Sixteen-year-old Griet has to leave her family home in Delft in 1664 after her father is blinded in an accident. As a tile-painter, her father is a member of the artists’ guild, so employment is found for her as a maid in painter Johannes Vermeer's household. In the strictly stratified society of the time, this is a fall in status because of the bad reputation that maids have for stealing, spying and sleeping with their employers. A further complication is that the Vermeers belong to the grudgingly tolerated Catholic minority while Griet is a Protestant. At their home, she befriends the family's oldest daughter, Maertge, but is never on good terms with the spiteful Cornelia, a younger daughter who takes after her class-conscious mother, Catharina. Griet also finds it difficult to keep on the right side of Tanneke, the other house servant, who is moody and jealous.
Griet lives for two years at her employers’ and is only allowed to visit her home on Sundays, where the family circle is breaking up. Her younger brother Frans is apprenticed outside and eventually her younger sister Agnes dies of the plague. But during the early months of her work at the Vermeers', Pieter, the son of the family butcher at the meat market, starts courting Griet. She has been strictly brought up and does not welcome this at first, but tolerates his interest because it is of advantage to her impoverished parents.
Griet is increasingly fascinated by Vermeer's paintings. Vermeer discovers that Griet has an eye for art and secretly asks her to run errands and perform tasks for him, such as mixing his paints and acting as a substitute model. Griet arouses the suspicions of Catharina, but Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, recognizes Griet's presence as a steadying and catalyzing force in Vermeer's career and connives at the domestic arrangements that allow her to devote more time to his service. However, Griet is warned by Vermeer's friend, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, not to get too close to the artist because he is more interested in painting than he is in people. Realizing that this is true, Griet remains cautious.
Vermeer's wealthy but licentious patron, Pieter van Ruijven, notices “the wide-eyed maid”, molests her when he can and pressures Vermeer to paint them together, as he had with an earlier maid that Van Ruijven had then made pregnant. Griet and Vermeer are therefore reluctant to fulfil this request and eventually Vermeer comes up with a compromise. Van Ruijven will be painted with members of his own family and Vermeer will paint a portrait of Griet by herself which is to be sold to van Ruijven. For the painting, he forces her to pierce her ears and wear his wife's pearl earrings without her permission. Cornelia seizes the chance to let Catharina discover this and in the resulting scandal Vermeer remains silent and Griet is forced to leave.
Ten years later, long after Griet has married Pieter and settled into life as a mother and butcher's wife, she is called back to the house following Vermeer's death. Griet assumes that Vermeer's widow wishes to settle the household's unpaid butcher’s bill. There Griet learns that Vermeer had asked for her painting to be hung in the room as he was dying. In addition, though the family is now poorer, Vermeer's will has included a request that Griet receive the pearl earrings that she wore when he painted her, which Van Leeuwenhoek forces Catharina to hand over. Griet realizes, however, that she could no more wear them as a butcher's wife than she could have as a maid. She therefore decides to pawn the earrings and pay the fifteen guilders owed to her husband from the price.