Girl with a Pearl Earring

Johan Vermeer
Keywords: GirlPearlEarring

Work Overview

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Dutch: Meisje met de parel
Artist Johannes Vermeer
Year c. 1665
Type Tronie
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 44.5 cm × 39 cm (17.5 in × 15 in)
Location Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands

Girl with a Pearl Earring (Dutch: Meisje met de parel)[1][2] is an oil painting by 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is a tronie of a girl with a headscarf and a pearl earring. The painting has been in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague since 1902.

The painting is a tronie, the Dutch 17th-century description of a 'head' that was not meant to be a portrait. It depicts a European girl wearing an exotic dress, an oriental turban, and an improbably large pearl earring.[1] In 2014, Dutch astrophysicist Vincent Icke raised doubts about the material of the earring and argued that it looks more like polished tin than pearl on the grounds of the specular reflection, the pear shape and the large size of the earring.[3][4]

The work is oil on canvas and is 44.5 cm (17.5 in) high and 39 cm (15 in) wide. It is signed "IVMeer" but not dated. It is estimated to have been painted around 1665.[5]

After the most recent restoration of the painting in 1994, the subtle colour scheme and the intimacy of the girl's gaze toward the viewer have been greatly enhanced.[6] During the restoration, it was discovered that the dark background, today somewhat mottled, was initially intended by the painter to be a deep enamel-like green. This effect was produced by applying a thin transparent layer of paint, called a glaze, over the present-day black background. However, the two organic pigments of the green glaze, indigo and weld, have faded.

On the advice of Victor de Stuers, who for years tried to prevent Vermeer's rare works from being sold to parties abroad, Arnoldus Andries des Tombe purchased the work at an auction in The Hague in 1881, for only two guilders with a thirty cents buyer's premium (around €24 at current purchasing power[7]). At the time, it was in poor condition. Des Tombe had no heirs and donated this and other paintings to the Mauritshuis in 1902.[8]

In 2012, as part of a traveling exhibition while the Mauritshuis was being renovated and expanded, the painting was exhibited in Japan at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, and in 2013–2014 the United States, where it was shown at the High Museum in Atlanta, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and in New York City at the Frick Collection.[9] Later in 2014 it was exhibited in Bologna, Italy. In June 2014, it returned to the Mauritshuis museum which stated that the painting will not leave the museum in the future.

The painting was investigated by the scientists of the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage and FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics (AMOLF) Amsterdam.[11] The ground is dense and yellowish in color and is composed of chalk, lead white, ocher and very little black. The dark background of the painting contains bone black, weld (luteolin, reseda luteola), chalk, small amounts of red ochre, and indigo. The face and draperies were painted mainly using ochres, natural ultramarine, bone black, charcoal black and lead white.

Tracy Chevalier wrote a historical novel, also entitled Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), fictionalizing the circumstances of the painting's creation. In the novel, Johannes Vermeer becomes close with a fictional servant named Griet (based on Chevalier's close friend Georgia Kendall), whom he hires as an assistant and has sit for him as a painting model while wearing his wife's pearl earrings.[13] The novel inspired a 2003 film[14] and 2008 play[15] of the same name. The 2003 film stars Scarlett Johansson as Griet, the girl with the pearl earring. Johansson was nominated for various awards including a Golden Globe Award[16] and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.[17]

The painting also appears in the 2007 film St Trinian's, when a group of unruly schoolgirls steal it to raise funds to save their school.[18]

English street artist Banksy has recreated the painting as a mural in Bristol, replacing the pearl earring with an alarm box and calling the artwork Girl with a Pierced Eardrum.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. It is not a portrait, but a ‘tronie’ – a painting of an imaginary figure. Tronies depict a certain type or character; in this case a girl in exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear.

Johannes Vermeer was the master of light. This is shown here in the softness of the girl’s face and the glimmers of light on her moist lips. And of course, the shining pearl.

Girl with a Pearl Earring was originally titled Girl with a Turban and it wasn't until the second half of the twentieth century that the name was changed. Regarded as Vermeer's masterpiece, this canvas is often referred to as the Mona Lisa of the North or the Dutch Mona Lisa.

