Situated in its permanent home Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague, The Netherlands, Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer’s painting Girl with a Pearl Earring hangs as a mesmerising centrepiece amid several artworks. Also known as the ‘Mona Lisa of the North’ or ‘Dutch Mona Lisa’ this painting attracts thousands of visitors a year from across the globe. Vermeer painted this masterpiece in 1665 but it gained more popularity towards the end of the 20th century for not just the ‘pearl’ but its simplicity. When I saw this small yet gorgeous painting, I simply could not take my eyes off of it. Despite its fame and endless references in popular culture, even Scarlett Johansson’s role in 2003 film ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ cannot prepare you for the breathtaking painting by the Dutch genius, which would be worth millions if it ever was auctioned. But what makes this artwork so special?
When you set your eyes upon this delicate painting, you ask yourself, is the sitter in the painting turning towards you or away? I was entranced by the 3D look and how Vermeer used his expertise in reflecting light on his subjects. The girl has her lips parted slightly as if she wants to tell you something, her eyes holding a conversation of their own. The seductive yet innocent look on the face is something that can make any celebrity envy with jealousy. But who is she? Many believe the common rumour she was a maid in the household of the Dutch Master of Art Vermeer or she was his eldest daughter. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, this painting focuses more on who the sitter represents rather than her identity. The painting is a ‘tronie’, which is a type of painting that differs from a portrait. The girl is seen wearing a turban, a large pearl and that is all she needs to look gorgeous. A tronie reflects the sitter’s features and showcases the painter’s techniques in a single art piece. Vermeer took the opportunity to show off his skills when it comes to reflecting light off of surfaces and human beings.
When I closely looked at the ‘pearl’ earring that is so famous, I noticed it was not a round shaped earring but just a floating smudge of paint. Vermeer, known as the illusion maker, makes the viewer believe that they are looking at a round and big pearl earring. Many argue that it is just a polished tin made to look like a pearl earring. But what makes the earring so special? To know that, we need to dive deeper into the past. In the 17th century, artists were painting figures from mythology, the Bible or classic literature. The city of Delft had turned against the ruling aristocracy and the Catholic church. It was turning towards the concept of self-rule and due to lack of supervision by kings of bishops in that area, artists like Vermeer were left without traditional patrons. Dutch East India Company brought economic expansion and innovative ideas to the land. The patrons from the merchant class wanted paintings that represented more common subjects like houses, middle class people living a normal life, doing daily chores. This became known as the Dutch Golden Age and Vermeer’s paintings were considered quite fashionable. The oriental turban worn by the Girl with a Pearl Earring represents the worldliness of the merchant class. The pearl, which is considered to be the centrepiece of the painting symbolises wealth in a very exaggerated manner. The Dutch artist could not have afforded such a big earring himself, thus he chose to create an illusion using either glass or tin.
In person, the painting speaks to the viewer in ways that are inexplicable. I remember sitting there for a long time staring at the masterpiece before my eyes. Vermeer’s 3D painting technique makes you feel like the girl has come to life and you are looking at her from the eyes of the artist.
As an artist, what struck me the most about the painting is the use of colours. Colours in the 17th century were not easy to make and obtain compared to now. If I were to attempt to make a replica of this, I could easily copy the shades on my iPad or purchase a good colour palette. In 2020, researchers in the Hague revealed what raw materials were used to create the colours. The lead ore came from the Peak District; cochineal in red came from insects that lived on cacti in Mexico and South America; and the blue used in the headscarf came from semi-precious stone lapis lazuli which can be found in present Afghanistan. It is a mystery how Vermeer was able to use so much of the semi-precious stone as at that time, it would have been costlier than gold.
If I, like millions of people, can spend hours staring at the Girl with a Pearl Earring in the 21st century, I can only imagine what kind of rounds it did in previous centuries. It did gain more popularity the more it travelled across the globe before it settled into its home in the Hague. For any visitor to Holland, it is a must to see and experience.
Next Up in Behind The Art: Why did Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sell for a world record $106,482,500 in 2010? Is it really worth that much?