Among the canon of masterpieces the centuries have left us, few are more iconic than Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Painted around 1665, the subtle colors and intimacy of the girl’s gaze continue to allure. Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of nearly a dozen so-called “pearl pictures” by Vermeer; a collection of canvases featuring pearl-laden women. So often were Vermeer’s subjects draped in pearls that his oeuvre has become synonymous with the gem. His hallmark painting technique – soft brushwork and a yellow-blue-grey palette – reflects the luminosity and depth of the pearl. The art critic and painter Jan Veth captures the style perfectly: “One could say that it looks as if it were blended from the dust of crushed pearls.”
Like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, scholars have long speculated about the enigmatic woman in the painting. Among the extant works of Vermeer, not a single sitter has been identified. The question remains whether the painting is to be taken as a portrait of an individual, or whether it is to be categorized as a tronie (a painting of a stock character). The subject very well may be a blend of the two: an idealized study of a live model.
Other critics believe Girl with a Pearl Earring is inspired by Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria. Based on the date scholars have assigned to the painting, Maria would have been around 13 years old in this portrait. Casting family as subjects was not a rare occurrence among artists, as it eliminated the cost of hiring paid models. Certainly the subject is singular. The classical allusions in costume and pose highlight the girl’s soft expression. Whoever she is, the Girl with a Pearl Earring remains a captivating enigma.
In the 17th century, pearls would have been attainable only by the wealthy and noble. Supply from the West Indies and Persian Gulf could not keep up with demand. The pearl featured in Girl with a Pearl Earring would have been a particularly notable gem, not least of which for its size. Tear drop in shape, the pearl hangs freely and heavily, defined by the same light that rakes across the girl’s face. A steely reflection springs from the lustrous surface. In keeping with the painting’s genre, the artist adorned the girl with something spectacular.
More than likely, the pearl was imitation or sheer imagination. Pearls and their imitations were quite fashionable in Holland, making way into a number of Dutch paintings of the time. The same tear drop pearl from Girl with a Pearl Earring also crops up in eight other canvases by Vermeer. The artist perfected the polish and luster that brings these pearls to life, but he would have needed something to model the earring after. A natural pearl of this size has not been documented, and no doubt would have been well outside the means of the never-very-wealthy Vermeer. Artificial pearls were a recent import from France around this time. Small, thin glass spheres were varnished and filled with l’essence d’orient, a luster-like emulsion of white wax and silvery pigment. Vermeer likely turned to these for his paintings.
There is a dichotomy in the symbolism of pearls in art; pearls have come to represent both virginity and vanity in classical and spiritual paintings throughout the ages. This wide iconographic spectrum comes to a head in the interpretation of Girl with a Pearl Earring. Is the girl an innocent muse who just becomes aware of an audience, or a beckoning seductress luring us into the canvas?
Jewels often accompany representations of sacred or royal women, their radiance and luminosity bespeaking a celestial beauty. Pearls in particular convey innocence, love and virginity. They embody the qualities of uniformity, gentleness and merit. But pearls are also used to adorn and decorate the body, which unmistakably points to notions of personal vanity and pride. If Vermeer is making a moral pronouncement in Girl with a Pearl Earring, what is he saying? Perhaps that is the story the girl is trying to tell.