1. Introduction:The Paragone The comparison of the arts dates as far back as the Italian Renaissance, with the idea of the paragone. As “the notion of comparison and rivalry among the arts,” the paragone has worked to compare all aspects of the arts, stemming from the debate pitting sculpture against painting and reaching into the debate comparing poetry and painting. When examining the painting, film, and the novel with the name Girl with a Pearl Earring, we must look to the paragone of ekphrasis in it’s different forms.
Taking inspiration from Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier’s novel and Peter Webber’s film follow a very similar story line. However, as the film and the book use different mediums, each implements different forms of ekphrasis to convey the girl’s story while maintaining the integrity of the original painting. While the ekphrasis in Chevalier’s novel works to portray a strong, intelligent young woman awakening to the social constructs around her, the ekphrastic film is a “domestic thriller,” sharing the story of the model as a maid without a voice trapped in the social constructs.
II. The Painting Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, a painter whom we know very little about. Vermeer lived in Delft with his Catholic wife Catharina, her mother, Maria Thins, and their 11 children. Vermeer often used sets from around his home and his wife’s clothing in his paintings, which largely portrayed young women in home settings. We also know very little about his painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. The model is set in a strange costume and placed against a dark background, holding “no attributes that might… identify her as an allegorical figure.
The painting is captivating, however, featuring a young model with wide eyes whose head is turned back to face the viewer. As Edward Snow noted, “it is me at whom she gazes, with real, unguarded human emotions, and with an intensity that demands something just as real and human in return. ” Vermeer’s models, like this one, are “a world apart, inviolate, self-contained,” furthering the mystery of the story behind his models, leaving the viewer intrigued. The mystery of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring provided a relatively blank canvas for Tracy Chevalier and Peter Webber to paint their own story of the girl.
III. The Novel Tracy Chevalier gives life to this unknown model in her novel Girl with a Pearl Earring by implementing ekphrasis in it’s most primitive definition, as the verbal depiction of art. Using the model, whom Chevalier names Griet, as the narrator, the author tells the story of a young, Protestant girl who is sent to the Vermeer household to work as a servant, where she later becomes the model for this painting. Through the verbal ekphrasis of the several artworks depicted in Griet’s narration and dialogue, her eye for aesthetics, which Vermeer recognizes, is revealed.
Vermeer, an upper-class, Catholic, male painter, and Griet, a female, Protestant maid, are opposites, creating class and gender tensions. These tensions are depleted by their shared fascination with the artistic world, exposing Griet as a young, intellectual woman, and not simply a maid. At the climax of the novel, Chevalier implements “live” ekphrasis, as Griet describes how the painting Girl with the Pearl Earring progresses as she models for it. It is clear that Vermeer respected Griet, but, during her modeling, Griet and Vermeer’s relationship is no longer about their artistic fascination, but rather their seemingly mutual desire.
When the painting is complete, Griet emancipates herself from the household. Through the vivid details and ekphrastic text, especially during Griet’s modeling, the young woman is empowered, demanding respect just as the painting demands our attention. III. The Film Adapted from the novel, the film, also titled Girl with a Pearl Earring, shares the story of the model in Vermeer’s painting with the same title. Just as Chevalier’s novel was ekphrastic, the film adopts ekphrasis to dramatize the plot and keep the integrity of the painting. However, the film’s form of ekphrasis must be defined differently.
Instead of the way “by which a work of literature attempts to imitate a work of visual art,” we look to the definition of “a kind of substitution, replacement, or reenactment of the work of visual art. ” Through this definition of ekphrasis, we are able to examine the method in which the film recreates the painting’s effects and the verbal descriptions of the original Vermeer. The film employs three methods of ekphrasis: the verbal descriptions of paintings by characters, the visual portrayal of the time and setting of the painting, and the visual recreation of paintings. These three modes of ekphrasis primarily appear at moments of heightened conflict, and are integrated to weave a story that belittles Griet, emphasizes class differences, and highlights Griet’s subjectivity to male figures around her.
IV. The Novel’s Ekphrasis Told through her own point of view, Griet’s narration of the text creates powerful instances of ekphrasis that the film is unable to achieve. Using Griet as the narrator, Tracy Chevalier introduces readers to Griet’s artistic appreciation early in the novel, with the shared ekphrasis about another Vermeer painting, A View of Delft, between Griet and her father.