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Girl with a pearl earring

Painting, 1665, 44.5×39 cm

Description of the artwork «Girl with a pearl earring»

Girl with a Pearl Earring is the most well – known painting of Jan Vermeer, which is often referred to as the northern or Dutch Mona Lisa. Like his fellow painters, Vermeer did not give names to his works. Those were the solicitors who normally did that when they compiled a registry of the clients ' property. Thus, in the 1676 inventory, which was made after the artist's death, "two tronies in Turkish style" (the tronie means a fantasy portrait). One of them, most likely, was the discussed work. Later it was known as the Girl in a Turban and The Face of a Girl.

In 1881, the painting was sold at auction for just 2.3 Guilder (about $ 27 today) to a collector, after whose death the painting entered the collection of the Mauritshuis. In 1995, as the painting was about to travel for the Vermeer retrospective in Washington, the canvas got the name of the Meisje met de parel (Girl with a Pearl Earring). Four years later, the writer Tracy Chevalier has fixed it in the novel, which formed the basis for the film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson in the lead roles.

Vermeer created the painting in approximately 1665 – 1667. As already mentioned, it is "a tronie", that is not a commissioned portrait of a specific person, but a studio fantasy depicting an anonymous model with an unusual facial expression or, as in this case, in a strange costume. So we do not know who posed for the artist. There is a speculation, that his eldest daughter Maria, who at that time was 12 – 14 years, could have sat for the artist.

Jan Vermeer was a master of light. Here he showed his talent by depicting masterfully the soft radiance of the girl’s skin and glares at her wet lips. The artist used a unique combination of cream colors and pigments, so the model's face so effectively contrasts with the dark background, where green ochre was used as a primer. But the thing that attracts the viewer's attention is, of course, a large earring.

This jewelry gave rise to serious disputes. Some researchers indicate that its unusual size and a strange brilliance, as if it is made of metal or painted with metal paint.

So, in November 2014 the Dutch astrophysicist and amateur artist Vincent Icke wrote in the New Scientist journal: "...the main doubt is the reflection of the white collar in the bottom of the bead. If it is pearl, it comprises thin layers of calcite that scatter and refract light of different lengths. This creates the famous soft white pearl gloss. Instead, we can see a bright specular highlight in the upper left part of the jewel and the reflection of the clothes below...". Professor Icke believes that the earring is made of "silver or maybe polished tin". 

In response, the Mauritshuis published the following: "Vincent Icke’s article confirms what we wrote about Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring some time ago... In the Museum's description of the painting we also mention the unrealistic size of the pearl. Vincent Icke came to the same conclusion, but through a different understanding and study. The Mauritshuis shows great interest in the the results. This illustrates why Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century are so interesting: all is not what it seems".

Replying to the arguments of Vincent Icke, Ariane van Suchtelen points that the painting is more of a fantasy than a portrait. Big jewelry could be just an artistic exaggeration. "Icke is definitely right, if we assume that the artist depicted the reality," the art historian says. But she claims that this work is partly fiction, "I am sure that Vermeer had intended to convey in paint the illusion of a pearl".

The Dutchwoman was echoed by her colleague, curator of the National Art Gallery in Washington, Arthur Wheelock. He believes that Vermeer was more interested in the impression than accuracy of rendering, that is why the pearl is so large and shiny. In the end, it is the main detail of the picture, and if the artist meticulously depicted mother-of-pearl surface, it would look "a bit boring".

"I'm not sure you would want to get a large fuzzy object right in the center”, Wheelock says. “We must remember that he was an artist, not a photographer or expert on pearls. It was not his occupation".

Written by Vlad Maslov

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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Portrait

Style of art: Baroque

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1665

Size: 44.5×39 cm

Artwork in selections: 190 selections