Dysfunctional Families: Identity Revealed on Canvas, the Matriarchal Household, Artistry as Getaway and Platonic Eroticism in Peter Webber’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’

-Why don’t you paint me?

-Because you don’t understand.

The premise that the maternal woman, the wife, Catharina, does not understand the right of existence of Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and by extension of Griet herself in the matriarch’s household, is not quite accurate, she understands it all too well, not as a male artist, but certainly as a perceptive woman. In a world with rich, abusive and coveting male patrons who indulge in the comings and goings of female muses and models, Catharina and especially her mother Maria are very aware of the traded female body in the art-world, the interchangeability, the fragile temporary glory and that everything must be made possible and accessible in order to avoid bankruptcy, defamation and public shame. Whereas Catharina is rather easily maintained with occasional sexual advances, jewellery worthy of their societal rank and ego-affirming attention by her husband who needs to make her feel like an appreciated work of art, and thus ephemerally pleased and at ease with the situation, Maria knows of the marital complications, the volatile crevice, the envious tensions, the money-making business, the daily work of reassurance and the pressuring of the wealth-bringing husband and artist and thereby the sweet-talking of another man in charge of the steady money flow namely the lecherous patron Van Ruijven whose open reputation as an infamous exploiter of young indigent women (who, in his eyes, have only their beauty to offer on canvas and their bodies in his sheets) is merely acceptable because of his wealth, influential status and sex.


Griet, gifted herself with an artistic eye, understands Vermeer’s world on his level and not as something political, financial or materialistically pragmatic, for her and her mentor art is a world of its own where none of that matters, where none of that can matter. Catharina and Maria are rather pragmatic, anxious and cautious women in terms of financial security and social survival and as such they take care of the distribution and promotion of Vermeer’s artworks because as soon as they are accomplished his role is as well. Thus mainly Maria remains in control and rather enjoys this position in the family which assures her the overview of events. As a wife and lover, Catharina finds herself in the middle of both worlds, torn rather, with motherhood being an additional role complicating the duties of her persona. Griet seems to be perfectly balanced in this household, on the one hand she is a hard worker whatever she touches and on the other she can immerge in Vermeer’s world and make a change for the better there. Even though Griet has social roles as well, daughter and sister for one, she is stripped of them in the Vermeer household and is purely Griet, an identity she never had space enough to explore and expand.

As Griet enters the Vermeer household, she is stripped of her social identities, a blank body, and is projected upon from different perspectives. For Van Ruijven she embodies his next conquest, for Maria she personifies an opportunity of making good money for the family, for Catharina she slowly but surely incorporates a threat to everything she created and possesses, and most importantly for Vermeer she represents a companion, a fellow-getaway, and the most intriguing introspection into a woman’s soul and even Griet agrees, astonished and deeply moved, that he sees her. The moments leading up to the completion of Griet’s portrait are of an undeniably subtle yet intensely charged eroticism, which in order to maintain the electricity between artist and muse, needs to remain in the realm of the platonic and non-intrusive, the imaginary, the fantastical, the ideal transferred from the mind straight onto canvas. This special bond is locked away beneath the colour, a secret, a history, reflected in her reserved, revelatory and admiring gaze. And yet again, this gaze and posture, this straightforwardness of Griet’s features and expression hit a different nerve in each beholder and thus either the worst nightmare comes true or the most alluring vision and narrative arise and stand confirmed in the observatory and voyeuristically fabricating mind.

Catharina, the life-giver and vessel for Vermeer’s active sexuality, stands unworthy to be painted, too familiar a role and scenery, devalued and disapproved, with no place in his forum of art, but more because she is also the literal attacker of his creations, his universe, his raison d’être, and thus needs to be shunned from his artistic territory because her drawn line between the respectability of his art and infamy is thin and her occasional fits of rage, frustration and sense of invisibility cannot be trusted around his artwork. In his world, Griet is at the top of the hierarchy and Catharina is either non-existent or at the very bottom, with the roles inversed as such, so ignorant of the actual reality that doesn’t matter to Vermeer, Catharina’s fury and jealousy are perfectly understandable. In a sphere, where she has lost her most beloved role, the one of a wife and lover, (not even to mention her accomplishments as a mother to multiple children) and has been ostracised by her own husband, she is a ghost, he a wifeless creator and Griet the unattainable female persona worthy to be immortalised on canvas. For Catharina, this vision, this idea and Vermeer’s impression of Griet is so much more vexing than a simple actual sexual act, as the portrait is the epitome of her ineffectual non-existence, erased from his mind that is completed with this image of another woman. Whereas Vermeer’s affections towards his wife are calculating, manipulative, goal-orientated and ephemeral, the portrait of the Girl with a Pearl Earring is everlasting and that plagues the wife’s proud mind.


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