Vermeer: A Painter of Pearls

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665 (digitized by Madpixel)) by Johannes VermeerMauritshuis

A pearl amongst painters

Vermeer and pearls are inextricably linked. Pearls appear in 18 of the 36 paintings currently known to be by Vermeer. He painted pearls so often, that it would be safe to assume that Vermeer was fascinated by them. In his day, pearls were all the rage. Vermeer is the painter of what became arguably the most famous pearl in the history of art: the pearl worn by the girl in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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.

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (around 1662) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

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 Love Letter (Around 1669) by Johannes VermeerRijksmuseum

Pearl diving
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.

Young Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662–63) by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Too good to be true

The pearl earrings painted by Vermeer are often implausibly large, as in Girl with a Pearl Earring and Young Woman with a Lute, for example. Pearls of this size are extremely rare, and would have therefore been impossibly expensive. The women may have been wearing imitation pearls, which were made in Venice from the 16th century onwards. These fakes were made of metal or blown glass that was painted to give it a pearly matt finish. Of course, it is also possible that Vermeer let his imagination run free when he was painting. As the artist, he had the luxury of being able to make a string of pearls as long as he wanted, and pearl earrings as large as he pleased.

A Young Woman seated at a Virginal A Young Woman seated at a Virginal by Johannes VermeerThe National Gallery, London

Different pearls
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.

Mistress and Maid (ca. 1666−67) by Johannes VermeerThe Frick Collection

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 Lady Writing (c. 1665) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665 (digitized by Madpixel)) by Johannes VermeerMauritshuis

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.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

Girl with a Pearl Earring gigapixel image has been digitized by Madpixel and is part of the Second Canvas Mauritshuis app

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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