Girl with a Pearl Earring
The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutch: Meisje met de parel) is an oil painting on canvas painted by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer around 1665. This medium-sized painting is a bust portrait of an anonymous young woman – possibly one of Vermeer’s daughters – wearing a bead in her ear as well as a turban on her head. For its composition and its subject close to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, it is also nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the North”.
If the painting reveals a certain influence of the art of Italian portraiture, it belongs above all to the pictorial genre of tronies, character studies typical of the art of the United Provinces of the mid-seventeenth century. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is therefore representative of the golden age of Dutch painting, a period of exceptional richness in European pictorial creation.
A slight smile on her lips, the shiny pearl executed in two unique brushstrokes: Vermeer could do magic with the light on The Girl with a Pearl Earring. So Vermeer made light come from different angles and he could bring his works to life.
Today, Vermeer’s most popular painting is considered one of the painter’s masterpieces because of its composition and the atmosphere it exudes. This recognition is however relatively recent since the canvas was forgotten more than two hundred years, until the art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe rediscovered it, and bequeathed it in 1903 to the Mauritshuis museum, in The Hague in the Pays -Low. Since this date, the painting is still preserved and exhibited there. In 1994, it benefited from a restoration which made it possible to better appreciate its quality but also to understand more precisely the technique used by Vermeer.
The work is made on canvas and uses oil paint as a medium; practically square (44.5 × 39 cm), it is medium in size1. It is presented in a light brown wooden frame carved with floral motifs, about ten centimeters wide.
It represents a teenage girl (or a very young adult) in bust, on a background of a uniform black. Shoulders turned to the left of the frame, she is shown three-quarter back. His head rotates to the left, which reveals his face three-quarters front. She fixes the viewer with her sidelong eyes, and seems to address him with her half-open mouth, with red and full lips.
His head is covered with an ultramarine blue turban, topped with a yellow cloth that hangs down his back. It is in reference to this exotic attribute that the work was first designated as La Jeune Fille au turban4. In addition, she wears a pearl in her left earlobe (the only one visible in this pose) which gives the canvas its current official name – although the exact nature of the ear pendant is still debated. The young woman is dressed in what appears to be a jacket, with a heavy fabric offering few folds of a dark ocher color, even brown, enhanced with a white collar.
A clear light, coming from the left edge of the painting, illuminates the model practically from the front. She produces a play of varied shadows on her back and the back of her head, in the right half of the work. It is in this shaded part that the sparkling reflections of the pendant stand out.
Read also ? 10 Most Famous Paintings in the World
The work was restored in 1994. This work gives rise to a real staging since it takes place not in the secret of the museum’s laboratory, but under the very eyes of the public24. The old yellow varnish is then removed and replaced, restoring the colors to their original shine25.
This cleaning revealed a small dot of color consisting of two superimposed pink spots, showing a wet reflection just below the left corner of the model’s lips26. Conversely, a small white spot on the pearl, from a hand other than Vermeer’s hand, was removed27. Finally, the restoration work carried out on this painting as well as on the View of Delft allowed an in-depth study of the techniques used by Vermeer during the development of his paintings.
Regarding the model, it is not known whether the young girl represented is a simple woman from Delft, a servant of the family, or one of the daughters of Vermeer.
In the absence of any form of verifiable proof, opinions lean mainly towards the latter hypothesis, and more particularly Maria, the painter’s eldest daughter, aged 12 or 13 at the time of the creation of the work. Some researchers also believe to find the same model in The Art of Painting and The Lady with the Pearl Necklace. For others, it could be Elisabeth (Lijsbeth), the second daughter of Vermeer, admittedly younger, but, depending on the date on which the work is considered to have been painted, possibly 10 years old. This last hypothesis is nevertheless refuted by certain researchers, who identify Elisabeth in other works of the painter (in particular the Young woman writing a letter, A woman playing the guitar or La Dentellière).
Anyway, the age of the model corresponds to an age group of 12 to 15 years, that is to say that of one of the two daughters of the painter.
Certain authors are moreover almost certain that Vermeer took one of his daughters as a model, the vast majority of women appearing in his paintings being his wife, daughters or mother-in-law. This is a common practice of the time, readily practiced by Rembrandt. The savings made by using an unpaid model are also significant, and could have partly offset the purchase of expensive pigments.
This research therefore invalidates the idea that the model would be a servant officiating in the painter’s house, a legend popularized by Tracy Chevalier’s novel. In any case, she looks nothing like the other servant who posed in The Milkmaid, and who could be Tanneke, servant to the mother of Catharina Bolnes, the painter’s wife. Moreover, the idea of a romantic relationship between the painter and his model maid is more romance than what we know from the biography of Vermeer, loving husband and attentive father of a big family.
These questions are considered largely futile by some art historians, who argue that The Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait aiming to individualize a specific person, but a tronie, that is to say a work. whose object is to represent a physiognomy; therefore the identity of the model is of little importance to the sponsor. In the case of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, it is only a question of representing a character wearing an exotic garment.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons