Girl with a Pearl Earring 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.
When we think of Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the first thing that
usually comes to mind. Johannes Vermeer, the famous 17th century Dutch painter, created the iconic
Girl with the Pearl Earring painting. Vermeer typically depicted scenes of ordinary domestic life
of the time, giving us a detailed glimpse into his world. More than simply just perfecting his
painting technique, Vermeer was also a master of understanding light.
When we look at the Girl with a Pearl Earring painting compared to other
portraits of the 1600s, it is quickly evident that this style of portraiture strays from
convention. Instead of facing the viewer head-on, the girl, who was never identified, almost
longingly glances over her shoulder. The pearl has always been a mystery to art historians who have
analyzed the Girl with a Pearl Earring painting. The girl’s drab clothes suggest that she was of a
lower class, which directly clashes with the wealth and status suggested by such a large pearl
earring. Beyond this, the vividly-colored head dress would have been quite unlikely for Dutch girls
in the 1600s, who modestly covered their heads with white linen caps or kerchiefs. Rather, in the
Girl with a Pearl Earring Vermeer used the yellow and blue turban as a prop to introduce a hint of
the exotic into the painting.
In his understanding of light, Vermeer was far beyond his contemporaries.
From the subtle gradation of light falling across the face to the thoughtful execution of the
pearl’s reflected light across the jaw, in this piece, Vermeer achieves perfection. A major part of
the beauty in the Girl with the Pearl Earring painting is the pearl itself. Vermeer placed it at a
key point that immediately draws the viewer’s eye to it. The pearl is nestled in an otherwise dark
area to truly bring the image to life. Without it, the Girl with the Pearl Earring painting would
immediately lack the vivacity and allure that has made it so famous.
The other significant aspect of Vermeer’s style was in his paints and
layering techniques. His use of lead-tin yellow and the extravagantly expensive ultramarine were
his signature colors. In the Girl with a Pearl Earring Vermeer once again picks these two colors to
create radiant hues. Since Vermeer understood how light subtly changed shades of color, he normally
created an initial blue layer of color to his works. Gradually, more color would be added on top of
this. For Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring was a perfect chance to show of this technique. By
underpainting, he managed to create more realistic skin tones, as well as accurate differences in
the folds of the cloth. Although he did not know it at the time, for Vermeer, this painting was to
become a masterpiece and a testament to his unrivalled skill.