Johannes Vermeer’s "Girl with a Pearl Earring" - Crystal Wang

Johannes Vermeer is considered to be one of the greatest Dutch master painters. Unfortunately, little is known about his life. Only a few of his paintings have been preserved. Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, Netherlands. Although the precise date remains unknown, Vermeer was baptized on October 31, 1632. His father, Reynier Vermeer, was a silk weaver and an art dealer. His father probably introduced the art of painting to young Johannes.

Although he was a Protestant, he married a Catholic woman, Catherina Bolnes, in April 1653. Before the marriage, Vermeer converted to Catholicism. Johannes and Catherina had fourteen children but three died before he did.

Since he hoped to become a painter, Vermeer entered an apprenticeship in Delft. Scholars believe that his teacher was either Carel Fabritius or Leonaert Bramer. On December 29, 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Saint Luke’s Guild, a trade association for painters. During the Dutch Golden Age, painting was not considered an art but a craft. Between 1662 and 1671, Vermeer served as the head of the Guild.

Despite his profession as an artist, Vermeer also worked as an art dealer to support his family. Since he only produced two to three paintings per year, he had to find other means of support. During his lifetime, only thirty-five paintings are known to have existed. Scholars speculate that Vermeer may have had a patron such as Pieter van Ruijen (Roolaart). He earned a small income as an art dealer rather than through the sales of his paintings. At times, he had to pay his debts to the food stores with a painting. When his father died, he took over his father’s inn, the "Mechelen" (Mataev). Reynier Vermeer used the inn for his art dealing business. After his father’s death, Johannes continued the family business and sold other people’s paintings at the inn. His father’s debts prevented him from studying with an important master. The art dealing business may have helped Vermeer develop his ability to incorporate techniques from past and current art masters (Mataev). In the late 17th century, economic difficulties existed in the Netherlands. As a result, the art dealing business went badly for Vermeer. Thus, in 1672 Johannes and his family moved in with Catherina’s mother, Maria Thins.

When Johannes Vermeer died in 1675, he left Catherina and their children with very little money. His widow had to trade all of his paintings to the city council in return for a small allowance. After his death in 1675, his work was forgotten. Vermeer’s works were rediscovered in the late 19th century. In Delft, Vermeer was a respected artist. Scholars speculate that Vermeer had never sold one of his paintings. The scarcity of his artwork in circulation can be attributed to Vermeer’s precision as a painter.


In 1664, a 17th century reference mentioned "a head by Vermeer" (Slatkes 69). The painting became known as "The Girl with a Pearl Earring." Unlike Vermeer’s other paintings, the subject matter is only a simple head of a girl looking over her shoulder at the viewer. The girl seems to reach out to the audience in grief. Her eyes communicate something poignant. According to Edward Snow, "the parted lips suggest acquiescence; yet the brilliant eyes counter this impression by seizing the foreground and holding there, anxious, urgent, and demanding" (14). Only a dark tone persists as the background rather than a provided setting. Vermeer’s signature on "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" is on the upper left corner. A lighter toned pigment was painted over a dark background. Thus, the signature is usually not visible in reproductions.


Careful analysis of "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" questions whether the painting should be considered a portrait. P.T.A. Swillens believes that a characteristic of a 17th century portrait was its likeness. The subject’s face would not be called a beauty in an aesthetic way. Swillens notes that Vermeer made no attempt to idealize her in the painting (Janson). Contemporary scholars do not agree on this subject. According to Arthur Wheelock, the painting is an "idealized study" which reveals Vermeer's "classical tendencies" (Janson). On the other hand, Walter Liedtke rejects Vermeer's "classical tendencies". Rather, in Vermeer's work, "the restrained emotion and contemplation had nothing to do with Neo-platonic concepts, but were consistent with the local artistic tradition and character of Delft." (Liedtke 138). Some scholars classify Vermeer’s work as a tronie. Tronie refers to heads, faces, or expressions. Dutch tronies were based on living models such as the artists’ colleague. However, the works were not intended as portraits. Instead, tronies were meant as studies of facial expression. Clothing that looked foreign was used to enhance the interesting character. Tronies were paintings that were made and sold for the open market. The artist freely chose the model, dress and technique.

A true portrait consists of different purposes. According to R. H. Fuchs, "a portrait is not just a likeness of an individual to be preserved for posterity; it was also an image of pride, a projection of social position. A man who wants his portrait painted cannot but attach a certain importance to himself, in whatever sense, and he is not likely to take chances; he is concerned about his appearance" (Janson). The commissioner, rather than the artist, chose the sitter, attire, dimension, technique, type background, and the props. The painter's role was to create the client’s vision. As a result, some scholars do not consider "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" as intended as a portrait. If the painting were a tronie, it would not be surprising that the artwork was not appreciated as it is today. For Vermeer’s contemporaries, a tronie, although esthetically pleasing, lacked the intellectual and moral complexities of a true portrait (Janson).

