Not to make a pun of it, but this is a painterly film. The film-maker Peter Webber and his cinematographer Eduardo Serra have coloured it as if it were a Vermeer canvas, the light soft and suffuse, the colours muted by grey northern skies. The film is quiet and serene, mirroring the simple action and still-life interiors of Vermeer’s paintings: a milkmaid pouring milk, women at a harpsichord, a geographer and his globe.
Little is actually known about Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). He is thought to have painted slowly, sparingly. His style is meticulous, unrushed. Few canvases were produced (it is thought) and he was not prominent in art circles in his lifetime. His paintings fell into neglect for two centuries after his death, revived by the French, not the Dutch, in particular the influential critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger and the novelist Marcel Proust, who thought Vermeer’s “View of Delft” among the most beautiful landscapes ever painted. From then on (since the late 19th century) he has been considered a Master, his paintings (all 34 of them in existence) valued in the millions.
Tracy Chevalier wrote a fine novel (same title) on which the film is based. Naturally, since next to nothing is known about Vermeer apart from basic facts recorded in public and legal documents, the novelist had to use her imagination to bring the story to life. The serving girl Griet in the Vermeer household (played beautifully by Scarlett Johannson) is Tracy’s inspired creation. She is the girl who will sit for Vermeer wearing both the famous pearl and longing smile, the lips slightly wet with subtle dashes of glazed white. Her sad eyes also tell a tale of longing, or so we might suppose.
What was she, whoever she was, to Vermeer? Naturally, we cannot know. Instead, the painting has to tell us things we may want it to say to us. Tracy and Peter Webber may have got it right. It could be that Vermeer longed for her as much as she longs for him, or for something in him that inspires her look. This Mona Lisa of the North, as she has been called, did not come out of nothing. She looks for all the world as if she wants to be kissed.
Vermeer (played superbly by a long-haired, stoic Colin Firth) was a Protestant who married into a Catholic minority family in Delft. Why did he do it? Some art historians say it had to do with social climbing. The family of his wife Catharina were well off, or better off than Vermeer’s, his a family which seems to have been somewhat disreputable. Rumours of debt and scandal hounded the family. An uncle, for instance, spent time in prison. Renouncing his Protestant faith in predominantly Protestant Holland would not have been easy for Vermeer, especially since his conversion was to Catholicism, the religion of hated Spain, a country Holland had been at war with during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Did he love his wife? Well, he loved her enough to produce 15 children, if love has anything to do with such a process. But if he was not well off, why the large family? Many speculative reasons of course: Catholic family; poor contraception, if any; high infant mortality; custom of the day. In the film we see his brood but never get to know any of them. We aren’t even given their names. They figure in none of his paintings, so in a way they are faceless, not just nameless, and lost to posterity. They may have been the children produced for his wife, family, church, tradition and duty, more than for his private joy.
The subjects he mainly chose were people going about their business: the music teacher, the book and letter readers, the serving girls and cooks in their kitchens. Political turmoil in the world beyond is not present in his interiors. It’s as if real peace and freedom exist here behind closed doors, in privacies that cannot be interrogated. His subjects are shown in repose, not happy or sad, just serene and peaceful, at home in their own skins and surroundings.
He is like the French painter Chardin (1699-1779) in this regard. Both seem to say this is where profundity lies — here in the heart of simplicity.
The film shows this simplicity. The artist sketches, mixes paints, sits with his easel and canvases, eats at the family dinner table, sleeps in his own bed in the studio more often than in the one shared with his wife. He’s around people but seems solitary, absorbed by his own thoughts and visions. His family treat him as eccentric, as indeed he is, as indeed any artist perhaps has to be to carry on. Beauty enchants him: the play of light, the texture of clouds, colours and the complexity of feeling their blending brings. His eye is keen. He observes everything well. He also uses optics to enhance what he sees, science a part of his art.
Griet comes to the Vermeer home to do ordinary household tasks: sweeping up, dusting, washing clothes and crockery. She has no proper education, just does what working-class girls did in those days — drudgery, the chores others would not do. But as time passes she begins to catch Vermeer’s eye. An aesthetic eye, it must be said, not a lecherous one. He sees beauty in her, but it’s a beauty radiant with character and intelligence, not the standard sort that serving wenches are supposed to bring and have.
He is intrigued. He likes how she moves when she dusts the studio loft. There’s something natural in the way she catches the light. He asks her about art. What does she think? She’s not used to saying what she might think about it. She may not even have thought deeply about her own thoughts. But Vermeer wants to know anyway. He wonders if her mind contains some of the beauty her form displays.
It does. His intuition about her was right. He asks her to buy paints for him. She feels honoured to do so. Later, as time passes, he wishes her to help him mix paints, whereupon he teaches her his theories about colouration, light and optics. Little by little, he takes her into his private world of beauty — a sanctuary which, as far as we know in the film, no one else is allowed to enter.
The main crisis in the story hinges on a key painting in Vermeer’s oeuvre. His patron Mr. Van Ruijven, whose taste in art is pedestrian, does not meddle with Vermeer’s choices for subjects. The patron seems content with whatever Vermeer paints. Thus Vermeer opts to do something bold and different. He usually paints people in workaday situations. He also paints landscapes. Portraiture is not his usual metier. Yet Griet has captivated him. Something inexpressible in her is what he longs to express.
The pearl belongs to his wife. He steals it from her vanity case. The portrait of Griet is incomplete without it. The beautiful jewel is needed to produce counterpoint: simple girl, elegant look. Her hair too is not right. Something must be done with it. In the end he decides to cover her long curls with a head scarf, which lends even more modesty to the face. The scarf also adds a touch of the exotic to her, as it almost resembles a turban — Turkish, Moroccan or Middle Eastern.
Catharina is hysterical when she discovers the purpose to which her missing earring has been put. Her tears are tears of rage, frustration, jealousy. Her husband’s talent has not raised the fortunes of the family. He has frittered it away on meaningless, unimportant subjects. None of his paintings has historical weight, allegorical significance. Now this, the final insult — a serving girl hopped up as cover girl with a pearl stolen from her own jewel case by her disreputable, philandering husband. Her tantrum scene in the film is almost unbearable to watch. We watch a woman losing her mind. She even tries to destroy the painting. Imagine that!
It’s all a clever fiction, but in the end you don’t notice it. For two hours you develop a Vermeer eye for splendid detail: the folds of a gown, the way sunlight streams through the kitchen window onto a bowl of apples or peaches, the look of colours diluted in glass jars filled with water or turpentine, the look in the painter’s eye as he sizes up and hunts down beauty, and Griet herself in her garments of modest simplicity which match the serene beauty of her pure and honest face.
It’s a pleasure to be surrounded by this sensuality, to be let into Vermeer’s world for these momentary glimpses of it. Tracy Chevalier is to be applauded for her imagination, and by turns Peter Webber and Eduardo Serra for their sensitive appreciation of Vermeer’s love of beauty.