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Vermeer and his Masterpiece

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

I’m sure you know this face. For about the last century, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) has reigned as Johannes Vermeer’s most famous painting. He loved using light from the left and he painted a lot of women, that's all classic Vermeer. But it’s different, too, because he rarely did head shots and he usually painted people going about every day Dutch life. Here it’s just her captivating face decked out to look something other than Dutch.

She’s in the role of a Turkish girl, actually, someone exotic. To get that effect he put his model in a turban, which was not Dutch fashion, and made up that over-sized pearl. If it was in fact a pearl, some think it's tin or silver, we know it’s imaginary because few in Vermeer’s world could have afforded such a pearl and he wasn’t one of them. In any case, he conveyed his character without his usual backdrop scene to assist, giving us no story but the one we make up. If that doesn’t explain its appeal then her deeply expressive eyes and lips caught in Vermeer’s near perfect use of light certainly may. And that earring is a brilliantly executed illusion of two brushstrokes floating in front of her neck. It doesn’t even have a hook in her ear but he did it so well that we recognize it at a glance.

So why take this pretty Dutch tulip and paint her to look foreign in the first place? Good question. He never traveled abroad so this was obviously a flight of his imagination. Maybe he was just restless. It's too bad but we don’t know his model’s name or relationship to Vermeer. All we know is that she was an everyday girl whose face happens to be recognized all over the world 400 years later. I wonder what she would think of that. What would Vermeer think, too, for that matter? He was a local artist in his lifetime, one who worked slowly and died young. I can’t blame him for not painting more than he did, he ran an inn and an art dealership on top of having 11 kids, after all.

His passing at 43 is sad, though, especially since afterwards a lot of his paintings were seized by creditors to settle his hefty debts. His wife fought hard for several of them but lost. This may have been one of the seized paintings, I don’t know, but it’s provenance after 1675 is pretty sketchy until it was snatched up at auction in 1881. The winning bid in today’s money was about $33.

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