The girl in this painting is believed to be Vermeer's eldest daughter, Maria, who was about twelve or thirteen-years-old at the time it was created. Her facial features appear in several of Vermeer's works but his various techniques on his subject make it difficult to compare the female faces in his paintings, as the woman are portrayed in different lighting conditions and poses.

There is very little information about Vermeer and his paintings. Girl with a Pearl Earring is signed "IVMeer" but there is no date on this work. It remains unknown whether or not this canvas was commissioned and if so, by whom. It's more likely that this image was a tronie, Dutch 17th-century description of a 'head' painting that was not intended as a portrait.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of over forty images of women created by Vermeer and thus it is obvious that he had a keen interest in women's socio-cultural roles. It could be argued that he valued their role in maintaining his idealist way of life by ensuring order within the household and raising children within Christian values. Therefore, women played a pivotal role in safeguarding tradition and moral values through the generations.

Vermeer depicted his women in thought-provoking stillness and also as encouraging images that inspired homogeny.

With this painting the viewer is captured by the subject and believes they have caught her attention and caused her to turn her head. This is a sensual painting with the girl gazing at the viewer with wide eyes and a parted mouth and there is an air of mystery surrounding her identity.

In 1994 this canvas was restored which involved removing the yellowed varnish along with the retouches that had been made during previous restorations. This resulted in the vivid colors originally used by Vermeer shining through and the intimacy of the girl's gaze was also greatly enhanced.

The turban being worn in Girl with a Pearl Earring was a popular prop at the time and its elaborate folds and rich materials were a great way of showing off the artists' skill.

The turban also demonstrates the influence of other countries as various slaves came to the Netherlands and explorers would bring back new exotic artifacts and inventions.

Use of color: 
Vermeer's intense use of his signature ultramarine can be clearly seen in this work. It is not only used in the top of the turban but also in the neck and end of the fabric hanging down the sitter's back.

Vermeer uses his palette to the fullest and his skill in under painting creates an intense volume that has a three-dimensional effect. He uses a unique blend of creamier tones and pigments for the girl's skin so it has a sort of glowing effect in the light and contrasts with the background.

Red and brown ochres are used to define shadows on the girl's skin to create depth and definition as the light source comes from the left frontal area. This also helps to accentuate the facial features and make them as realistic as possible.

Vermeer uses the Dutch custom of a dark background which allowed the artists to create a three-dimensional effect of the highlighted subject. Dark backgrounds enabled the artist to be more flexible in their technique and gave them the freedom to play with various contrasts of lighting. Art historians have discovered that Vermeer used a green ochre tone as an undercoat in this painting which helped bring out the vibrant colors of the figure.

Use of light: 
The use of the camera obscura in this work enhances the lighting in the room and helps define starker shadows in the foreground. Vermeer used a sort of white-based lead undercoat for the subject which produced an intense shine in the finished result.

The camera also dramatizes the reflective surfaces such as the pearl earring, the subject's eyes and lips in stark contrasts that intensify their gleam.

Brush work: 
Vermeer uses many smooth brushstrokes in this work to create a clear-cut image defined by light and shadow. He also uses these fine strokes to characterize the clothing and skin texture. The strokes are linear and have strong definition.

The undercoating for the girl's dress helps create depth and a realistic interpretation of the actual material.

The final layer in the work is applied very thinly; this was possibly done to add movement as the light moves across the delicate material.

The turban is accentuated with Vermeer's trademark highlights. The pearl is also distinct in that it consists of just two brushstrokes.

Swivelling to her left, she glances suddenly in our direction, her soft face as luminous as the moon in the night sky. She wears a voluptuous blue and yellow turban on her head, while an improbably plump pearl hangs from her earlobe. A speck of bright moisture adorns the corner of her mouth, which is open as though she is about to speak. Her words, though, remain a mystery.

Seductive yet silent, this exquisite nameless creature is known simply as the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’. The inspiration for a bestselling historical novel by Tracy Chevalier, which in turn was adapted into a 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson, she was painted around 1665 by Johannes Vermeer, one of the masters of the art of the Dutch Golden Age.

