalier. I settled in to listen to her read from her new release, Burning Bright. Afterward, she took questions and I asked her if the film made from her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was true to her vision. She said no, not exactly, but seemed hesitant to elaborate other than to say that the setting was a little more lush and the people a little prettier than in her book. I was glad to spend the hour in her company and when her signing ended, I kept thinking about the enigmatic the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Scholars debate, but the girl is possibly the artist Johannes Vermeer van Delft’s daughter. The portrait was painted around 1665. Her unguarded expression, as if someone she knew had just called her name, is compelling, as are the colors, the light, the turban, and that big, beautiful pearl. Without knowing anything about the painting of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” I would have picked up Ms. Chevalier’s book just for the wonderful cover.

I had no idea that the spectacular pearl was undoubtedly a fake. Artificial pearls were invented by M. Jacquin in France in the mid 1600’s and were actually thin spheres of glass filled with l’essence d’ orient, a prep made of white wax and the silvery scales of the river fish called abette. Cultured pearls were also starting to appear in Venice, but Vermeer’s girl is most likely wearing a glass drop-earring which has been filled with l’ essence d’ orient and varnished to create a “skin” to look like an real pearl. Fake pearl jewelry made in this manner was highly fashionable in Holland at the time.

Set against the costly lapis pigment Vermeer used to paint her brilliant blue turban, and the earthy yellows of her cape, the pearl stunningly highlighted. And thanks to Tracy Chevalier, the coming-of-age, historical what-if story about the young girl and her magnificent earring is priceless.


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've been meaning to read this, Kathrynn. Thanks for the tempting intro. And I loved the info about the pearl--so provocative, l'essence d'orient. Was the description of false pearls and how they were made from the novel, or from your own research?

8:33 AM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Kathrynn, thank you for this post. I loved the book when it first came out and have loved it every time I've re-read it. I've read all of Chevalier's books, but Vermeer's book has a hold on me like no other. Such gorgeous writing.

Pam, you'll love the book.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Pam, the info about the pearl is from my research. In my next life, I want to be an art history major. And a writer, too, of course!

Keira, nice to meet another Chevalier fan. And you know, in person she is genuine and quite willing to go into great detail about the depth of her historical research!

7:24 PM  

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