Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting, forgotten until its rediscovery in the late nineteenth century. Today we consider the work as a masterpiece and even as the ‘Dutch Mona Lisa’.
However, this iconic masterpiece is not a portrait but a ‘tronie’ - a painting of an imaginary figure. Said to be inspired by a live model, Vermeer depicts idealized beauty with exotic trappings like the girl’s turban and an improbably large earring. Such effects make this painting exceptional and speak to the imagination. Did such beauty ever truly exist?
Unlike most of Vermeer’s paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring has an unusually simple composition – without any hint of a setting, the focus is entirely on the subject. The thought provoking pose, with the girl turned to look over her shoulder combined with the intimacy of her gaze and her parted mouth as if to speak, draws viewers in and invites them to create their own narrative. Remembered as the ‘master of light’, Vermeer’s masterpiece is enticingly real with the girl’s luminous skin, glassy blue eyes and the shimmering pearl earring.
Girl with a Pearl Earring was not known before 1881, when it appeared at an auction held at the Venduehuis der Notarissen in The Hague. The art collector A.A. des Tombe bought the neglected painting for a mere two guilders, plus the buyer’s premium of thirty cents!
Vermeer’s painting was also the inspiration for the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) by Tracy Chevalier (1962). Adapted into a blockbuster screenplay in 2003, we follow the story of Griet, Chevalier’s fictional young servant and model for this Vermeer painting. Today, the beloved Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the most popular highlights in the Mauritshuis collection in The Hague.