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The Legacy of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring
A closer look 27 Jun 2022

The Legacy of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

Who would have thought that an anonymous girl painted by a mostly unknown artist would become omnipresent in pop culture? Made between 1665 and 1666, this Vermeer painting is surely one of the most sober masterpieces ever made. The simple expression of this girl, paired with Vermeer’s talent, made her the subject of a book, a plan, and even a Hollywood movie. All these interpretations have a shared objective: to understand who this young girl is, what her story is, and what could possibly make her so captivating?

Despite her mysteries, the girl nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the North” keeps on getting infinitely reused. She was even used by Banksy with his Girl with a Pierced Ear Drum, where an alarm system replaces her famous earring. If you would like to know what makes this Vermeer painting so crucial for art history, Artsper is here to reveal all the secrets to its success.

The Story Behind Vermeer’s Mysterious Painting

vermeer girl with pearl earring
Johannes Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring, 1665-1666

Not only is the Girl With a Pearl Earring portrait enigmatic in its look, but it also had a rocky path since it was first made. Painted in 1665-66 for an unknown reason, the Girl With a Pearl Earring was then lost for more than 200 years! It was found again after having been sold for a few coins and cleaned. Since 1902, it rests quietly at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

The portrait demonstrates a remarkable technique of colors and reflection. The earring, the mouth, and the glowing eyes of the young woman perfectly match the pastel blue and yellow of her hairband. If you take a closer look, you can see that the famous earring is nothing but a game of reflection, and the result of two light brush strokes. The gaze of the model also makes it a work that one can feel close to; she looks at us (or rather, at Vermeer) with a certain intimacy. She does not have any characteristics that differentiate her from others, and that is also the reason why her identity is still unknown.

The curiosity surrounding this painting is clearly a shared sentiment, since Tracy Chevalier’s book, which creates a fictional story for the portrait, sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. Ironically, this painting was not famous at all when it was produced. It is only after its rediscovery that it was able to be enjoyed, mostly by the 19th-century Bohemian Parisian Society.

The Mona Lisa of the North

banksy girl with pierced eardrum
Banksy, Girl with a Pierced Eardrum, 2014

Just like Mona Lisa, this portrait is captivating for a rather unknown reason. In both cases, the models became symbols of objective beauty. They both have a traditional face, and would actually not have been considered beautiful at the time. They also have very few signs of wealth, their only accessories being the traits of their faces.

It was suggested that Vermeer’s painting is a “tronie“, meaning a painting made to demonstrate an artist’s ability in a specific register or type of depiction. Here, Vermeer thus shows us his talent in the depiction of beauty without artifice. Many studies are still done on this work, as researchers try to reveal all of its secrets. Maybe because, just like Mona Lisa, there is something truly intangible that makes this painting so special.

The Illusion of the Pearl

vermeer girl pearl earring
Johannes Vermeer, detail of Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1666

Vermeer paintings usually depict intimate scenes. Often in homes, in the middle of an action, where the audience is invited while being kept aside. Here, the young woman is alone, with no background. The artist thus presents us with something different: a more psychological study. At the time, portraits had a specific goal: to show the fortune of a member of nobility for instance. But here, the young girl is anonymous.

This interests of Vermeer paintings are not random: at the time where he worked, the most powerful artists’ patrons were merchants. They particularly enjoyed depictions of the middle class, as Vermeer enjoyed doing. He reminds us in a way that fortune is superficial; just like this pearl that catches our attention, but which is not actually real. Indeed, Vermeer probably could not have afforded such a luxurious piece of jewelry. Many have thus analyzed this painting as having a more profound meaning regarding the economical state at the time.

Vermeer, the artist who taught us to see beauty in the simple things

vermeer music lesson
Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-63

When one mentions Vermeer, we think of a rather timid presence. An artist who was barely known during his life, and yet who did not try too hard. If we observe the paintings of one of his contemporaries such as Rembrandt, Vermeer’s paintings offer us something completely different. Rembrandt and the other Baroque painters give us agitating scenes, where a dozen figures coexist on the canvas, but Vermeer does the opposite. His scenes are calming, intimate, and almost banal. They often show women, so busy that they do not even notice they are being watched. And yet, the beauty of these scenes is to be found precisely in this mastery of simplicity. His works made us want to observe, in silence as well, the ongoing action.

The Girl With a Pearl Earring is a manifestation of beauty in simplicity. Her portrait is not particularly distinctive, her face is quite common. She is only placed on a dark background, and we know nothing about her. And yet, Vermeer manages with very few elements to make her stand out. The sobriety of Vermeer’s painting could maybe have been the beginning of the abandonment of Baroque extravagance. In any case, Vermeer’s legacy will surely be around for long, as his style is definitely timeless.