In January, Vermeer begins his portrait of Griet, alternating it with work on the music scene. He struggles to find the right pose and costume for her, since she feels out of place pretending to be a higher-class lady, and also does not want to borrow any of Catharina's clothes or accessories. The time they spend together is highly sexually charged and some of this tension carries over into Griet's encounters with Pieter. However, when Vermeer asks her to expose her hair, Griet refuses. Trying to find a compromise on an appropriate head covering, Griet wraps blue and yellow fabric around her head, resulting in a strange costume that Vermeer finds striking and incorporates into the picture. Maria helps Griet to keep the project a secret. Van Leeuwenhoek is also aware and expresses concern for Griet due to her getting caught between the two men. When Van Ruijven visits the house, he is often able to seize the opportunity to fondle Griet, and there is also the risk he will tell Catharina about the portrait.
By March, the painting is nearing completion but Vermeer is unsatisfied. Griet offers to look at it, and when she does, she immediately knows what should be added. The prospect of what will be required frightens her, and she does not make any suggestions. A few days later, she watches Vermeer observe Catharina's pearl earrings, and realizes that the jewels would add a focus point of light to the portrait. She dreads the request he will make of her, and before he can voice the idea, she tells Vermeer that she does not want to wear the earrings. He insists that it is necessary for the success of the painting. As Griet reluctantly prepares to pose, he interrupts her, catching sight of her unbound hair. That night, Griet seeks out Pieter and they have sex for the first time.
Griet still tries to object to wearing the earring, but Vermeer is insistent. He does tell her that she will have to wear it only for a single sitting. Resigned, Griet tries to go ask her brother for help, but learns that he has fled from his apprenticeship and left the city. Feeling utterly alone, she pierces her ear herself late one night. She hides the piercing under her cap, but feels increasingly tense, especially when van Ruijven becomes more aggressive with her; only Cornelia interrupting them saves her.
On the day of Griet's eighteenth birthday, she goes to the market where Pieter the butcher drops hints about the errand his son is on. Feeling anxious she returns to the house only to have Maria tell her that Catharina has gone out for the day and that the session with the earring will take place while she is gone. She gives Griet the earrings and sends her upstairs; by this time, the attention of the girls has been attracted. As Griet starts to prepare to pose, she is interrupted by the news that she has a visitor. She goes outside to speak with Pieter, aware that Tanneke, the girls, and Vermeer are all watching from inside the house. She tries to delay, but Pieter insists on making his proposal of marriage. She tells him she will not discuss the question and hurries back to the studio.
Inside, Griet tells Vermeer to insert the earring for her, which he does. He then tells her she must wear the other one as well. Griet objects at first but then consents and pierces her other ear, wearing both earrings while he paints her. Afterwards, she returns the earrings to Maria to be replaced in the jewel box. Vermeer leaves the house, and Catharina comes home. A short time later, Griet realizes that Cornelia has led her mother upstairs to see the portrait. There is an outburst, and a message is sent for Vermeer to return home. Griet waits while he comes back and joins his wife in the studio. Cornelia then comes down and brings Griet up to the studio, where Catharina, Vermeer, and Maria are assembled. Catharina is furious and wants to know whether Griet has stolen the earrings that she is depicted wearing in the portrait. Neither Maria nor Vermeer speaks up to explain what really happened. Griet denies stealing the earrings, but also does not reveal the whole story.
Enraged, Catharina grabs a knife and tries to stab the painting, but Vermeer prevents her. Griet realizes there is no future left for her in the house. She calmly walks out. Once outside, she considers the options for her future and makes a choice.
The experience of having her portrait painted, and thus being in close and intimate proximity to Vermeer, inspires a sexual awakening in Griet that manifests in several ways. Her strict rules about covering her hair at all times symbolize her commitment to chastity and maintaining control of her body. Both Vermeer and Pieter try to breach this boundary, but she initially refuses. When she insists on keeping her head covered in the portrait, Griet clings to a last attempt at self-control and agency in her interactions with Vermeer. When he surprises her and catches sight of her unbound hair, Griet's attempts at self-control come to seem largely pointless. Her desire and her true self have been exposed to him, as has the reality that she will ultimately do whatever he asks. When she has sex with Pieter later that night, Griet abandons her attempts to live according to social conventions and expectations. This might be seen either as a liberated act in that she embraces her desire for pleasure, or as a nihilistic gesture of despair.
The symbolism of the earring and the piercing also reflects Griet's eventual exhaustion and defeat in the struggle to control her body and autonomy. When she realizes what is required to complete the painting, she feels despair but also futility. The painting of the portrait has already constituted a risky secret, but if the portrait features Catharina's pearls, there is no chance that Griet will be forgiven if she is discovered. Griet has been walking a thin line in trying to appear unthreatening, but by wearing Catharina's jewels, she appears to have usurped her position and status. Combined with the undeniable fact that Griet enjoys a privileged relationship with Catharina's husband, the shame will be too much to bear.
For Griet to wear the earrings is to symbolically adopt a class position that is not actually hers in reality. Unlike however the fine fabrics, the earrings require her to alter her physical body. The pain she experiences in piercing her own ear reflects the suffering of her unrequited desire for Vermeer. She will never be able to have him, and yet she also cannot bring herself to refuse his requests, or remove herself from the situation even though it will only have negative consequences for her. Griet does display some assertiveness in asking Vermeer to insert the earring for her, and this moment of him penetrating her body with the earring becomes a symbolic substitution for the sexual consummation they will never get to experience.
Despite the isolation and secrecy of their interactions, neither Griet nor Vermeer can stay sheltered from the outside world forever. Although Griet tries to make excuses and delay, Pieter becomes more insistent on claiming her and pressuring her to decide if she wants to make a life with him. Griet has been clinging to a life in which she has a foot in both worlds: the higher class existence of the Vermeer family, and her own working class origins. Committing to Pieter would give her freedom and stability, but it would also mean giving up the opportunity to discuss and make art. When she turns Pieter away during his proposal, Griet reveals that she is not willing to give up her position until it has fully played out.
It is also inevitable that Catharina will eventually discover the portrait. Her reaction when she sees it is harsh and violent, but there is also potential sympathy for why she feels jealous and alone. More notably, both Vermeer and Maria betray Griet by refusing to reveal the truth and defend her. This, perhaps more than anything else, confirms why Griet needs to leave the house. As Julie R. Voss explains, "Vermeer protects Griet from van Ruijven's predations, but he does not protect her from the anger and jealousy of his wife, nor can he protect her from her own desire" (244). Despite the intimacy she has enjoyed, the preservation of family stability will always come first, and no one will ever truly have Griet's best interests at heart. Knowing this, she understands that she will need to take care of herself and that she can no longer afford to make herself vulnerable and submissive.