I first learned about this iconic painting through Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Girl with the Pearl Earring. Chevalier brilliantly weaves a compelling story of this unknown subject in the painting with the life and Dutch culture of Johannes Vermeer. As a young woman, Chavalier bought a poster of this painting and was intrigued by the ambiguous look on the girl’s face which left a most lasting impression on her, “to be a mass of contradictions: innocent yet experienced, joyous yet tearful, full of longing and yet full of loss.” Chevalier began to think that the girl had directed all these emotions at the painter, and began to think of the story “behind that look”.
In 2003, Peter Webber took this beautiful story and brought it to the screen to immerse us even further into 17th century Dutch life. Webber and his cinematographer Eduardo Serra created an absorbing visual representation of Vermeer’s life by showing his meticulous detail from the artist’s conception of a painting, including the precise placement of furniture and props, to the meticulous daily preparation of hand mixing each color of paint to his standard.
In 2010, I visited the Mauritshuis, The Hague, to see this masterpiece for myself. I was overwhelmed by her beauty and the immediate personal connection I had with her as she looked right at me; her perfect skin, so smooth underneath the thin,eggshell craqueler which has developed over the past 300 years and completely covered the painting.
My next impression was the brilliant colors of black, ochre, lead white, lead-tin yellow, and ultramarine which have not faded over time. The black background gives a two-dimensional effect and therefore makes the girl leap off the painting. I went in and out of the room several times to gain a new perspective and each time I reentered the room, I was drawn directly to her gaze. It was the most unique reaction I have ever had to a painting.
Of course in my novice view of Dutch painting, I assumed that this was the traditional dress of the period. However, some art historians have suggested that Vermeer was influenced by the Eastern philosophy and therefore has given his subject in The Girl with the Pearl Earring an exotic, Turkish turban headdress and cloak to show the ties between Dutch settlers in the East Indies and their homeland. Vermeer also represents the Turkish influence in his paintings through the carpets with their evocative, floral motifs and warm red colors. According to The Essential Vermeer website, “In the inventory (29 February 1676) taken shortly after the artist’s death we find: “a Turkish mantle of the aforesaid Sr. Vermeer,” “a pair of Turkish trousers” and “a black Turkish mantle” all in the great hallway of his house”.
One added benefit of seeing The Girl with the Pearl Earring in person is to view Vermeer’s signature in the upper left corner. As he painted it with a lighter toned pigment over the dark background, it is not visible in reproductions.
This incredible work by Vermeer reemerged in the Netherlands 300 years after it was first sold. In March 1903, Victor de Stuers recognized the painting as a work by Vermeer and sent it to Antwerp to be restored and now has a new home in the recently renovated Mauritshuis.
Quentin Buvelot, “COLLECTING HISTORY: ON DES TOMBE, DONOR OF VERMEER’S GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING” in the Mauritshuis Bulletin, volume 17, no. 1, March 2004)