Applied Sciences

Anthropology 101 1

Viewing Guide: film: “Girl With a Pearl Earring”

Film released in 2003. Scarlett Johansson, with Colin Firth as the Dutch artist Johannes (Jan) Vermeer.

Based on a novel written by Tracy Chevalier. The book tells a fictional story based on the actual historical figure, Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675), and one of his most famous paintings.

One of the best-loved paintings in the world is a mystery. Who is the model and why has she been painted? What is she thinking as she stares out at us? Are her wide eyes and enigmatic half-smile

innocent or seductive? And why is she wearing a pearl earring? (the website of the novel)

Making a cultural “reading” of the young woman: Vermeer represents the cloth of her dress as coarse (cheap). Also, her hair is completely covered, which, based on the sensibility of this time and place, suggests that she comes from a fundamentalist Protestant family. Both of these features, taken together, suggest to a social scientist that she is from the working class, and is likely a servant in the Vermeer household.

In European history, “The Reformation” had taken place during the 1500’s. Some Christians (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, King Henry The Eight of England, Menno Simons, others) in “protest” of various doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church (“The Church”), broke away and formed their own “Protestant” denominations (Lutheran Church in Germany, Church of England, Mennonite Church in regions throughout much of northern Europe, including the Dutch Republic). At this time in the Dutch Republic (now The Netherlands), those in the higher social classes found it useful to remain in the Catholic Church because it was still established as the center of power in the politics and economy. People who affiliated with the Mennonite Church were mostly people who “had nothing to lose” economically by following their consciences and separating from the Catholic Church. Vermeer had been raised Protestant, but converted in order to marry Catharina Bolnes, who was from an Upper-Middle Class Catholic family.

So Chevalier gives this possible servant girl in the painting the name “Griet”, and to create another nexus of tension for the story, plausibly portrays her as a Mennonite who is having to work in this Catholic household.

In preparation to writing the novel, Chevalier was able to consult legal records from the time, and some known facts about Vermeer himself from art historians, to gain a lot of basic information. She then “fills in the blanks” to create a good story.

The place is the city of Delft. Today it’s a suburb of the major city, The Hague, in the province of South Holland, in the state (“nation”, “country”) of The Netherlands. At the time the story takes place, Delft was known throughout Europe (now throughout the world) for the production of Delftware ceramics.


• Delft

Oude Delft (Old River)

van Ruijvens’ and Vermeers’ part of town

Griet’s end of town

North Sea main thoroughfares: canals

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Throughout western Europe, Market economies had been in existence for centuries, and now in the 1600s institutions that enable Capitalism are in the process of being attached. This was made necessary in part by the technological developments in shipbuilding that made it possible to venture out into open ocean, sail to exotic foreign shores, and return with loads of exotic goods (sugar, tea, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, spices, tobacco, coca, cannabis) that could be sold for large profits. However, because the odds for failure of a voyage were relatively high, European merchants preferred to spread the risk (a failed voyage could conceivably bankrupt an individual merchant) by pooling the start-up costs and then hopefully sharing the profits. —And the institutions aimed at facilitating all of this financing, pooling and sharing were evolving at this time throughout Western Europe.

Wealthy merchants therefore had much disposable income, and the ‘high arts’ were a highly fashionable means for displaying one’s wealth. The most celebrated of the painters at this time was Rembrandt van Rijn (“rine”), who was making himself very wealthy in Amsterdam by engaging in an early iteration of assembly line mass production—of portraits of wealthy patrons. [He reportedly had some of his best students specialize in the different elements of each painting—at detailing clothing, adding the background, painting in people’s pet animals, someone who specialized in doing the hands, etc.—and they would finish the portraits after Rembrandt would start them by roughing the overall composition, setting the pose, and then portraying the face.]

Johannes Vermeer was another of the many promising artists that had emerged at this time and place. But he had a very different sensibility and approach to his art. While Rembrandt and his staff are pumping out masterpieces by the week, Vermeer spends weeks or even months on a single painting: mixing the colors just right (and paying extra for the most rare pigments), fussing over composition and the lighting (and shadowing) of the subject. [It has long been theorized that Vermeer used a device called a camera obscura to help him ‘see’ shadows and light better. A documentary film, “Tim’s Vermeer”, was released in 2014, attempting to establish that this was the case. Vermeer was a real student of color and light (and shadow), which is the key

to his being seen today as one of the true “Masters”, although this view was less widely held when he was alive.] Vermeer’s primary patron was a wealthy merchant in Delft named Pieter van Ruijven (“RYE ven”).

Sometime after finishing art school, Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, the daughter of well-to-do brick maker Reynier Bolnes. Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins (“tins”), grew up in an “Old Money” family in the city of Gouda. She became estranged from her husband, who was ordered by a court of law to give her a large sum of money, which Thins invested and managed, with some care, to keep up the appearance of an upper-middle class life.

