THE GUARDIAN/THE OBSERVER 7 August 1999 by Deborah Moggach

Thanks to its painters, no era feels closer to us than 17th-century Holland. The Calvinists whitewashed the churches, banning holy images from within them, and painters had to look elsewhere for work. The result was an extraordinary explosion of everyday subject- matter: street scenes, bawdy tavern scenes, landscapes, still lifes, some with moralistic overtones and some simply celebrating the glories of nature. The Republic was awash with capital - its empire was flourishing - and being a bourgeois, home-loving people, the Dutch spent their newly-acquired wealth filling their houses with treasures. In particular, they filled them with paintings. "Good pictures are very common here," wrote William Aglionby in 1669, "there being scarce an ordinary tradesman whose house is not adorned with them."

Out of all this subject matter, the most revealing and intimate are the genre paintings: the quiet domestic interiors of Vermeer, Ter Borch and Pieter de Hooch. In them, people are stilled at a moment of drama, reading a letter, glancing at a suitor. They suggest lives beyond themselves, through the rooms at the back of the paintings; their narrative, briefly frozen, will continue elsewhere. Through these tableaux we enter a sunlit, tranquil world which reveals every detail of ordinary life - what they wore, what they ate, how they furnished their rooms.

There is a transcendental homeliness to it all, as the Vermeer character explains in Tracy Chevalier's novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring : "Paintings may serve a spiritual purpose for Catholics, but remember too that Protestants see God everywhere, in everything. By painting everyday things - tables and chairs, bowls and pitchers, soldiers and maids - are they not celebrating God's creation as well?"

But though the paintings reveal so much about life at that time, information about the painters themselves is frustratingly meagre. Through inventories, guild membership dates and marriage registers we know some basic facts. Here and there we glean a tantalising snippet of more personal information - that Jan van Goyen bankrupted himself gambling on tulip bulbs, that Jan Steen married the offal-seller in the market opposite his front door, that de Hooch died in the madhouse. About the greatest painter of them all, Vermeer, we know that he had at least 11 children and lived with his mother-in-law, Maria Thins; that he was in hock to his baker, whom he paid with paintings, and that his family was plunged into poverty when he died. But this most mysterious of painters leaves many questions unanswered.

Who, for instance, were his models? He painted at home in Delft, using the same props again and again, but who are those enigmatic women who gaze out of the window, or turn to catch our eye? Some painters used members of their family as models - Ter Borch painted his half-sister Gesina in at least 16 canvases - but when it comes to Vermeer we can only speculate. It is from this enigma, at the heart of his paintings, that Tracy Chevalier spins her fascinating novel Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Griet is a young girl from a poverty-stricken family. Her father is a former tile-painter who has been blinded in an explosion and she has learnt to be his pair of eyes, describing the world to him. She has a special talent for this - a visual awareness of colour and harmony - which is spotted by Vermeer when she arrives at his household to work as a maid. Amongst her many duties she is given sole responsibility for cleaning his studio, for she can rearrange his props exactly as she found them.

His studio "was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina's keys, the sweeping of our brooms." Reverentially, Griet dusts the objects that are familiar to us from his paintings - a pewter bowl, a chair with carved lion- heads. She also learns to grind Vermeer's pigments for him. Gradually she is drawn into the creative process itself, and subtly starts to influence his work. When she stands at the window, washing the panes, and glances over her shoulder, he stops her - "Don't move!". She holds the pose, and is then dismissed, little knowing that she has become the inspiration for another painting.

And when he is painting what we now know as "A Lady Writing", Griet alters the cloth that is lying on the table, ruffling it up. When Vermeer returns to the studio he asks why she did it. She replies "There needs to be some disorder in the scene, to contrast with her tranquillity . . . something to tease the eye. And yet it must be something pleasing to the eye as well, and it is, because the cloth and her arm are in a similar position."

The bond between master and maid deepens. Between them grows a complicity that is profoundly erotic, though never carnal. The secret world they share is acknowledged in words by neither of them, for she is a servant, he a self-absorbed artist, and their lives can only touch in the studio. However, the household senses that something is up: Griet has to face the hostility of Vermeer's manipulative daughter Cornelia and the jealousy of his wife Catharina. The latter is a sluttish, bossy woman who is ignorant about painting and worn down by constant child-bearing. For the household is chaotic, filled with quarrelling children and yelling babies. All those mouths to feed. Vermeer discovers, like many other artists, that the enemy of creation is the pram in the hall.

Events move towards a climax as Griet finally moves into his painting, posing for "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and thus taking her place in history. There is, however, a terrible price to pay. This is a wonderful novel, mysterious, steeped in atmosphere and yet firmly rooted in the drudgery and denial of a servant's life. It is deeply revealing about the process of painting and is best read with a volume of Vermeer's paintings open beside you - it then becomes a truly magical experience.