For the past two years, Vermeer’s masterpiece has been travelling the world, visiting Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta and Bologna as part of a touring exhibition showcasing the holdings of the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, where the picture has been part of the permanent collection since 1903. The occasion for this exhibition was the €30m ($41m) renovation of the Mauritshuis, which boasts one of the finest collections of Dutch paintings anywhere in the world and has recently reopened to the public.

Wherever she went, Vermeer’s Girl drew crowds that would turn a movie star green with envy. When she appeared in Tokyo, for instance, she attracted more visitors than any other global exhibition that year. In total, more than 2.2 million people around the world turned out to pay homage to Vermeer’s vision, who has been described as ‘the Mona Lisa of the North’.

Now that she has returned safely home to The Hague, and is once again in the news as the pin-up of the Mauritshuis, it is a timely opportunity to find out more about this enigmatic beauty. For one thing, who was she? And why has she been so successful at capturing our hearts?

‘Shadowy figure’

The truth is that despite frenzied speculation (was she the artist’s daughter, or perhaps his mistress?), we will probably never know the identity of the model for Vermeer’s Girl – if there even was one. Vermeer, himself, is a shadowy figure in the history of art. Once nicknamed “the sphinx of Delft”, his native town which he never left, he produced little – only around three dozen paintings are today agreed to be by him. He also left behind few biographical traces, though we do know that his wife bore him 15 children.

He is recognised as a master of light who specialised in painting women in sparse domestic interiors, and his pictures are prized in part because they are often suffused with mystery. Unlike some of his Dutch contemporaries, who crammed their compositions full of material objects and narrative detail, Vermeer got a kick out of teasing the viewer and withholding meaning. In one of his canvases, for instance, an elegant couple is engaged in a music lesson – but is the gentleman her tutor, a suitor, or her lover? We will never know.

As for his Girl, well, she is even more perplexing. As Emilie Gordenker, the director of the Mauritshuis, told me recently, 17th-Century viewers would have looked at Vermeer’s painting and seen not a portrait but a type of picture known as a ‘tronie’. “A ‘tronie’ is a study of a head and shoulders dressed in exotic clothing,” she explains. The giveaway is the turban: it lends an oriental flavour to the canvas, transporting viewers to a faraway realm of the imagination. “While it is possible that someone modelled for it,” Gordenker says, “just as Rubens often painted figures who looked like his wife, it isn’t meant to be a specific person, but someone more generalised, timeless and mysterious – perhaps a sibyl or a figure from the Bible.” Moreover, according to one theory, the impossible pearl, which is too big to be worn in reality, was meant to be understood as a piece of costume jewellery – so adding to the general atmosphere of artifice and make-believe.

For Gordenker, this “sense of mystery” is what attracts people to the Girl. “Partly, she’s just gorgeous – that’s easy,” she says. “But the composition is also very clever. Out of that dark background, she pops into our space looking very much alive – and the gesture is a big part of that. Her mouth is open, which you don’t see that much in Dutch paintings, so she seems as if she is about to talk to you. I’m dying to know what she’s going to say. And around the world – in Japan, in the United States, in Italy – everybody has the same reaction: you can see them trying to fill in the story.”

“The image works because it is unresolved,” agrees Tracy Chevalier, whose novel about the painting has sold more than three million copies. “You can’t ever answer the question of what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. If it were resolved, then you’d move onto the next painting. But it isn’t, so you turn back to it again and again, trying to unlock that mystery. That’s what all masterpieces do: we long to understand them, but we never will.”

Lost and found

The curious thing, though, is that it hasn’t always been this way. A hundred years ago, visitors to the Mauritshuis were more eager to see Paulus Potter’s gargantuan canvas The Bull (1647), which, with its massive, mud-spattered bovine protagonist, was prized as the last word in Dutch naturalism. Back then Vermeer’s Girl was more wallflower than superstar.

The Bull, Paulus Potter, 1647 (Mauritshuis, The Hague) (Credit: Mauritshuis, The Hague)
The Bull, Paulus Potter, 1647 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
The painting had come up for auction in The Hague in 1881. “It was very filthy, and only two people realised what it was – a prominent art critic and a collector,” Gordenker explains. Since they were friends, the two men agreed not to bid against each other. As a result, the collector, Arnoldus des Tombe, managed to buy it for the minuscule sum of two guiders and 30 cents – “a real bargain”. “Then, in 1903, Des Tombe left it to the Mauritshuis as a surprise in his will,” Gordenker continues.