The Vermeer-Bolnes marriage gains for Vermeer a financial base (Maria Thins’ money), and a studio space with an ideal source of lighting—on the second floor of the house they move into. —A disdainful side mention is made by the housemaid Tanneke in the film that the downstairs Sitting Room is also where Jan and Catharina have their bed. I take this to mean that Vermeer’s 2nd floor studio space with its ideal lighting had originally been the master bedroom of the house…. Vermeer became a source of [erratic] income (but also increased status) for the household.

Other actual personages who are main characters in the film: the Vermeer children, particularly their third daughter, Cornelia, who Chevalier casts as a secondary ‘villain’ by portraying her as being highly class conscious—aware of Griet’s ‘inferior’ status because Griet comes from a working class family.

Finally, there’s Tanneke Everpoel, live-in housemaid to the Vermeer household (Her name and position are also given in a legal document. Art historians guess that she was the model in Vermeer’s painting, “The Milkmaid”. Assumedly, the actor Joanna Scanlan was chosen to play Tanneke in the film because she resembles the person in that painting.).

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In Tracy Chevalier’s story, the (fictitious) main character, 16-year-old Griet (“greet”) comes from a working-class, deeply Protestant family. Chevalier has her father working for the company that manufactured Delftware ceramics: she’s made him one of the artisans who painted the designs on the

finished ceramic pieces (tiles, etc.). Assumedly, the artistic nature that Chevalier bestows upon the father is a device to help ‘explain’ the ability Griet proves to have in intuiting Vermeer’s approach to his art. But her father has become disabled (acute lead poisoning from the paints?), leaving the family with no source of income.

The family manages to have Griet hired as a servant in what they assume is a well-to-do, higher-class

household. —You’ll observe that Griet’s mother is concerned that they are Catholic; she warns Griet not to remain in the room during any Catholic rites, and to not listen to their Catholic prayers.

Another fictional character, Pieter, son of the Vermeer household butcher, serves as the romantic interest for Griet.

In order to create dramatic tension for the story and drive the plot line, Chevalier may have ‘taken some liberties’ with history. 1) The actual Vermeer-Thins household finances appear to have been more secure than the precarious situation portrayed in the film. 2) Chevalier portrays Catharina Bolnes as cold, very

aware of her upper-middle class status, very fearful of losing that status, and given to jealousy. In the story, she has been forbidden by her husband and mother from entering the studio because, on an earlier occasion, she had attempted to destroy one of his paintings in a rage over lack of money.

Some Internet contributors who might be knowledgeable enough opine that the historical Catharina Bolnes was

probably very different from this portrayal. Further, it is assumed that she was the young blond model who posed for three of Vermeer’s paintings (“A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window”, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter”

(she appears to be pregnant—which Bolnes often was), and “Woman Holding a Balance”).

Also, in the film Maria Thins is always fretting about the fact that, while her son-in-law is a great artist, this is because he’s an extreme perfectionist. —So his paydays are few and far between. And Vermeer is

always in danger of being abandoned by Pieter van Ruijven, who is always looking for new, undiscovered talent to sponsor. In these unsettled conditions that Chevalier portrays, additional tension is generated for purposes of the story as the household barely manages to stay afloat financially.

Historically, it appears that the household was financially comfortable until Vermeer met an untimely death,

followed closely by Maria Thins’ land holdings having to be intentionally flooded for defense purposes during an

invasion of the Dutch Republic. Historical records indicate they then descended into bankruptcy.

This film has been chosen as an element in the course because Chevalier does a creditable job of portraying differentiation of power among the characters as a means of driving the story and creating drama:

• differences of power as defined by the institution of social class as it existed in that society and culture

• differences of power along lines of gender status

Further, Chevalier employs the human proclivity for belief (a key mechanism by which we humans frame reality) and the often-associated institution of religion to help drive additional tension in the story as Griet responds to the circumstances and events that are beyond her control.

Having you view this film is intended as formal practice in taking cultural ‘readings’— something you continuously do…mostly on a more unconscious level.

To start familiarizing you with an anthropological perspective, the events portrayed in this film are taking place in what we would categorize as a large, complex society (like in the U.S.), in which social, political, and economic interactions are played out in a stratified structure (as in the U.S.).

1. The institution of social class is a factor in driving events in the story. Look for ways in which Griet’s lower “station in life” [social status] defines interactions between her and the Vermeer family members, between her and Tanneke [also from the working class, but now “in” the Vermeer household], between her and Pieter the butcher’s boy, with Vermeer, and with van Ruijven.

2. In the story, you’ll also see inequality defined along lines of gender relations (but of course).

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As you view the video: • Look for the structural disadvantages that place Griet in the precarious position

she must navigate →(relative socio-economic position; household politics, gender status). • Also, the relatively disadvantaged position of the Vermeer household vis-à-vis

Pieter van Ruijven.


