Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is the most famous painting in the Mauritshuis and is probably Vermeer’s most celebrated work. So many have been captivated by the way the girl turns towards the viewer, by her gaze, by the colours. And, of course, by the quality of the light.
Even though a girl possibly sat and posed for this painting, believe it or not, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait. It displays too few distinctive features for that: there are no moles, scars or freckles anywhere to be seen. So rather than a portrait, this painting is a ‘tronie’ - the name given to similar character studies in Vermeer’s day.
Vermeer did not paint all the details you think you can see. When you take a closer look you realize that your eyes are playing tricks on you. The girl’s nose, for example. You can see a nose, but where is the bridge? Vermeer painted it with the same pink paint as the right cheek. He also didn’t include a defined contour, so the nose blends seamlessly into the cheek. This means you see a bridge that in actual fact does not exist!
This pearl is too large to be real and instead is probably an imitation. But the genius is in how Vermeer painted it, with only two strokes of white paint: one at the bottom to reflect the collar and a thick dab at the top. There is nothing more, not even a silver hook.
The girl looks out at you with large, moist eyes. But why? Is she carefree or curious? Sad or shy? In love perhaps? By leaving the corners of her eyes undefined, Vermeer offers no clues to her emotional state. This makes it hard to read her expression and so your imagination is left to fill in the details. And, these of course are different for everyone.
The girl looks out at you with large eyes and makes contact. But she does this with her mouth too. Her full, red lips are slightly parted, as if she is about to say something. On the red paint, Vermeer has added a couple of subtle glimmers of white. This makes the girl’s lips appear moist. Is she on the point of saying something, or is she getting ready for a kiss?
In an inventory drawn up after Vermeer’s death, this painting was described as a ‘tronie painted in a Turkish style’. But the girl is no Turkish beauty. Far from it: she is a girl from Delft who has dressed up for Vermeer as an exotic, Turkish woman. Her turban of blue and yellow scarves is especially striking. Delft girls would not have worn headdresses like this, so this turban came straight out of Vermeer’s well stocked dressing-up box. But, the jacket with the pleated sleeve inset, on the other hand, would certainly have been worn by the fashionable women of Delft.
Vermeer signed his painting with the initials VM.
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes VermeerMauritshuis