I remember very clearly the first time I saw this iconic painting. One of the lecturers who taught my PGCE teaching course had a reproduction in her office, where some of our classes were held. I was immediately spellbound. It became very difficult to follow the classes after that, as my eye and mind would constantly wander back to the painting. My fascination with the painting never waned and once I heard that it had returned to the Maurithuis, I just had to go and see it in the flesh.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with Pearl Earring, 1665, at the Maurithuis
Vermeer's most famous painting. The painting belongs to a distinctly Dutch subcategory of portraiture known as the tronie. Tronies depict idealised faces or exaggerated expressions and often feature exotic trappings, like the turban and enormous earring worn by the young woman.
Utilising the technique of under-painting, Vermeer made The Girl seem to lift from the canvas. Through careful use of his palette, he created the deep, rich tones of the girl's headdress and gown. Then, to give her skin a glowing appearance, he used pigments to display light and shadow effects that contrasted against the dark background. The pearl earring is composed of only two brushstrokes. Master of light, Vermeer has contrasted the softness of the girl's face, the glimmers of light on her moist lips and the shining pearl, with the dark background.
She hauntingly engages the viewer by turning an enigmatic gaze on us. Her mouth is open, which you don't see that much in Dutch paintings, so she seems as if she is about to talk to us. 'The image works because it's unresolved' , comments Tracy Chevalier, who wrote the eponymous novel. 'You can't ever answer the question of what she's thinking or how she's feeling. If it were resolved, then you'd move on to the next painting. But it isn't, so you turn back to it again and again, trying to unlock that mystery. That's what all masterpieces do: we long to understand them, but we never will'.
Chevalier, again: 'The colours, the light, the simplicity of the image, that direct gaze: a lot of Vermeer's paintings are people not looking at us, in their own world, but she draws us in. In that way she's very modern. When you think about the Mona Lisa, she is also looking at us, but she isn't engaging - she's sitting back in the painting, self-contained. Whereas Girl with a Pearl Earring is right there - there is nothing between her and us. She has this magical quality of being incredibly open and yet mysterious at the same time - and that is what makes her so appealing'.