Housed in his permanent home Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague, Netherlands, painting by Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer a girl with an earring hangs like a mesmerizing centerpiece amid multiple works of art. Also known as ‘Mona Lisa of the North’ Where ‘Dutch Mona Lisa’ this painting attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world every year. Vermeer painted this masterpiece in 1665, but it gained popularity towards the end of the 20th century, not only for its “pearl”, but also for its simplicity. When I saw this small but beautiful painting, I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. Despite its fame and endless references in popular culture, even The role of Scarlett Johansson in the 2003 film ‘A girl with an earring’ can’t prepare you for the Dutch genius’ breathtaking painting, which would be worth millions if ever sold at auction. But what makes this work so special?
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Hypnosis at first sight
When you lay your eyes on this delicate painting, do you wonder if the person sitting in the painting is turning towards you or away? I was fascinated by the 3D look and how Vermeer used his expertise to reflect light onto his subjects. The girl has her lips slightly parted as if to tell you something, her eyes holding a conversation of their own. The alluring yet innocent look on the face is something that can make any celebrity jealous. But who is she? Many believe the common rumor that she was a maid in the home of Dutch art master Vermeer or was his eldest daughter. Contrary to Leonardo DeVinci mona-lisa, this painting focuses more on who represents the sitter rather than her identity. The painting is a ‘tronie’, which is a type of painting that differs from a portrait. We see the girl wearing a turban, a big pearl and that’s all she needs to look gorgeous. A tronie mirrors the features of the sitter and showcases the painter’s techniques in a single work of art. Vermeer took the opportunity to show off his skills in reflecting light off surfaces and human beings.
The pearl story
When I looked closely at the “pearl” earring that is so famous, I noticed that it was not a round shaped earring but just a flutter of paint. Vermeer, known as the creator of illusions, tricks the viewer into believing he is looking at a round, large pearl earring. Many claim that it is just a polished box designed to look like a pearl earring. But what makes the earring so special? To find out, we need to dive deeper into the past. In the 17th century, artists painted characters from mythology, the Bible or classical literature. The city of Delft had turned against the ruling aristocracy and the Catholic Church. He leaned towards the concept of self-reliance and due to the lack of oversight from the bishop-kings in this region, artists like Vermeer were left without traditional patrons. The Dutch East India Company brought economic expansion and innovative ideas to the country. Merchant class patrons wanted paintings that depicted more common subjects like houses, middle class people living normal lives, doing daily chores. This became known as the Dutch Golden Age and Vermeer’s paintings were considered very fashionable. The oriental turban worn by the a girl with an earring represents the worldliness of the merchant class. The pearl, which is considered the centerpiece of the painting, symbolizes wealth in a very exaggerated way. The Dutch artist couldn’t have afforded such a big earring himself, so he chose to create an illusion using either glass or pewter.
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In person, the painting speaks to the viewer in an inexplicable way. I remember sitting there for a long time staring at the masterpiece before my eyes. Vermeer’s 3D painting technique makes you feel like the girl has come to life and you are looking at her through the eyes of the artist.
As an artist, what struck me most about painting was the use of color. Colors in the 17th century were not easy to manufacture and obtain compared to today. If I were to try to make a replica of it, I could easily copy the shades to my iPad or buy a good color palette. In 2020, researchers from The Hague revealed which raw materials were used to create the colors. The lead ore came from the Peak District; the cochineal in red came from insects that lived on cacti in Mexico and South America; and the blue used in the scarf came from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli found in present-day Afghanistan. It is a mystery how Vermeer was able to use so much semi-precious stone because at that time it would have been more expensive than gold.
If, like millions of people, I can spend hours contemplating a girl with an earring in the 21st century, I can only imagine the kind of rounds he made in previous centuries. He gained popularity as he traveled around the world before settling in his home in The Hague. For any visitor to Holland this is a must see and experience.
Next step in behind the art: Why did Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust sell for a world record of $106,482,500 in 2010? Is it really worth that much?
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