Today it seems incredible that people failed to spot the quality of the picture. Famously, Vermeer created the illusion of the pearl against a patch of dark grey with just two bravura white brushstrokes: a bright highlight on the front, capturing light coming in from the window, and a subtler one lower down, showing the reflection of the girl’s collar. The year the painting appeared at auction, though, in 1881, was only a decade or so after Vermeer’s “rediscovery” by the French. Following the artist’s death in 1675, he had languished in obscurity for two centuries.

Art history can be fickle – this isn’t so surprising. But just as Vermeer’s fortunes changed, so his Girl experienced a surge in popularity towards the end of the 20th Century. The turning point was the blockbuster Vermeer exhibition that opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1995. The Girl was chosen as the image for the accompanying poster – and her celebrity status was assured. As Gordenker explains: “There is something interesting about this painting: it reproduces extremely well. And we live in an age of reproduction. It catapulted her to fame.”

“She makes the perfect poster,” agrees Chevalier. “The colours, the light, the simplicity of the image, that direct gaze: a lot of Vermeer’s paintings are people not looking at us, in their own world, but she draws us in. In that way she’s very modern. 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.”

Girl with a Pearl Earring, oil painting on canvas (c. 1665) by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, one of his most well-known works. It depicts an imaginary young woman in exotic dress and a very large pearl earring. The work permanently resides in the Mauritshuis museum in the The Hague.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, oil on canvas by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665; in the Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, oil on canvas by Johannes Vermeer, c. …
Ian Dagnall/Alamy
An observant and deliberate painter, Vermeer produced only 36 known works in his lifetime, while many of his contemporaries completed hundreds. Like his peers, he mostly depicted scenes of ordinary life, later called “genre” painting, often of women at daily tasks. Notable examples include Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c. 1657) and The Music Lesson (c. 1665). He occasionally signed his paintings. While Girl with a Pearl Earring bears “IVMeer,” it is undated. Historians believe Vermeer painted the small piece (17.52 × 15.35 inches [44.5 × 39 cm]) around 1665, during the period in which he executed a group of paintings with a shared pearl motif.

Girl with a Pearl Earring represents a young woman in a dark shallow space, an intimate setting that draws the viewer’s attention exclusively on her. She wears a blue and gold turban, the titular pearl earring, and a gold jacket with a visible white collar beneath. Unlike many of Vermeer’s subjects, she is not concentrating on a daily chore and unaware of her viewer. Instead, caught in a fleeting moment, she turns her head over her shoulder, meeting the viewer’s gaze with her eyes wide and lips parted as if about to speak. Her enigmatic expression coupled with the mystery of her identity has led some to compare her to the equivocal subject in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. 1503–19). Unlike the Mona Lisa, however, Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait but a tronie, a Dutch term for a character or type of person. A young woman might have sat for Vermeer, but the painting is not meant to portray her or any specific individual in the same way that Leonardo’s piece portrayed an existing person (likely Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant). Vermeer’s subject is a generic young woman in exotic dress, a study in facial expression and costume. The work attests to Vermeer’s technical expertise and interest in representing light. The soft modeling of the subject’s face reveals his mastery of using light rather than line to create form, while the reflection on her lips and on the earring show his concern for representing the effect of light on different surfaces.

Although now a highly regarded artist, Vermeer was not well known outside of his native city of Delft during his lifetime or in the decades after. Historians credit the 19th-century French critic Étienne-Joseph-Théophile-Thoré (under the pseudonym of William Bürger) for reassessing the artist’s work, which eventually led to Vermeer’s distinguished reputation. Even so, Girl with a Pearl Earring only became one of Vermeer’s more famous pieces around the turn of the 21st century, with the 1995 blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the publication of the best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier in 1999. The book fashioned the painting’s subject into a housemaid named Griet who works in Vermeer’s home and becomes his paint mixer. It was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film in 2003 starring Scarlett Johansson as the fictional Griet and Colin Firth as Vermeer.

