Cherished for centuries
As far back as antiquity, pearls were cherished due to their rarity and beauty. In the Middle Ages, they exuded power and status. Pearls subsequently symbolised the Christian faith, and were used as attributes of Christ and the Virgin Mary, to symbolise purity and chastity. From the 19th century onwards, they were associated with mourning, but in the 17th century, pearls were primarily a sign of wealth – as is the case in most of Vermeer’s works. Depending on the context, a deeper significance can sometimes be attached to the pearls. In Woman Holding a Balance, a painting with explicitly religious connotations, the pearls – together with the coins and the gold on the table – contribute to vanitas: the notion that one should not attach too much importance to these earthly goods. They are merely transient, in contrast to faith.
Mysterious natural phenomena
People did not yet understand how this rare natural product was created, so numerous myths were thought up to explain how pearls were formed. We now know that natural saltwater pearls develop when a little creature or grain of sand enters a mollusc. This can be a mussel, an oyster or even a snail. The mollusc subsequently forms a pearl sac around the stray parasite or dirt. This process is repeated many times, and the pearl gradually grows. Pearls come in all kinds of colours, but the women in Vermeer’s paintings wear ivory-coloured examples.
The Dutch Republic participated in the thriving trade in pearls, transporting them from Asia to Amsterdam together with other luxury goods. The Golf of Mannar, located between South India and Sri Lanka, was one of the pearl diving hotspots in the 17th century. Divers used heavy stones to help them to rapidly descend into the depths, in the hope of gathering several oysters. They sometimes had to collect more than 1,000 oysters before they came across a single attractive pearl. As you can imagine, a necklace such as in The Love Letter – consisting of at least 20 pearls – would have cost a fortune.
If we examine Vermeer’s pearls closely, we see that he depicted them in various ways. The layering of paint for the pearl depends on the size, position in the composition and the style Vermeer adopted. For example, the pearl necklace in A Lady Seated at the Virginal consists of white dots painted on top of a grey-brown band. The skin of the woman is in shadow and forms the basis of the necklace.
A teardrop-shaped pearl
The teardrop-shaped pearl earring in Mistress and Maid is comprised of a matt white ground layer, upon which Vermeer painted two highlights: one large, long highlight in the middle of the earring and a smaller one just underneath the woman’s ear.
A dark and a light version
In A Lady Writing, Vermeer opted for rounder pearls. Examination of the paint layers reveals that the pearls were his final addition to the painting. For the earring on the right, he used an ivory base layer with reflections in white. Vermeer used darker colours for the left-hand earring, because it is in shadow. Despite its dark colour, the object is immediately recognisable as a pearl, thanks to the delicate white highlight that Vermeer added as a finishing touch.
A pearl made of ‘nothing’
In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer used just a few white and grey brushstrokes to suggest a matt sheen and a spherical shape. At the bottom, he painted the reflection of the girl’s collar. On the left of the pearl, he applied the paint more thickly to indicate where the most light was reflected. He used the colour of the girl’s neck as the basis: parts of the pearl ‘reflect’ the colour, although he didn’t actually paint anything there. Vermeer lets our eyes complete the picture.