Delft, Holland, 1665. After her father, a tile painter, is blinded in a kiln explosion, seventeen-year-old Griet must work to support her family. She becomes a maid in the house of Johannes Vermeer and gradually attracts the master painter's attention. Though worlds apart in upbringing, education and social standing, Vermeer recognizes Griet's intuitive understanding of color and light and slowly draws her into the mysterious world of his paintings.
Vermeer is a perfectionist, often taking months to finish a painting. His shrewd mother-in-law, Maria Thins, struggles to maintain the family's lavish lifestyle on the income from his painstakingly meager output. Seeing that Griet inspires Vermeer, she takes the dangerous decision to allow their clandestine relationship to develop.
Plunged into a chaotic Catholic household run by Vermeer's volatile wife Catharina, surrounded by an ever-increasing brood of children, Griet is increasingly at risk of exposure or worse. Twelve-year-old Cornelia, a mischievous girl who sees more than she should, quickly grows jealous and suspicious of Griet and is determined to cause trouble.
Alone and unprotected, Griet also contends with the attentions of Pieter, a local butcher boy, and Vermeer's patron, the wealthy and lascivious Master van Ruijven, who is frustrated that his money does not buy him control over the artist. While Griet falls increasingly under Vermeer's spell, she cannot be sure of his feelings for her.
The Machiavellian van Ruijven, sensing the intimacy between master and maid, gleefully contrives a commission for Vermeer to paint Griet alone. The result will be one of the greatest paintings ever created, but at what cost?