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Girl with a Pearl Earring — Johannes Vermeer

Many believe it could have been Vermeer’s daughter.

Painting: Girl with a Pearl Earring

Location: Mauritshuis Museum, Netherlands

During the mid-17th century, the Dutch Republic became increasingly prosperous due to trade routes established during the Eighty Years’ War. As a result, Amsterdam grew into a significant trading centre where merchants imported goods from all around Europe. In addition, the city attracted immigrants from across the continent, including painters, musicians, poets, sculptors, architects, jewellers, and more. These new arrivals brought their indigenous styles and traditions and set the foundations for a period in history known as the Dutch Golden Age.

As part of the Flemish tradition, early Netherlandish painters were inspired by Italian masters like Raphael and Michelangelo. They incorporated elements of these works into their compositions, but they did so through unique interpretations. For example, Peter Paul Rubens created large canvases filled with dramatic chiaroscuro lighting effects. His contemporaries Jacob Jordaens and Adriaen Brouwer both favoured bright colours and strong contrasts. Their work reflected the influence of Caravaggio, whose style emphasised movement and drama.

These economic, cultural and historical incidents led to a remarkable evolution of the Dutch style of painting. The Dutch Renaissance was born, and one of the leading proponents of this Dutch Renaissance was Johannes Vermeer.

However, much before Vermeer came along, artists had already begun experimenting with different techniques. The most famous among them was Johannes Lingelbach, an engraver known for his etching skills. He produced several portraits of women, which show how much attention he paid to detail. Another important artist was Cornelis Cort. Like Vermeer, he painted small oil paintings depicting everyday subjects. Unlike Vermeer, however, Cort’s art lacked subtlety; instead, it showed off his technical skill.

In contrast, Vermeer focused on realism rather than illusionism. Although he often included figures in his scenes, he avoided creating optical illusions. Instead, he preferred concentrating on capturing naturalistic details.

A new genre of still life painting was born, and it was within this genre that Vermeer created one of his most celebrated works, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Using techniques similar to those used in the Northern Renaissance, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” went on to define Vermeer’s legacy so much that it came to be known as “The Mona Lisa of the North” — a direct reference to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in terms of global appeal, enigma and fame.

Vermeer painted “Girl with a Pearl Earring” between 1665 and 1668 when he was approximately 30 years old. Like most paintings of that age, the exact date of creation is a matter of intense scholarly debate. The oil on canvas painting depicts an unknown young woman wearing a pearl earring that rests upon her left shoulder while looking at something off-screen to her left.

Vermeer often used chiaroscuro to create a sense of three-dimensional modelling, which is evident in “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. His ability to use light, to model shapes and contours was masterful. First, he would prepare an initial drawing on the canvas. Then, he would construct a monochromatic underpainting (the ‘dead’ colour), which is a technique employed in classical painting before using colours (‘live’ colours). And finally, he would apply a thin layer of glaze to make the painting luminous.

Recent restorations revealed that Vermeer originally glazed two areas of the “Girl with a Pearl Earring”; the blue part of her turban and the entire background — which would otherwise have been green.

Another aspect that makes this painting so unique is Vermeer’s use of colour, primarily “ultramarine blue” derived from the pigment lapis lazuli. While it’s most prominent in the band of her turban, it’s also evident in the shadows of the yellow fabric, illustrating Vermeer’s love and unorthodox use of this colour, further embellished by his ability to illuminate the subject by creating light sources from above and below.

All these techniques combine to give the painting an ethereal character, but what makes it iconic are decidedly two things. The first is the identity of the woman and her relationship with Vermeer. Although many theories abound on who the girl might be, none have been proven true in over 350 years, thereby adding to the mystery of the debate.

Some believe the model could have been Mary Beghtol, daughter of painter Pieter de Hooch. Others think the figure may represent Maria Thinshull, wife of merchant Henry Thinshull. Still others speculate that the model could be Anna van Schothorst, sister of artist Jan Steen, while many believe it could have been Vermeer’s daughter.

However, the identity of the sitter remains a mystery to date.

Secondly, people are infinitely curious about why Vermeer painted this woman and more so at the lack of her expression or emotion. It’s like he captured her at a candid moment of looking back (more like a photograph) than in an artistic pose, and while, on the surface, this depiction seems to have the classic characteristics of a portrait, it is a tronie; an unfinished sketch modelled for a final composition. A work of art not focused on the subject but the painter himself; a declaration of his style. Like there was something more that was about to happen or was planned, but was left unfinished or left uncaptured.

When you see the “Mona Lisa” you feel she is aloof, mysterious and removed, but when you see the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” it feels like she is right there in front of you, almost about to talk to you — and therein lies its magic.

Vermeer’s works are considered masterpieces not only because of their realism but also because of how they capture human emotion. Although his portraits show us ordinary women dressed in everyday clothes, they effusively convey sadness, joy, love, anger, and fear. Most of Vermeer’s 35 published portraits depict women in a state of motion, doing something while transmitting a strong sense of emotion central to the experience.

They say art is timeless, and there are few examples of art that make you realise this better, than “Girl with a Pearl Earring” because for over 350 years, millions of people, artists, critics and scholars have debated and marvelled at the mystery and meaning of this painting.

Movies have been made. Books have been written.

But I would say modern pop culture’s ultimate tribute to this classic was in 2014 when Banksy recreated it in a wall mural in Bristol , including an alarm box in place of the pearl earring, and calling the artwork, “Girl with a Pierced Eardrum”

About Me:

In my day job I drive growth at Google. Ex @ Adobe, SAP, LinkedIn and IBM

We all build diverse interests in hacking through life.Here, I write occasional essays on investment, self improvement, market trends, venture capital, growth, art, music and occasional football. Follow me on twitter @hackrlife or on my substack here.

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Work @ Google. Ex Adobe, SAP, LinkedIn, IBM — Musings on growth, art, investing, life and a few other interests