X-rays of the canvas reveal a sharp pattern of light and dark without a sign of line or drawing to guide the artist. The discovery supports Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. A modern critic suggests that Vermeer may have transcribed the incidence of light through his camera obscura to create the patterns of light and dark (Slatkes 69). The technique may explain the unusual photographic likeness of the artwork. If Vermeer did use the camera obscura to paint "The Girl with a Pearl Earring", how would have the artist used the device? Due to the contrasted light scheme in the painting, the young girl would have been seated near an open window. Conventional to European painting, light came in from the left to right (Janson). The artist would have distanced himself a few steps away.

Two types of camera obscuras existed during Vermeer’s time: the booth type and portable type. The booth camera is similar to a closed box with an arrangement of lenses. The box was large enough for an observer to be seated inside. Since the booth was sealed from the outside light, the resulting image was clear. Thus, the closed booth ("box") type was ideal for observational purposes. However, the artist had to adjust to the darkness to see the camera’s image. Critics argue that the booth type camera probably was not used for "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" (Janson). The fine details of modeling and tone of the girl's face would have required favorable lighting conditions.

Picture of Booth type camera.
Picture of Portable type camera.
If Vermeer used a portable type camera obscura, the device would have had to been placed on a table at the same height and near the young girl's face to produce a large image.  If a mirror were placed at a 45° angle inside the camera, the image would be projected onto a horizontal screen right side up but reversed (Janson). The camera's image would be dim.


The girl in the painting intrigues many scholars. The most frequently mentioned candidate has been Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, who was probably born in 1654. Thus, Maria would have been about twelve by 1665-1667. Scholars have assigned the painting to around this time period. Some people claim that only a father could paint the intimacy of this artwork. However, there is not enough evidence to prove that Vermeer’s daughter had posed for this picture. Recently, Tracy Chevalier wrote A Girl with a Pearl Earring to create a story about a fictitious maid of Vermeer’s family. Chevalier suggests that the maid, Griet, unwillingly posed as the model of this painting. Due its popularity, the novel became a movie that features Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

In the painting, the girl’s head "withdraws from us like the dark side of the moon: remote, reticent, and impassive, mysterious, and exotic" (Snow 16). On the contrary, the girl’s face remains fully exposed on the canvas. The face serves as her expression. Her inner-self does not dwell behind her facial expression (Snow 16). In the painting, the girl wears a turban. Vermeer introduced an exotic detail to his painting to display his technical abilities. The young girl’s turban serves a decorative role. The turban seems to be made of a type of reflective cloth such as silk or caffa. Also, the girl wears a unique yellow garment. The broad vigorous brushstrokes do not clearly define the heavy folds of a cape or a loose-fitting garment (Janson). The white collar probably represents some kind of undergarment. The collar contributes to the balance of the mind and the body. The black background and white collar contrast the flesh tone of "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" and the blue on the turban.

In the painting, the girl wears a single pearl earring. In the 17th century, pearls indicated important status. According to Anthony Bailey, "Pearls are linked with vanity but also with virginity. The largest known pearl with a perfect skin or ‘orient’ had a circumference of 4 1/2 inches. Artificial pearls were invented by M. Jacquin in France around this time, thin spheres of glass filled with essence d'orient, a preparation made of white wax and silvery scales of a river fish called ablette, or bleak, but cultured pearls were also coming in from Venice. This girl of Vermeer's seems to be wearing a glass ‘drop earring’ which has been varnished to look like an immense pearl; such earrings were currently fashionable in Holland. But Vermeer's pearl is probably doubly artificial, having been enlarged to such a size by the painter's imagination and desire to adorn the girl with something spectacular" (123-4). Interestingly, Vermeer positioned the earring further below the ear. The emphasis on its distance from the ear suggests that the tear may already be falling. As the girl’s tear falls from her eyes towards her ears, the tear transforms into a pearl earring (Snow 21). The metaphor of the pearl as a tear suggests the girl’s aloneness. The pearl is a solid object while the tear is a momentary process. The intertwining of the pearl and tear suggests an emotional catharsis (Snow 20).

Johannes Vermeer is considered one of the greatest Dutch painters. Although "portrait" may be a misnomer, "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" deserves praise for its aesthetic quality. Although the identity of the girl remains a mystery, she cannot be forgotten once she is seen. Vermeer’s "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" continues to intrigue audiences.


Works Cited

Janson, Jonathan . 1 June 2001. The Girl with a Pearl Earring: An In-Depth Study. 27 Oct 2004 <>.
Roolaart, Harry . 31 Oct 2004 <>.
Mataev, Olga. 31 Oct 2004 <>
Slatkes, Leonard J. Vermeer and His Contemporaries. New York: Abbeville, 1981.
Snow, Edward A. A Study of Vermeer. Los Angeles: University of California, 1979.
Liedtke , Walter. Vermeer and the Delft School. New York: Cross River, 2001.
Bailey, Anthony. Vermeer: A View of Delft. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

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