2:45 [Mother’s talk]→ 2 of the [Cultural] differences between “Us” and “Them”: food that Griet wouldn’t be accustomed to, and especially their religion. Both tied to social class/relative wealth: a) In the scene, Griet is slicing a large variety of vegetables, possibly the staple of her family’s diet. Perhaps they could afford only a small piece of meat for stew maybe once a week—people on vegetarian diets often feel sick to their stomachs if they eat a lot of meat; b) Catholicism was “establishment”, and upper-class people might forfeit their valuable social ties if they converted to a Protestant “sect”; lower-class people had less to lose economically.

3:30 SETTING OUT FOR THE VERMEER RESIDENCE: Griet seems to be seeing the sights for the first time: evidently, she hadn’t had occasion to venture far out of her neighborhood before.

4:30 The Vermeer daughters’ evident low regard of Griet: class-consciousness is part of social knowledge, and is even picked up by older children.

5:00 Tanneke the housekeeper. Even though she’s from a working class background like Griet, Tanneke’s ongoing association with an upper-middle class household allows her to talk down to Griet—as when she makes a cutting inference about the part of town Griet comes from (see 5:15 below).

5:15 “…water from the canal for laundry—it’s clean enough this side of town!” →Observe that the households in the Vermeer neighborhood dump their garbage (and no doubt the contents of the “chamber pots”) into the canal, which flows toward Griet’s lower part of town….

5:45 [Tanneke’s cutting inference about the master bed in the living room]: “Young Mistress (Catharina) and Master [Vermeer] sleep here and entertain company…you’ll get used to it.” →Vermeer must have taken the master bedroom for his studio.

8:15 “Don’t speak ‘til you’re spoken to.”

In the novel, Chevalier needs for Catharina Bolnes to be unlikable, erratic, and jealous in order to create the dramatic tension required in a good story. In the story, she’s been banned from Vermeer’s studio because she’d tried to destroy one of his paintings in a fit of temper. Again, indications are that the historical Catharina was nothing like that.

12:15 Maria Thins, Vermeer’s mother-in-law, and financier of the house (politics…). —Vermeer is no mass-producing Rembrandt, to Maria’s despair.

12:53 “In the book—again….”

The household will pay when Vermeer finishes the current painting of van Ruijven’s wife.

“Get the parcel on the cart.”

The freshest meat has been set aside on the delivery cart for their wealthiest customers. By handing over the best chops, Pieter knows that his father is taking the risk of displeasing a wealthy (paying) client.

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13:50 Next-door neighbors being foreclosed on: the Vermeer household teeters on the same fate. —Ah, life in a capitalistic market economy….

15:00 [Tanneke holds forth on the family finances and volatile tempers][politics…]

To what extent might this marriage have been about economics (and politics)?

—Vermeer finishes art school, needs a studio and a means of daily support (and to fulfill the social expectation of being married and fathering children) (and, of course, sex…). Catharina needs a husband and children in order to have a ‘place’ in society, and Maria needs for her daughter to have a proper place in society. Having an up-and-coming artist as a husband/son-in-law lends prestige to the household, and gives them social access to a wealthy patron like van Ruijven (yet greater prestige). (politics…).

16:45 Griet refrains from entering the presence of the Catholic priest (although she fails to cover her ears during his blessing and benediction).

17:43 Pieter van Ruijven at home: notice the artifacts from all over the world (displayed prominently), the fruits of overseas ventures he’s been partner to as a merchant.

He makes it a point that he won’t tolerate anything but a proper wining and dining that befits his high status.

“He’s painted me.” (“The Girl With the Wineglass” is the painting in the scene. The actual models may have been van Ruijven and a household maid he was using sexually at the time, but the actual information has been lost to history.)



“Can you imagine yourself dressed in such finery?”

—A very personal question to a modest Mennonite girl….

“plump little bobbies” — the model’s breasts.

20:26 Maria Thins shepherding the dwindling funds….

22:40 (Catharina’s “accomplishment”—producing another healthy baby)



(The painting “Woman with a Pearl Necklace”—a good guess that the painting was executed for van Ruijven, and that the model could have been his wife with some of her expensive jewelry)

van Ruijven: “Is this Indian yellow?” —This painting was glazed with it.

“No stinting, eh?”—van Ruijven’s recognition that Vermeer has used the most expensive materials.

26:06 “It’s just…that it might change the light.”

Griet is starting to intuit Vermeer’s work. —Thins seems to be impressed/ Bolnes seems to be jealous.

27:55 (The pose)

Inspiration for a new painting…) (“Woman with a Water Jug”)

28:10 Griet has Sunday mornings off, so she can journey back to her end of town and attend church with her family (notice that the canal bridge in her end of town is wood rather than stone).

