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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer

“Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer

“Girl with a Pearl Earring”

by Johannes Vermeer

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer portrays a girl wearing an exotic dress, an Eastern turban, and an improbably large pearl earring. The work is signed “IVMeer” and is one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings. However, very little is known about the background story to this picture. Also, the identity of the girl is a mystery.

Johannes Vermeer specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, and often used expensive pigments. He is particularly renowned for his excellent treatment in the use of light, and this masterpiece typifies his technique. This painting was initially titled “Girl with a Turban,” and in the second half of the twentieth century that the name changed to “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

There has been significant speculation about the girl’s identity in this painting. Historically it was believed to be Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, who was about twelve or thirteen-years-old when this painting was created. However, there is no evidence for this proposition. The mystery about the girl’s identity inspired a historical novel entitled “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in 1999 by Tracy Chevalier. The novel fictionalized the circumstances of the painting’s creation, which identifies the girl as a fictional servant. The book also inspired a film and a play of the same name.

Vermeer was recognized during his lifetime in Delft and The Hague, but his modest celebrity gave way to obscurity after his death. Since the 20th century, Vermeer’s reputation has improved, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

Johannes Vermeer

Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful painter in his lifetime. However, he was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.

There are only thirty-four surviving paintings by Vermeer. They are extremely challenging to date with accuracy. Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes, and most of his pictures are set in the rooms of his house in Delft. There are similar furniture and decorations in various arrangements in his domestic scenes, and his art often portrays the same people.

Vermeer was not wealthy, as he left his family in debt after his death. He produced relatively few paintings compared to his contemporaries. Art historians mainly overlooked Vermeer’s works for several centuries after his death. However, his reputation has skyrocketed in the last few hundred years, and he is particularly renowned for his excellent treatment and use of light in his work.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

  • Title:                  Girl with a Pearl Earring
  • Artist:                 Johannes Vermeer
  • Year:                  1665
  • Type:                  Oil on canvas
  • Period:               Dutch Golden Age
  • Dimensions:     Height: 44.5 cm (17.5 in). Width: 39 cm (15.4 in).
  • Museum:           Mauritshuis

Johannes Vermeer

Reflections

  • Eleven of Vermeer’s 36 paintings have pearls in them. He loved to paint them. Can you see why?
  • At least one curious scientist believes Vermeer’s Pearl Earring is not a pearl. He claims it may be a highly reflective shiny metal jewelry piece. What do you think?

Vermeer’s Secrets

  • Where was Johannes Vermeer born?
    • Born in 1632 in Delft, he lived there most, if not all his life.

    • Delftware or Delft pottery is a general term now used for Dutch tin-glazed earthenware. Most of it is blue and white pottery, and the city of Delft in the Netherlands was the primary center of production.

  • What was Vermeer’s faith?
    • Vermeer was born and raised Protestant but converted to Catholicism on the occasion of his marriage into a Catholic family.

  • What do we know about Vermeer’s parents?

    • His father was Reynier Janszoon, an inn-keeper, silk weaver, and art trader, and his mother was Dingenum Balthens.

  • What type of painter was Vermeer?
    • His long term interest in domestic genre scenes, but his earliest known works, such as ‘Saint Praxedis’ (1655), were history paintings.

    • The motif of the woman by a window in a  domestic setting, or reading a letter, is a recurring element in Vermeer’s art.

    • Of his 36 paintings, 32 feature women in them, and 23 of the 36 feature only women.

    • Eleven of Vermeer’s 36 paintings have pearls in them. Pearls were a status symbol, and he painted them three-dimensionally, most famously in the famous “Girl With a Pearl Earring.”

  • What do we know about Vermeer’s wife?

    • He married Catharina Bolnes, who came from a well-to-do family. She was from Gouda. She was slightly older than Vermeer and very devoted to preserving his work after he passed.

  • Did Vermeer have children?
    • Vermeer was the father of eleven children, but children do not appear in his paintings, except for the kneeling children with obstructed faces in ‘The Little Street.’

  • What are the critical dates in Vermeer’s life?

    • Baptized – 1632 in the Nieuwe Kerk

    • Married – 1653 to Catharina Bolnes in a clandestine church in Schipluiden

    • Admitted – 1653 to the Guild of St. Lucas guild as “Master.”

    • Buried – 1675 in the Oude Kerk

  • Which art museums have the most Vermeers?
    • Twelve of Vermeer’s approximately thirty-five extant paintings are housed within the U.S., mainly at the Metropolitan and Frick Museums of New York City, and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

  • What technology did Vermeer use to help him in his visual effects?

    • Vermeer’s works suggest that he used the camera obscura, an optical device that reflects the subject onto the canvas, to achieve his close imitation of visual reality.

  • How old was Johannes Vermeer when he died?
    • 43

Explore the Netherlands’ Museums

Quotes About Pearls

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“The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens.”
– Anon

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“I feel undressed if I don’t have my pearls on. My pearls are my security blanket.”
– Sarah Churchill

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“The heart of man is very much like the sea, it has its storms, it has its tides, and in its depths, it has its pearls too.”
– Vincent Van Gogh

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“Pearls are always appropriate.”
– Jackie Kennedy

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“It is the hour of pearl—the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”
– John Steinbeck

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“The rarest things in the world, next to a spirit of discernment, are diamonds and pearls.”
– Jean de la Bruyere

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“Whatever pearl you seek, look for the pearl within the pearl!”
– Rumi

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“I favor pearls on screen and in my private life.”
– Grace Kelly

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“A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls.”
– Coco Chanel

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“Men and girls, men and girls: Artificial swine and pearls.”
– Gertrude Stein

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“The Pearl Principle – No inner irritation, No pearl.”
– Surya Das

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“In diving to the bottom of pleasure, we bring up more gravel than pearls.”
– Honore de Balzac

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“All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”
– Federico Fellini

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Photo Credit: 1) Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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