Updated: Oct 19, 2020
The Dutch golden age was a period of artistic prosperity in the Netherlands and it was inspired by the Northern Renaissance painting techniques which lead to the production of the masterpiece; Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted by Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer is renowned for his depictions of the daily contemporary life interpretations and mainly for his representation of the domestic interiors and portraits of women, like the figure in the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.
Painted in around 1665, it is one of the 35 paintings painted by the painter who never became very famous. This is his most famous and widely acclaimed piece; however, it did not gain acclaim until after it was completed and that happened when it was featured in a special exhibition ‘Johannes Vermeer’ at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C at the end of the 20th century.
The painting portrays a young woman sitting in front of a dark backdrop which is a great contrast to the fair skin and translucent eyes of the maiden in the painting which is fixed on its viewers. She is wearing a blue and yellow turban and is wearing a large, tear-shaped pearl earring.
“Vermeer somehow manages to disappear when you look at a work like Girl with a Pearl Earring, and what is left are her extraordinary eyes, turned directly to meet your gaze across time”, as written by critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in his exhibition review, “Timeless Contemplation of the Ordinary” in 1995. This painting is also called the ‘Mona Lisa of the North’ and similar to the Mona Lisa, this Dutch masterpiece is also shrouded in mystery and we are here to remove that shroud of mystery with a few fun facts!
1. It is a Tronie
It looks like a normal portrait from the surface but when we research a bit about it and see the characteristics of the painting closely, we see that it is actually a ‘tronie’; A painting intended to study and artists often depict these figures in ‘exotic’ garments, which helps them to show off their advanced painting techniques.
This painting is a true tronie because it does not depict a specific person, rather it shows an anonymous girl in exotic clothing who is “like a vision emanating from the darkness,” explained art historians Arthur K. Wheelock and Ben Broos in the Johannes Vermeer catalogue, “belongs to no specific time or place.”
2. No one really knows who the girl is for sure
According to scholars, this painting was completed in 1665 and according to journalists Jean-Louis Vaudoyer and Lawrence Weschler proposed that the girl in the painting could be the oldest of Vermeer’s 10 children; Maria. Another speculation says that the girl could be a model in the Art of Painting and Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, who she truly is, is still a realm of speculation!
3. Girl with a Pearl Earring is not its only name
This painting is also called "Girl in a Turban", "Head of a Girl in a Turban", "The Young Girl with Turban", or the "Head of a Young Girl". As mentioned before, it was also called ‘Mona Lisa of the North’ partially due to her curious expressions and due to the mystery surrounding the piece in itself.
4. The Earring worn by the Girl might have a Religious Overtone
Some scholars theorized that the painting might be a “portrait of chastity”, this was said due to the connection made between the painting and the teachings of the early 17 th century bishop St. Francis De Sales, he wrote; Both now and in the past, it has been customary for women to hang pearls from their ears; as Pliny observed, they gain pleasure from the sensation of the swinging pearls touching them. But I know that God's friend, Isaac, sent earrings to chaste Rebecca as the first token of his love. This leads me to think that this jewel has a spiritual meaning, namely that the first part of the body that a man wants, and which a woman must loyally protect, is the ear; no word or sound should enter it other than the sweet sound of chaste words, which are the oriental pearls of the gospel”.
5. It might not be a real pearl
Vincent Icke, a professor at the Theoretical Astronomy wrote in the New Scientist in December 2014 that the light that reflects off the pearl in the painting does not match that of a real pearl. The size of the pearl is also questionable. Curator Quentin Buvelot explained that "Large pearls were rare and ended up in the hands of the richest people on the planet. In the seventeenth century, cheaper glass pearls, usually from Venice, were also quite common. They were made from glass, which was lacquered to give it a matte finish. Maybe the girl is wearing such a handcrafted "pearl'."
6. The background which is now black was once glossy green
When the painting was restored in the modern times, it was found that there were traces of indigo and weld; a glaze mixture that made the dark underpainting glisten but the glaze broke down which lead to the change in the painting’s color.
7. The paint used to paint the turban was incredibly expensive
The ultramarine paint Vermeer used on the turban was made from a crushed blue semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli and this paint was one that only a few of his contemporaries employed. Vermeer used this paint in times of financial hardship even though it was very expensive. He could do so because of the funding he got from a generous patron; Pieter van Ruijven.
8. Price of this priceless piece
There was a gap of over 200 years between the time Vermeer painting this painting and when it was put up for auction. A Dutch army officer and art collector, Arnoldus Andries des Tombe purchased the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" for just 2 gilders and that too with
a 30-cent premium. After Tombe’s death in winter of 1902, the work was willed to The
Hague's art museum the Mauritshuis, and I am still there today!
9. Girl with a Pearl Earring will never leave its home again
The Mauritshuis gave the painting to Japan, Italy, and the United States of America for
exhibitions but once the tour was completed in 2014, the museum decided to not do that
again. They announced that the painting would stay inside the walls of the museum
indefinitely and it has stayed there ever since. It sits with the likes of Picasso’s Guernica and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
10. The Use of Mirrors
Vermeer placed a lot of mirrors everywhere in the room he painted in. He did this to guide his hands and analyze how they are moving while he painted ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. “When you think about the Mona Lisa, she is also looking at us, but she isn’t engaging – she’s sitting back in the painting, self-contained, whereas Girl with a Pearl Earring is right there – there is nothing between her and us. She has this magical quality of being incredibly open and yet mysterious at the same time – and that is what makes her so appealing'. – Tracy Chevalier (author)
Girl with a Pearl Earring still remains one of the most famous paintings in the world today and there has always been a mystery that surrounds that makes it more interesting and people across the globe curious.