Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (around 1662) by Jan Vermeer van DelftGemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Jan Vermeer van Delft, or simply Vermeer, was a Dutch painter of the Baroque period. Although Vermeer achieved only moderate success in his lifetime he’s now celebrated today for his mastery of light and he’s acclaimed as one of the great ‘genre’ painters. Unfortunately for Vermeer, true fame came well after his own death.
Vermeer’s paintings are full of bright colours, with particular favourites being cornflower blue and yellow. The settings for his images are mostly domestic interior scenes of middle-class life.
There’s a lot of speculation about whether Vermeer used a ‘camera obscura’ to achieve the incredibly precise positioning of his paintings, and this view does seem to be supported by certain effects in his paintings. But, whether this theory is proven or not, his compositions do often have an underlying geometric quality to them.
Fur jackets like this were worn informally by wealthy Dutch women in winter to keep them warm. The motif of the jacket reoccurs in two other paintings by Vermeer, the Mistress and Maid and A Lady Writing. And, in fact it may have been the same jacket in all three paintings, as a jacket with yellow satin and white fur trimmings is listed in Vermeer's death inventory of 1676. It seems Vermeer wasn’t afraid to use the same props and costumes in more than one painting. The black spots in the fur trim of the jacket in the painting suggest ermine which was highly unlikely to be found in even the wardrobe of an upper middle-class woman.
Mirrors appear in several of Vermeer’s paintings, although usually they do not hang on the wall but stand on a dressing table. The black frame is probably made from ebony, which would have been imported to the Netherlands from overseas.
The yellow curtain serves as a counter balance to the yellow of the girl’s jacket. Painted in a slightly more saturated hue it creates an intriguing tension within the painting. Together with the red ribbon in the girl’s hair, the yellow tones are the only colorful parts of the painting; they reach a stunning intensity in the dimmed light coming through the window.
In art, pearls are symbols for purity, chastity, beauty or love. The girl is styled fashionably but also unrealistically: pearls this size could only ever have been owned by the wealthiest women in Dutch society.
The girl, by her actions, is an enigma. Is she putting on a necklace, taking it off or simply gazing at her own reflection, lost in thought? Like in many of Vermeer’s paintings we’re left to draw our own conclusions, our imaginations filling in the gaps that Vermeer deliberately leaves blank.
A powder puff, a carved comb (presumably of ivory) and a silver jewelry box lie scattered on the dressing table, showing that our subject is in the middle of finishing off her morning toilette. These items occur in a number of paintings of women at their toilette, which became a very popular topic in 17th century Dutch painting.
The largest surface in the painting is this gray wall which forms the compositional centre of the painting. Vermeer successfully turns this empty space into a dynamic mediator between the girl and the mirror. In the play of the light, the finely nuanced wall comes to life, adding to the painting’s sophisticated quality.
The chair in the foreground is a so-called ‘spaansche stoel’, an upholstered chair with a fabric or leather cover and decorative nails that was common in the late 16th and early 17th century. The chair’s position in the very front of the picture contributes to the intimate atmosphere and creates a strong feeling of depth.
Precious Chinese porcelain, like this vase, was imported into the Netherlands from the Far East. However, instead of depicting a vase, Vermeer rather hints at its presence: in the dark areas of the left hand foreground, deliberately placed reflections indicate the vase’s outlines. The reflections render the precise quality of the shiny surface and suggest further windows in the room, that we the viewer cannot see.
Vermeer placed his signature “IMeer” on the edge of the table. Because the painting was signed by the artist it was of special interest to Théophile Thoré-Bürger who is largely responsible for the rediscovery of Vermeer in the 19th century. Today the signature has almost disappeared amongst the dark colors of the desk.