Girl with a Pearl Earring is currently on display in the San Francisco de Young Museum. This exhibition includes various Dutch works of art from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Netherlands. I had the invaluable opportunity to see a true piece of history, the Girl with a Pearl Earring, one of the principle masterpieces of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.This work of art is the perfect example of the longevity of oil on canvas, seeing as it’s been in the public eye since mid 1660s (Girl with a Pearl Earring).
Vermeer, born October 31, 1632, grew up around art. In his hometown of Delft, his father traded and sold paintings in the Guild of St. Luke. Vermeer is known as a master of chiaroscuro - strong contrasts between light and dark (Artble). He quit making historical paintings which were popular at that time and devoted his work to beauty of daily moments. Being a realistic painter who cared about the finer details, he was one of the few artists of his time to use a camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image onto a screen (Steadman 291). It helped him to discover different qualities of light and forms.
It is believed that Vermeer had a happy marriage with Catharine Bolnes, a wealthy Catholic woman from a high class family. They had fifteen children but four of them died during their births. Therefore in some of his great works, Woman Reading a Letter and The Little Street, he depicted his family members, to mention a few.
Due to the connections of his mother-in-law, Vermeer gained access to the wealthiest local art buyers. He relied upon local patronage for all of his business. As a clear example, it has been established, “with a high degree of probability that Pieter Claesz van Ruijven was Vermeer’s patron throughout most of his career” (Montais 68). Van Ruijven was a well established and prominent figure in Delft during their time.
The painting is best described as a portrait of a young girl. The model, which is of mysterious origins, is donned in clothing considered exotic for a young Dutch girl of that time. These clothes were painted expressively, and Vermeer used many virtuous painting techniques while modeling the girl’s face with seemingly invisible brushstrokes. Small reflections of light show the composition in her eyes. Of the roughly 40 known paintings produced by Vermeer Girl with a Pearl Earring is considered to be his masterpiece (Montais 70).
The model is portrayed looking over her shoulder, as if she turned to look at the viewer. The spectator’s point of view is at eye level with the model, which creates a kind of intimate conversation. It’s quite probable that it is this perceived interaction between the model and the viewer which made this canvas so special. Taking into consideration that, “this canvas is often referred to as the Mona Lisa of the North or the Dutch Mona Lisa,” (Artble) it is most likely this perceived interaction which links the two. Some scholars believe that Vermeer painted, “his eldest daughter, Maria,” (Artble), but this information is often the subject of debate. This could be explained by the fact that the allure of a mysterious young model is simply more interesting than that of his daughter.
To further fuel the debate over the girl, scholars now indicate that Girl with a Pearl Earring is a tronie, a painting not originally intended as a portrait but instead a study of “physiognomy, or any kind of interesting character”, one of Vermeer’s few examples. Apparently, Vermeer was inspired by Rembrandt van Rijn who popularized the tronie in around 1630. Models for these types of paintings were usually anonymous with a curious facial expression or wearing an extraordinary costume (Liedtke 388). This fact helps explain the mystery behind the identity of the model, as well as the exotic turban.
Similarly to Rembrandt, Vermeer was an artist of the baroque era. Due to the influences of economic and social changes towards capitalism in the western world, as well as scientific innovations, both of these artists represented the new direction taken by aesthetics. It was an epoch of outstanding European masters and national schools. Like other genius artists of his time, Michelangelo da Caravaggio for example, Johannes Vermeer represents the Dutch Golden Age (Dutch Baroque Art).
It is logical to compare the works of these two painters, seeing as both were masters of chiaroscuro. Through the use of light and shadows, they created impressive realistic dramatic works. Beyond style and time period, there is very little in common between the two works of art. The composition of The Death of the Virgin, painted by Caravaggio in 1606, focuses on the Virgin, with the Apostles and Maria Magdalena. This work, like the large majority of his others, is a Biblical painting. Vermeer’s masterpiece is simply a young girl looking back at the viewer. If to speak about lighting, Caravaggio includes a beam of light shining down from the left to the right (Painting-analysis), a seemingly divine light. In Girl with a Pearl Earring, the girl is highlighted by natural light (Artble). Also, standing at a mere 17.5in x 15in, the painting is dwarfed in comparison to the dimensions of Caravaggio’s work, an impressive 145in x 96in.
In summary, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is inarguably an outstanding work of art. While comparable to other works of his time, this painting stands out in many ways. Vermeer’s ability to capture an image so vivid that it gives the viewers the feeling as if the girl has come through centuries to talk to them is a remarkable accomplishment. Over the centuries it has captured the attention of millions, and due to restorative efforts it will continue to have this effect for years to come. After leaving the de Young Museum I was left with a sense of awe and respect for all of the paintings from the exhibition, but the Girl with a Pearl Earring resonated with me in ways I did not expect. It truly is a masterpiece.
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