Of the 36 known Vermeer paintings, none is more beloved than Girl with a Pearl Earring.
It has inspired a best-selling book, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring; a 2003 movie starring Scarlett Johansson; countless variations, and the nickname, “The Dutch Mona Lisa”.
But Girl with a Pearl Earring outshines Mona Lisa any day.
Curiously, there are no known sketchs or preliminary drawings for any Johann Vermeer paintings.
Art historians have concluded that Vermeer used a camera obscura, a pre-photography device used to project images. The camera converts tiny reflections of light into pinpoints or highlights that have come to typify Vermeer paintings.
In the 17th century, Holland was the most urbanized country in Europe, with massive wealth accumulated from its maritime trade. Portraiture was a popular genre for demonstrating wealth, including a subset of portraiture called tronies. These bust-length portraits were studies of facial expressions and postures rather than precise likenesses of particular people.
Indisputably, the most renowned Dutch tronie is Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Little is known about the life of Johann Vermeer (1632 – 1675). Various reports say, for instance, that he had between eight and fifteen children.
What is known is that Vermeer was impoverished when he died – his wife had to sell his works to support herself and children; Vermeer all but disapeared from art history for nearly two centuries; and only three of the 36 existant Vermeer paintings are not interiors:
- View of Delft, Netherlands, After the Fire (left), the only known Vermeer landscape;
- Girl with a Red Hat, ca. 1665-66, the only known Vermeer work on panel (below, right); and
- Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Vermeer was ‘re-discovered’ in the mid 1850s by the French art critic, Theophile Thore-Burger, who is also credited for discovering other Dutch painters including Frans Hals and Carel Fabritius. Thore-Burger asserted what many still believe today, Vermeer’s most remarkable trait… is the quality of his light.
Nowhere is that quality of light captured more brilliantly than in Girl with a Pearl Earring. The identity of the model isn’t known (perhaps that’ll change with art historians’ use of newly developed facial recognition software). The mystery surrounding her is compounded by her exotic garb, atypical of Dutch clothing.
Semicircular brush strokes are visible in the blue turban, created with expensive ultramarine pigment. On her face, which is silky smooth, no brushstrokes can be discerned. Her jacket collar is created with lush, juicy brushstrokes while the rest of her top is sketchily modeled.
Two features of Girl with A Pearl Earring struck me when I saw it in the exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis: this portrait has striking immediacy, as if this mysterious woman abruptly became aware of viewers, and turned toward us to speak. Also, the palette in Girl with a Pearl Earring is quite limited. Oddly, this merely magnifies its power and beauty.
You’ll be spellbound.
Is there a Vermeer work you prefer? If so… do tell, and please make your case!
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