‘The girl with a pearl earring’, a masterpiece often referred as ‘The Dutch Mona Lisa’ is one of the most notable painting made by the eminent Baroque period artist- Johannes Vermeer. The expressions and pose of the subject makes it incredibly interactive. The startled, wide-eyed subject looks back at the viewer with a half smile much like Leonard’s Mona Lisa, it seems that the viewer has managed to catch her attention causing her to pause and gaze back over her shoulder. The mysterious and exceedingly engaging look has long been a matter of interest in the art world.
Similar to Mona Lisa, the painting still has many unanswered questions which makes it even more fascinating:- Who is the model of the painting? Why is the model wearing a turban? Was it meant to be a portrait or a tronie (head study)? Art historians have still not been able to identify the sitter or determine her age. Most consistent and popular contenders so far have been the artists’ eldest daughter Maria and Magdalena (Vermeer’s’ patrons daughter), both would have been around 12 years at the time the artwork was painted however it still remains a disputed subject matter.
Turban was worn as a fashionable accessory during this period, an influence of the Turkish culture in Europe during the 15th century. Many artist of that era used turbans for their subjects to make it more interesting and it gave them a chance to add more realism, with the light and shade on the thin folds, intricate prints, fabric’s texture and other such details. Vermeer also had a fondness for Turkish origin objects, he was known to have showcased Turkish carpets and curtains with great intricacy in many of his paintings. Like other portraits made during this era, the purpose of the oriental turban in this artwork was to work as a decorative element however what sets it apart from the other portraits (with turbans) is the unconventional manner it had been tied. It appears that Vermeer had given a lot of thought before crafting the turban, the ultramarine blue portion of the fabric tied around her head, highlights the oval shape of her head, subtly outlining it from the composition. The knot on top of the head, pointing backwards, completes the oriental effect also adding a feminine appeal. The remaining fabric falls straight anchoring her tilted head.
Shown above:-‘ Boy in a Turban Holding a Nosegay by Michiel Sweerts and Self-Portrait by Jan van Eyck
Shown above:-‘Turkish slave’ by Parmigianino and ‘Bust of an Old Man with Turban’ by Rembrandt
The enormous tear-drop pearl is the highlight of the painting, the light and shade is handled with few impasto brush strokes (thick layer of paint to heighten the sense of light or texture). Pearl was considered a status symbol in the 17th century however a pearl of this size probably wasn’t available in that time. It’s believed that Vermeer overstated the volume of the pearl to give a relief to the simplicity of the composition.
The tear-drop pearl Earring, was portrayed in nine other paintings by Vermeer. Shown above are few of them.
Another interesting interpretation expressed (on Art Encyclopedia- visualartscork.com) is that the message of the painting derives from ideas expressed by St Francis De Sales (1567-1622 Bishop of Geneva, honored as a saint) :- He wrote that women should protect their ears from unclean words, and that they should allow them to hear only chaste words – the “oriental pearls of the gospel.” Using this text as a reference, it seems that the pearl earring in Vermeer’s painting represents chastity, while the “oriental” element mentioned is illustrated by the girl’s turban.
Like Mona Lisa, there are many more interesting analysis’s interpreted by art enthusiasts. The masterpiece continues to be rated among the most popular and admired work of the art due to its artistry and the mystery surrounding it.