My favourite painting: Tracy Chevalier

'Her expression reveals how she felt about the painter'

Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665–66) by Johannes Vermeer (1632–75), 17 ½in by 15 3/8in, Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague

Tracy Chevalier says:
I’ve loved this painting since I saw a copy of it aged 19. The colours, the light, the look on her face are all beguiling. I have no idea what she’s thinking, if she is happy or sad. One day, it occurred to me that her expression reveals how she felt about the painter, and then I knew I wanted to write about that relationship. Lucky for me, we have no idea who she is, so I could write whatever I wanted! Vermeer’s genius lies in making us feel we know her, then realise that we don’t, over and over

Tracy Chevalier is an author. Her new novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, was published on March 8, 2016.

John McEwen comments on Girl with a Pearl Earring
At Delft I saw the painter Vermeer who had none of his works to show me; but we found one at a baker’s. He had paid six hundred livres for it, although it is only one figure and I would have thought overvalued at six pistols [a tenth of the price paid],’ wrote Balthasar de Monconys, French traveller and diarist, in 1663. It is a rare documentary glimpse into the life of Vermeer, which, for the most part, remains undocumented. We do not even know why he is called Vermeer. His father’s name was Janszoon. The de Monconys diary entry does, at least, reveal that, by that date, he was famous enough to make a sophisticated Frenchman endure a long journey to see his work. Six years later, Pieter Teding van Berckhout, a wealthy young man, recorded two visits to the ‘excellent’ and ‘famous’ Vermeer. On both occasions, he saw pictures, including ‘a few curiosities’.

Was this portrait one of them? there is no definite reference until 1881, when it was bought at auction by the collector Arnoldus des Tombe for two guilders. As it was unlike any other Vermeer, it took some years to be formally attributed to him. By the time des tombe left it to the Mauritshuis in 1902, it was the ‘Dutch Mona Lisa’ worth 40,000 guilders. today, thanks to the global success of tracy Chevalier’s eponymous novel, it is more popular than ever and hangs in the Mauritshuis next door to The Goldfinch by Vermeer’s possible teacher Carel Fabritius, a picture similarly popularised by Donna Tartt.