In 1999, American author Tracy Chevalier published Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel directly inspired by one of Vermeer’s most famous works of the same name. Set in 17th century Delft, Holland, Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the girl in the painting and the artwork itself.
Since being published, Chevalier’s novel has sold over five million copies worldwide, suggesting there’s a shared curiosity about this particular Vermeer work. Here the writer talks about why she’s been fascinated with Girl with a Pearl Earring since she was 19 and how that turned into inspiration for the book.
Why is Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring such a popular painting? Nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the North,” it’s beginning to rival Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa masterpiece in terms of exposure. It’s been used on the cover of many art books, and you can now own the painting on cushions, coasters, T-shirts, bags, socks, suitcases, and more. The internet is brimming with images of the girl, either just as she is, or altered for our times: taking a selfie, styled into a manga comic character, riding on the back of a motorcycle (with Van Gogh as the driver). Banksy even turned her into graffiti on a Bristol wall, with a security alarm in place of her earring.
It wasn’t always so iconic, though. We don’t know whom Vermeer first painted it for in 1665-66, but it ended up in his patron’s collection, was then sold on by his son-in-law, and was lost until it resurfaced 200 years later, when a collector bought it for 2 guilders (a little less than $1), and discovered it was a Vermeer once it had been cleaned. On the collector’s death in 1902 it was donated to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where it has hung ever since. Now, of course, it is priceless; the Mauritshuis would never sell it. In fact the last Vermeer to be publicly sold – in 2004 – went for $30 million, and it is nowhere near as good as Girl with a Pearl Earring.
The first time I saw the painting – as a poster on my sister’s wall when I was 19 – I was so mesmerized, I had to buy a copy for myself so that I could look at her all the time. I have had that poster up everywhere I’ve lived since. But why did I feel the need to see the painting so much? What brings viewers back to it again and again?
I think there are three qualities that make Girl with a Pearl Earring so seductive. It is very beautiful, for one thing. The striking blue and yellow of the girl’s headscarf, set against a black background, the glistening pearl created in a few swift strokes, the expert capturing of light and shade on her luminous skin, the liquid pools of her eyes: all add up to a work of sublime beauty.
But beauty is not enough to sustain the sort of attention Girl with a Pearl Earring receives. I’ve been looking at this painting for over 30 years, and I’m still not bored of it. Why?
Its second seductive characteristic is that the girl looks familiar. We may not know who she is, but we feel we know her because she is looking at us with such intimacy. We mistake this look for familiarity. I’ve had readers tell me that their daughter or their friend or their neighbor resembles the girl. I’ve seen many women online dressed up as her. Someone once told me that I look like the girl, and that must be why I wrote about the painting.
However, we don’t really know what she looks like – not even the basics like hair or eye color. With her face turned partially away, we can’t really discern its shape. The line of her nose blends into her check so we don’t know if it’s wide, snub, or round. Her look is universal rather than specific. In fact, the painting is not actually a portrait of a particular person, but what the Dutch called a tronie – the head of an ideal “type,” like “a soldier” or “a musician” – or, in this case, “a young beauty.”
This leads to the third and most powerful quality of the painting: its mystery. We don’t know who the girl is or what she’s thinking. Indeed, we know very little about Vermeer. He lived his whole life in the Dutch town of Delft. He married a Catholic woman and probably converted, he lived at his mother-in-law’s, and had 11 children. He was in debt several times. He was an art dealer as well as an artist – and that’s about the extent of our knowledge, apart from his work.
Vermeer created 36 paintings that we’re aware of, many of them depicting women on their own, doing everyday things like pouring milk, writing letters, playing lutes. We have no idea who these women are, though they are likely to be members of the family household. This means we don’t know what the relationship is between the girl wearing the pearl earring and the painter.
The girl’s expression is pleasingly ambiguous. Is she happy or sad? Is she pushing us away or yearning to look at us? And who is “us,” anyway? I had been studying the painting for years when one day it dawned on me: of course she’s not looking at me like that – I wasn’t there! She’s looking at the painter with that curious wide-eyed gaze. It made me wonder what Vermeer did to her to make her look like that at him. That curiosity was what led me to write a novel about the painting: I wanted to explore the mystery of her gaze. To me Girl with a Pearl Earring is neither a universal tronie, nor a portrait of a specific person. It is a portrait of a relationship.
In considering the painting, there is an immediate beauty that draws us in, and a familiarity that satisfies us. But in the end, it is the mystery that keeps us coming back to it again and again, looking for answers that we never find.
Beauty, familiarity, mystery. These are the qualities of Girl with a Pearl Earring that make it an iconic masterpiece. The painting is like a song that ends on the second-to-last chord: we are drawn to look at it again in the hope that this time the last chord will be played, the painting will resolve itself, the mystery will dissipate, and we can leave the girl alone at last.