A beautiful girl wearing a blue turban and a single pearl earring looks over her shoulder at you. This is the simple essence of the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s iconic painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. In today’s society of modern art, of images designed to shock or portray a political message, Vermeer’s deceptively simple and beguiling portrait of a young girl intrigues and delights the eye in ways more subtle than shocking.
Described as the ‘Dutch Mona Lisa,’ it is for a good reason that this painting has been the source of much artistic debate over the centuries, the unknown mysterious girl continuing to fascinate today.
Very little is known about Vermeer and his works, even less is known about Girl with a Pearl Earring itself. Believed to have been painted circa 1665, it languished in obscurity until 1882, when it was sold for the paltry price of a reproduction. Now residing in The Hague in Holland, it draws visitors from all over the world, who come to catch a glimpse and lock eyes with the eponymous girl. It is perhaps the ambiguity and air of mystery about the painting that renders it so popular, the sense that you can add your own story to it, the romance of imagination.
Upon first glance, the first aspect of the painting that strikes you is the vivid hue of the blue scarf, the contrasting yellow, the red of the lips and the rich, dark background. Originally the background was a deep greenish tone, the striking black background a result of time and wear and tear. The effect of a dark background focuses all attention on the girl herself, framed by darkness and appearing to glow almost ethereally in contrast to the blackness behind her. The famous earring itself is almost easy to miss at first glance, the subtle glint of the pearl reflected in her shining eyes and lips.
What draws you in is the beauty of the young girl. Dressed in simple, yet exotically coloured dress, the lack of hair showing provides no distraction to the pure perfection of her features. She is disturbingly innocent yet erotic, the moistened lips are parted as if ready to speak, her intimate gaze making you feel as if you have disturbed a very private moment as she looks over her shoulder at you.
There are many theories as to the identity of the girl, as to why she is dressed in simple dress yet sporting a single splendid pearl earring, resulting in Tracey Chevalier’s novel in which she is a servant girl called Griet who poses for her master Vermeer. Whether you have seen the film starring Scarlett Johansson or not, I believe that her identity should remain a mystery. It is the intriguing anonymity of her beautiful face that fascinates me.
My advice to everyone is to simply stare at this painting for at least five minutes. After a while, the gaze of the girl will suck you in, hold you completely in her power and enable you to appreciate this painting to its full potential. Johannes Vermeer created a classic, and like the Mona Lisa, her wide-eyed stare will entrance many for years to come.
Originally published on The Yorker 1st July 2010