Where? Room 15 of the Mauritshuis
When? Around 1665
What do you see? An unknown girl is painted against a black background. The girl is shown from the side but turns her brightly lit face towards the viewer. She is wearing a large, pear-shaped, shining pearl earring. On the top left of the pearl, the light is reflected, while at the bottom there is a less visible reflection of her white collar. The size of the pearl is similar to the size of her eye, which means that it is a very large pearl compared to the pearls we commonly see in contemporary pearls used for jewelry. Vermeer painted similar earrings in Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat, which are both displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The girl in this painting is wearing exotic clothes. She wears a brown-yellow jacket with a white collar and a blue turban around her head with a yellow cloth that hangs down. Her mouth is slightly open, and her red lips contrast nicely with the color of her face. She is looking mysteriously at us. People do not agree on what emotions she expresses. For example, is she happy or is she sad? Notice also the technique of Vermeer in this painting. You can see his brush strokes in her clothing, but her face consists only of invisible brush strokes which adds to the tranquility of this painting. Vermeer included the famous reflection of light in the pearl earring, but when you look carefully, the light also reflects in her eyes and her lower lip.
Backstory: After the death of Vermeer in 1675, the painting was probably owned by Pieter van Ruijven, the patron of Vermeer. After that the ownership of the painting is unclear. However, in 1881, this painting reappeared and was sold at an auction in The Hague for two Dutch guilders and thirty cents to the art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe. This amount is equivalent to a bit more than $1 at that time, and this amount would be worth about $28 nowadays. The painting was in a bad state at that moment, and the painter of it was unknown. While restoring the picture, it was discovered to carry the signature of Vermeer. In 1902, Des Tombe died, and his collection of paintings was donated to the Mauritshuis. It stayed there until 2014, but when the Mauritshuis was remodeled, the painting went on a world tour. After it came back, the Mauritshuis swore that the painting would never leave the museum again, just as, for example, The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli in the Uffizi Museum. Nowadays, the painting is also known as the Mona Lisa of the North because of the curious expression of the girl.
What is a tronie? This painting is a so-called tronie. A tronie is a study of a face that stands out, a particular expression of the face, or the expression of a particular character. To create a tronie, an anonymous model was used. In the case of this painting, it is indeed unknown who the model was. The word tronie comes from the Dutch language and means ‘face’. Tronies were particularly popular in the 17th century in The Netherlands and were popularized by Rembrandt. Another example of a tronie is Gypsy Girl by Frans Hals, which is in the Louvre in Paris.
Girl with a Pearl Earring in popular culture? In 1999, the author Tracy Chevalier wrote a fictional book entitled Girl with a Pearl Earring (Amazon link). This book has been inspired by Vermeer’s painting and has been sold over three million times. In 2003 the book was made into a similarly-entitled movie (Amazon link) with Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
Who is Vermeer? Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was born in Delft in The Netherlands. He lived there his whole life. He married in 1653 with Catharina Bolenes and they got 15 children together. Vermeer took a lot of time to complete a painting, on average about four months. While he was perceived as a good painter by his contemporaries in Delft, he was largely unknown outside his hometown. Vermeer was familiar with the works of some other Dutch painters, but his work has almost not at all been influenced by foreign artists. Other well-known works of Vermeer include The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and View of Delft, which is also in the Mauritshuis.
Fun fact: Pearls can be found inside the shell of a mollusk. Most pearls come from oysters, but they can also come from snails. The biggest pearl in the world is about 34 kilos (75lbs). So, even though large pearls do exist, it is very likely that the girl in this painting is not wearing a pearl earring, but an earring made of some metal. The reason is the reflection of the light in the earring which would only be possible if it is made of a metal object such as tin or a mix of tin and silver. The painting was initially known under several names, such as Girl with a Turban, but none of these names included the word pearl. However, in 1995, the Mauritshuis changed the name of the painting to the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and despite the doubt about whether it is really a pearl the Mauritshuis decided not to change its name again.