Why is Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” considered a masterpiece? – James Earle

Why is Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” considered a masterpiece? – James Earle


Is she turning towards you
or away from you? No one can agree. She’s the mysterious subject
of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” a painting often referred to
as the ‘Mona Lisa of the North.’ Belonging to a Dutch style of idealized,
sometimes overly expressive paintings known as tronies, the “Girl with the Pearl Earring”
has the allure and subtlety characteristic
of Vermeer’s work. But this painting stands apart from
the quiet narrative scenes that we observe from afar in many
of Vermeer’s paintings. A girl reading a letter. A piano lesson. A portrait artist at work. These paintings give us a sense of
intimacy while retaining their distance, a drawn curtain often emphasizes
the separation. We can witness a milkmaid
serenely pouring a bowl of milk, but that milk isn’t for us. We’re only onlookers. The studied composition
in Vermeer’s paintings invokes a balanced harmony. With the checkered floor in many
of his works, Vermeer demonstrates his command
of perspective and foreshortening. That’s a technique that uses distortion to give the illusion
of an object receding into the distance. Other elements, like sight lines,
mirrors, and light sources describe the moment through space
and position. The woman reading
a letter by an open window is precisely placed so the window
can reflect her image back to the viewer. Vermeer would even hide the leg
of an easel for the sake of composition. The absence of these very elements brings
the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” to life. Vermeer’s treatment of light and shadow,
or chiaroscuro, uses a dark, flat background to further
spotlight her three-dimensionality. Instead of being like a set piece
in a theatrical narrative scene, she becomes a psychological subject. Her eye contact and slightly parted lips,
as if she is about to say something, draw us into her gaze. Traditional subjects of portraiture
were often nobility or religious figures. So why was Vermeer painting
an anonymous girl? In the 17th century, the city of Delft,
like the Netherlands in general, had turned against ruling aristocracy
and the Catholic church. After eight decades of rebellion
against Spanish power, the Dutch came to favor the idea
of self-rule and a political republic. Cities like Delft were unsupervised
by kings or bishops, so many artists like Vermeer
were left without traditional patrons. Fortunately, business innovation spearheaded by
the Dutch East India Company transformed the economic landscape
in the Netherlands. It created a merchant class
and new type of patron. Wishing to be represented
in the paintings they financed, these merchants preferred
middle class subjects depicted in spaces that looked
like their own homes surrounded by familiar objects. The maps that appear in Vermeer’s
paintings, for example, were considered fashionable and worldly by the merchant class of what is known
as the Dutch Golden Age. The oriental turban worn by the “Girl
with the Pearl Earring” also emphasizes the worldliness
of the merchant class, and the pearl itself, a symbol of wealth,
is actually an exaggeration. Vermeer couldn’t have afforded
a real pearl of its size. It was likely just a glass or tin drop
varnished to look like a pearl. This mirage of wealth is mirrored
in the painting itself. In greater context, the pearl appears
round and heavy, but a detailed view shows that it’s
just a floating smudge of paint. Upon close inspection, we are reminded
of Vermeer’s power as an illusion maker. While we may never know the real identity
of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” we can engage with her portrait
in a way that is unforgettable. As she hangs in her permanent home
in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, her presence is simultaneously penetrating
and subtle. In her enigmatic way, she represents
the birth of a modern perspective on economics, politics, and love.

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