As the Mauritshuis building underwent renovation in 2012, Girl with the Pearl Earring traveled to Japan, Italy, and the United States. It drew crowds in each location, attesting to its now firm place in audience regard. When Girl returned to the Netherlands in 2014, the Mauritshuis announced it would no longer lend out the painting, assuring visitors that the museum’s main attraction would always be on view in its home.

Johannes Vermeer's The Girl with The Pearl Earring, otherwise known as The "Mona Lisa of the North" – one of the most famous and mysterious marvels of the art world – is back in the US for the first time since 1995, when it caused a sensation in Washington DC.

Gallery owners say they're expecting a stampede of visitors, when the painting begins its US tour tomorrow, Saturday, at the de Young/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Exactly why the painting is the source of such fascination is difficult to explain, since very little is known about the painter and even less about his subject. Experts say the mystery is part of its allure. "Sometimes the questions are more intriguing because they can't be answered," Melissa Buron, assistant curator of the exhibition at the de Young museum told The Wall Street Journal. "Who was she? What was she thinking? What was her relationship with Vermeer? The mystery is part of its popularity."

Imagining the story behind the "The Girl" with her dangling earring and blue headscarf, is what led Tracy Chevalier to write the novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, which subsequently became a Hollywood film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johanson. In Chevalier's version of the story behind the painting, the girl is a servant named Griet who has an aesthetic meeting of the minds with her master and sits for the painting wearing his wealthy wife's jewels in her ear.

As The Girl frenzy begins again in the US, we're inviting Guardian readers to re-invent the story behind the painting.
Tap into your inner novelist or screenplay writer and in 200 words or less, give us your best, most creative plot line. Who is the girl? What was her relationship to the painter? What would the story be if it was set in 2013? We'll publish the best responses on The Guardian.

The girl’s features may have been inspired by a live model, but her identity is unknown. Many subjects have been suggested, including the artist’s eldest daughter, but none of these proposals has been widely embraced. The painting belongs to a distinctly Dutch subcategory of portraiture known as the tronie. Tronies depict idealized faces or exaggerated expressions and often feature exotic trappings, like the turban and enormous earring worn by the girl.

Pearls appear in eight paintings by Vermeer, including the Frick’s Mistress and Maid. As no real pearl of this size has been documented, Vermeer’s model likely wore a glass drop varnished to look like a true pearl. The piece may also be the product of Vermeer’s imagination.

During conservation treatment in 1994, one of three highlights on the pearl’s surface was revealed to be a flake of loosened paint. With the speck removed, the pearl appears again as Vermeer intended. A subtle highlight on the girl’s lip, made by Vermeer but overpainted during past treatment, was also uncovered. Finally, it was discovered that Vermeer applied a translucent green paint over dark underpaint to create the background. The pigments have discolored over time, making the setting appear completely black.

Johannes Vermeer’s iconic Girl With a Pearl Earring has arrived at the Frick Collection in New York, drawing unprecedented crowds. We might therefore ask: Who was she? Several authors, ranging from Marcel Proust’s friend the journalist Jean-Louis Vaudoyer to New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, have suggested she might be the artist’s eldest daughter, Maria. Many Vermeer scholars dismiss that notion as a Romantic anachronism, a projection onto an earlier period of a modern view of art as a reflection of the artist’s circumstances. In the wake of this denial, Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With a Pearl Earring provided an alternative, fictional answer: She was the family maid’s assistant, Griet (played by Scarlett Johansson in the film), who became Vermeer’s love interest.

But the evidence suggests Vermeer’s daughter Maria was his likely model and a crucial part of his art. More provocatively, I believe that Maria Vermeer was also a gifted artist who painted roughly one-fifth of the works currently assigned to her father.

Vermeer was the greatest of the Dutch genre painters, who took their subject matter from everyday life. Rembrandt had already used himself and other family members as models for historical roles, and such models were even more appropriate for genre scenes. Another factor was the rise of optical naturalism, including the aid of the camera obscura, a forerunner of the modern photographic camera pioneered by Carel Fabritius (also represented at the Frick), Rembrandt’s most gifted student and Vermeer’s primary influence. But Vermeer did not simply “record” the world around him; rather, he carefully crafted poetic constructions based on what he observed. The more closely he relied on the life around him, the more compelling was his art.