In 1665, Johannes Vermeer unknowingly created one of the most famous paintings in history.
You have all seen her before. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is captivating, enigmatic, and slightly flirtatious. I cannot help but think of this painting as an actual picture – a snapshot of a girl that was caught off guard. Take a second to really look at it. Ask yourself:
- Is she walking away from you? Or is she turning towards you?
- Did you just gaze at each other on the street whilst she was talking to somebody else?
- Are her lips parted because she is about to talk to you? What would she say?
The mystery behind this painting is so great that it has been dubbed “The Mona Lisa of the North” – and with good reason. Both share that same secretive smile that leaves us wondering. Wondering who they are; wondering what they are hiding.
To really understand why this particular painting is so special though, we need a little bit of context.
Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch baroque painter that produced his works during the Dutch Golden Age: a period in which the Netherlands was the epicenter of incredible economic, scientific and military progress. At the time, the giant Dutch East India Company was the world’s largest enterprise, and northern Europe was slowly becoming the center of global trade.
This sudden economic expansion meant the Dutch middle-class was now able to afford some fancy paintings of their own. Patrons were proud of their new economic standing and eager to showcase their worldly lifestyles. Evidently, artists like Vermeer jumped straight to the opportunity.
Consider how the girl herself is not even wearing European clothing. She represents the latest in European fashion and the vanguard of Dutch trade. That day, she decided to put on an exotic outfit and then topped it all off with an oriental turban and a world famous “pearl earring”.
I say “pearl earring” because it’s not truly a pearl. Think about it. That earring is massive. Even by today’s standards a pearl of that size would have cost a fortune; no middle-class girl could have afforded to wear one. If you look closely, the “pearl” is more like a flying orb –an illusion of wealth– barely weighing down her ear, acting more as a badge than an actual piece of jewelry.
But what truly makes this painting special is how different it is from others Johannes Vermeer painted. Take a look at these:
Do they not look completely different to his masterpiece?
Most of Johannes Vermeer’s work is about moments of intimacy between middle-class people. It’s like we are watching them through a screen; we are not really there with them. Whether they are pouring milk, reading a love letter, playing the piano or simply relaxing, the people within them are not sharing their lives with us – we are peaking into them.
We are getting a glimpse of their privacy… almost as if we should not be there.
But unlike these other characters, usually separated from us by furniture, curtains, or merely distance, the girl lies right in front of us, looking straight into our eyes. There is no background, no distractions, no noise. This type of play between dark and light –known as chiaroscuro (Italian for “light-dark”)– almost brings her into the third dimension.
That’s because the painting is not about her in a certain place or situation; it’s not about her alone; it’s not even about her and Vermeer. It’s about her and you. You’re not peeking into a moment of intimacy, you are the moment of intimacy.
You see, this piece in particular is not a portrait. Unlike the famous Mona Lisa, nobody sat down and posed to be depicted. Instead, this type of work is known as a tronie and it is meant to represent a certain type of person, rather than one individual in particular Vermeer did not paint a woman that wanted to be remembered, he painted a woman he did not want us to forget.
And yet, regardless of how unique this painting may seem when contrasted to his other works, it still manages to remain quintessentially “Vermeerian”: it still depicts a subject during a quiet, intimate moment; it still has natural light pouring in from the left side of the canvas; it still uses soft yellows and blues to bring it all to life.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring is a reminder of all those intimate moments shared between strangers. It is a masterful depiction of a chasm that is about to be bridged… but that you’ll never get to cross.