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29:00 [After church] —A scene in which much is being said with very little being said….

“…Griet, you go on with Pieter, then…” [And the smile on the father’s face]

→Gender status: Women in this time and place had to have a husband (and bear children) in order to have a proper ‘place’ in society. Pieter, although working class, comes from a family that has a “good trade”. Parental approval of this potential union between Griet and Pieter occurs ‘on the spur of the moment’, which gives us some clue about ‘life expectations’ and the purpose of marriage for working class people in this time and place (Pretty nearly any husband is better than no husband—and this is a guy who could provide us with MEAT! —And oh, yeah, he

does seem nice).

30:26 [Thins plants her walking stick]—Another scene in which much is communicated with very little being said—tone of voice, speech cadence, facial expressions say much more than the actual words, here….

KEY QUESTION: What is Thins saying to Griet?

31:25 (The camera obscura arrives)

37:54 Vermeer begins to display a real interest in Griet…

38:20 Pieter: “Please let me see!” —Referring to Griet’s hair. Her religion requires that she keep it covered from the view of any man she’s not married to.

39:00 [The key scene about color]

42:50 [Getting a little too close?]



(The baby needs medicine.)

(The woman in the background is a hired nursemaid whose job it is to help provide the new baby with enough mother’s milk.)

“My mother WILL NOT be content until one of them (the many infants Catharina delivers) dies from her mean-ness!”

(Maria seems to think that they can afford a nursemaid or medicine, but not both.)

50:25 Griet “sees” that the composition of the scene would be better without the chair.

52:29 First kiss…

53:35 She’s being so bold as to remove the chair without permission from Vermeer —she’s very confident that she’s right.

55:00 He’s painted the chair out of the painting! He’s seen that she was right!

57:00 An accusation…

57:50 —The lowly status of children in the culture of this time and place: painful corporal punishment, just as a matter of course; Maria refuses to allocate the funds to buy the new baby a remedy to ease his colic (chronic stomach pains); taking meals below-stairs with the hired help; rarely found in the presence of the adults; severely reproached for making too much noise….

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[Gossip about Griet]

[Class-ism/the working class brand of Class Consciousness on the part of Pieter and his father.]

“Just remember who you are…don’t give in to his world.”

(—Griet is starting to “put on airs”, and they’re sure she’s about to make the mistake of thinking she can be considered “good enough” to become included in Vermeer’s world.)

1:05:33 “You’re a fly in his web…we all are….”

(Politics—driven in this case by van Ruijven’s wielding the power he holds over the household.)

1:06 “…Take off your cap…”

(Griet has already NOT allowed Pieter to see her hair—Mennonite women must allow only their husbands to see their hair. She catches Vermeer ‘sneaking a peak’ as she’s changing to the alternate head covering— in a sense, an ‘invasion’ of her sanctity.)

1:08 (van Ruijven “spills the beans” about the painting to Catharina.)

1:14 “You looked inside me!”

(Another ‘invasion’ by Vermeer. —But what is Griet’s feeling on this?)

1:14:50 Assault by van Ruijven…

(An obvious invasion of her sanctity by someone she’s ‘required’ to give in to, as per Thins’ “We’re all caught in his web” comment.)

1:17:50 “If he crosses van Ruijven over this, then we’ll lose him. Then what?”

(Griet’s only way out of this is to quit her position, which would mean no more income for her family. —Plus, now she’s becoming invested in Vermeer’s wellbeing, and in a hope that maybe she could become more than just an assistant housemaid.)



Gets anesthetic from the apothecary (pharmacy).

“My daughter is out for the day. Do it NOW!”

1:19 Submits to the piercing—probably also forbidden by her religion.

(Yet another ‘invasion’—because she has no agency in this situation.)

1:20:50 —Would she have let him kiss her…?

1:22:30 Griet ‘gives herself’ to Pieter.

KEY QUESTION: This obviously goes against her religious belief. What would be Griet’s motivation in deliberately seeking Pieter out and initiating this encounter?

01:23:30 Griet turns down Pieter’s proposal of marriage.

(Not a totally idyllic life, maybe, but a decent chance for the working class version of financial security in

what appears to be a nice family).

KEY QUESTION: Why did Griet turn him down?

01:24 The Climactic Scene…banishment.

NOTE: The many layers of Politics—created by a) the institution of marriage; b) social class, and social class consciousness; c) gender status

1:26:15 “They’re just paintings…they mean nothing.”

1:31:30 [Well, van Ruijven got what he wanted…]

01:32 …while Griet no longer has an income, no longer has Pieter. —Just these expensive earrings that her church won’t allow her to wear, and that she might not be able to sell for fear that she, a mere working class girl, could be suspected of having stolen them.

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