Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665, painted by Dutch Golden Age master Johannes Vermeer during the late 17th century must surely be one of the best-known paintings of all time, coming at a close second only to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, 1503. So much so, it has often been referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of the North’. But what is it about this modestly scaled, enigmatic portrait that has attracted so much attention over the centuries? In part, the painting’s fame today is thanks to Tracy Chevalier’s bestselling fiction novel of the same name, published in 1999, which imagined the life of the girl behind the scenes, and in turn led to a Hollywood film adaptation in 2003, followed by a play is 2008. Meanwhile Banksy’s famed riff Girl with a Pierced Eardrum in 2014, is amongst numerous spoofs and spin-offs.
But the painting’s enduring appeal has far more than clever marketing to thank for its worldwide recognition. We look closer at some of the painting’s key qualities that have made it such an unassuming icon of art history.
Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring Has an Enigmatic Quality
The enigmatic mystery of Vermeer’s subject has been a subject of fascination amongst art historians and enthusiasts for many centuries. One of the most intriguing aspects of the painting is that no one actually knows who the sitter for the painting actually was. Instead, she is a ‘tronie’ or an imaginary character, which Vermeer has dressed up in sumptuous fabric and pearl earrings. Although a sitter would most likely have posed for the painting, many writers believe Vermeer has idealized his model to fit a particular type, giving her smooth, flawless porcelain skin, red, moist lips, and large, glistening eyes that meet ours with a soulful, intimate gaze.
Vermeer’s Study Explores Dramatic Lighting
The dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting is one of the most striking and enduring aspects of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Vermeer plays with how an almost black backdrop becomes the ideal setting for his young woman, who stands out like a spot lit actor on a stage. Raking, chiaroscuro light seems to stream in from the right, catching the young woman’s pale, luminous skin face and the shimmering drapery falling from her head, creating a crisp, clear illusion of volume in space. Vermeer pays particular attention to the light on the young woman’s eyes, lips, and the suspended pearl falling from her ear. Recent studies of Vermeer’s painting reveal that he had once painted in a green curtain behind her, before obscuring it with darker color to create a greater quality of mystery and intrigue.
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The Painting Looks Different from Vermeer’s Other Work
One of the reasons why Vermeer’s painting fascinates historians is because it is an outlier in Vermeer’s overall oeuvre. Although he only produced a small volume of paintings during his lifetime, his paintings have predominantly focused on interior scenes viewed from a distance, with features such as floor tiles, windows and furniture creating perspectival lines that pull us into the scene. While Vermeer often painted women alone in interior settings, this painting stands out for its closely cropped design, in which there is little to no background detail. Instead, the painting is a masterful exercise in simplicity, restraint, and elegance.
The Painting Has Appeared in Many Book, Film and Art References
Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring was less popular than the artist’s other paintings during his day, and it was even lost for over 200 years! Since going on display at its current home in the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1902, however, all this has changed. Chevalier’s novel, published in 1999 was an international bestseller which did much to publicize the painting, along with subsequent film and play adaptations respectively in 2003 and 2008. Following the success of Banksy’s mural in 2014, famously adorned with a facemask during the global pandemic, the Mauritshuis museum launched a competition in March 2023, titled My Girl with a Pearl, asking artists to reimagine the artwork in their own creative way, with some surprising and unexpected results including painting, photography, digital imaging, ceramics and felting.