Girl with the Pearl Earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring is undoubtedly the most famous and identifiable portrait of Northern Europe and is as iconic to the Dutch as da Vinci's Mona Lisa is to the Italians. In it, a young woman's face floats against a dark background, left half in shadow. She gazes out at the audience with bright eyes and lips slightly parted as if she is about to speak. It is unclear whether she is turning towards or away from the viewer.
The play of light on the Girl's cheek, eyelids, and lips are instantly recognizable as Vermeer was posthumously titled the "Master of Light" and was known for his delicate attention to the way light played on skin, fabrics, and precious stones. Scholars have admiringly noted the lack of linear distinction between the nose and cheek, as Vermeer has counted on his use of light tones to implying the different facets of her face. Similarly, pale pink and white highlights along the lips make them appear moist and fleshy, adding to the air of mysticism that surrounds the image. The audience is left to wonder whether she stopped speaking when she made eye contact with the viewer or had simply paused to take a breath.
Rather than a true-to-life portrait of someone, Vermeer's contemporaries would have recognized this genre painting as a tronie - a stock character in costume, with idealized, exaggerated facial expressions, representing characteristics of exotic or foreign lands, that were coming to light in Dutch society, through the thriving business of trade. The girl's fantastical turban is indicative of this, as it was certainly not part of everyday Dutch, or even European garb. The pearlescent globe, hanging from her left ear, is also suggestive of far off lands as pearls were imported from the Persian Gulf.
As with many of Vermeer's works, mystery revolves around why he painted what he did. Certainly he had more freedom than many of his contemporaries, like Rembrandt, who took commissions, and trained pupils to earn a living. Thus it seems that Vermeer painted the Girl to amuse himself and to challenge himself artistically. Some scholars have argued as to the identity of the sitter, with some suggesting that it was either his oldest daughter, Maria, or the daughter of his patron, Magdalena van Ruijven, both of whom would have been twelve or thirteen years old at the time of painting. If this is the case, it suggests a desire to document his child's or his friend's child's beauty for posterity and admiration.
Painted in around 1665, it wasn't until the turn of the twentieth century, after long-overdue restoration work, and with the publication of Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring that the Girl was catapulted to international stardom.
The painting continues to influence contemporary artists. The British graffiti artist Banksy repainted the portrait on an exterior wall in Bristol, UK, in his characteristic street-art style with tonally applied deep blue paint. The iconic pearl, which historians are unsure as to whether it is an unusually large pearl or simply polished tin, has been replaced with an unassuming burglar alarm.
Regardless of the identity of the mysterious girl, or the authenticity of her pearl, her face remains an iconic image of youthful beauty in Baroque art.
Oil on canvas - The Mauritshuis, Amsterdam, The Netherlands