Written by Dalma Roman
Whether it is the eyes that follow you for an eternity in Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the weary eyes of a rural farmer during the Great Depression in Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the gaze of a figure in art is a symbolic feature that not only captures the viewer’s attention but allows one to explore the ambiguous meanings paintings represent. But while a multitude of art pieces capture the significance of a gaze, no painting does it better than Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece is the essence of ambiguity. Art historians have debated for decades the true meaning behind the painting, but its significance still remains a mystery to contemporary society. Yet while the painting’s purpose remains a cold case, the context in which it was painted has been solved and analyzed to its very core. Painted in 1665 during the height of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is an exemplar of Baroque art. As is typical of Baroque paintings, the piece creates a rich and sensuous experience, with the use of chiaroscuro to contrast the light and dark areas of the painting in order to illuminate the features of the girl.
Vermeer was an illusion-maker who specialized in creating tronies–paintings of idealized, imaginary, or unknown figures–to represent domestic life. However, Girl with a Pearl Earring is different from Vermeer’s typical hyper-realistic paintings depicting the Dutch middle-class lifestyle. Vermeer’s ordinary work created a barrier between the audience and the artwork itself. On the contrary, Girl with a Pearl Earring draws the outside spectator in and creates a sense of intimacy with the audience. The subject’s half-open lips and bright gaze almost make it seem like she has a secret to reveal to the audience, drawing them everlastingly closer. With each step, the audience can more closely visualize Vermeer’s details, such as her almost-flawless skin and her non-Western clothing. The contrast of the girl’s fair skin with the rich pigmented blue and yellow of her turban only further emphasizes her beauty. And ultimately, her almond-shaped eyes create a sense of curiosity within the viewer to discover the true meaning of this mysterious and picturesque piece.
While little is known about Girl with a Pearl Earring, multiple theories have arisen about its meaning in the historical context of Dutch society during the seventeenth century. During this period, the working class conducted passionate revolts against the aristocracy. These uprisings were centered around the fact that ordinary citizens began to resent the political power of the upper-class elites and began to favor a form of democracy in which the middle class ruled themselves. Due to the increasing frequency of these revolts, the nobility fled the Netherlands to other countries for safety, ultimately leaving artists with fewer patrons and figures to paint. However, due to the prosperous location and business innovations of the Netherlands, the merchant class soon came into power. This shifted the focus of figures represented in art to the middle class. The unknown identity of the figure in Girl with a Pearl Earring likely reflects her low status in society, while scholars have interpreted the glistening pearl earring as a pretension of wealth—thus, Vermeer’s painting is a quintessential representation of the historical change that was occurring in the Netherlands at this time.
With the rise of the merchant class in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, trade began to flourish, leading not only to an exchange of lavish goods but also of diverse cultures. Art historians claim this became the ultimate inspiration for Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. The painting represents a society of intermingled cultures through the girl’s features. The pearl earring represents status, wealth, and a sense of foreign beauty and mystique, while her turban and non-Western clothes emphasize her cultural worldliness. Scholars suggest that the figure in the painting ultimately symbolizes the intermixing of Eastern and Western traditions through trade routes. Additionally, while the girl is embellished with foreign goods, she inherently has Western features and a fair skin tone, leading many to believe that she is a portrayal of the European self-image of global success achieved in the seventeenth century.
Just like the ambiguous meaning of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer’s personal life contained a sense of obscurity and mystery. Consequently, art historians have speculated that the figure in the painting may have had a personal relationship with Vermeer himself. In addition, scholars have theorized that the girl in the painting is a representation of Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria. Moreover, some historians have argued that the figure in the painting is the family maid, Griet, who became Vermeer’s mistress throughout his art career. However, these claims are most likely false, as the use of posed models in art was rare at this time, replaced by a strong emphasis on depicting the working class. Ultimately, the obscure meaning of Girl with a Pearl Earring reflects the enigma of Vermeer himself.
While Girl with a Pearl Earring remains a mystery, the ambiguity within the painting evokes a sense of curiosity within the viewer. Maybe Vermeer’s purpose was to represent the historical rise of the middle-class in the Netherlands, or even to exhibit the melting pot of cultures that began to prosper in Europe, or simply to reflect Vermeer’s mysterious side. Nevertheless, the captivating gaze and protruding secret that lingers on this anonymous figure is enough to make Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring the Mona Lisa of the north.
Vermeer, Johannes. Girl with a Pearl Earring. 1665, oil on canvas. Mauritshuis museum, Netherlands.