The novel was published in Britain in 1999 and a year later in the United States, where it became a New York Times bestseller, Though it was nominated for several fiction prizes, it won only the Barnes & Noble Discover Award in 2000 and the 2001 Alex Award for books that have special appeal to young adults. In 2001 Plume released the U.S. paperback edition with an initial print-run of 120,000 copies; a year later the book had been reprinted 18 times with close to two million copies sold. In 2005 HarperCollins brought out a UK special edition with nine colour plates of Vermeer paintings, published in celebration of one million copies sold.
The New York Times described the work as a "brainy novel whose passion is ideas"; Atlantic Monthly praised Chevalier's effort "in creating the feel of a society with sharp divisions in status and creed”. However, Publishers Weekly noted details that “threaten to rob the narrative of its credibility. Griet's ability to suggest to Vermeer how to improve a painting demands one stretch of the reader's imagination. And Vermeer's acknowledgment of his debt to her, revealed in the denouement, is a blatant nod to sentimentality”. Details were also called into question by the art historian Gary Schwarz, particularly the simplistic portrayal of the Catholic/Protestant division in a country where the differences between Protestants were equally important.
As well as the high English-language sales, the novel’s popularity has seen it translated into most European languages and in Asia into Turkish, Georgian, Persian, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean.