While the historical novel by Tracy Chevalier, and the movie based on it, have told us otherwise, the truth is that we have no idea who this girl is, or why she’s dressed up in Oriental garb, complete with the titular earring (which one Dutch astrophysicist has suggested might actually be made of tin). Perhaps this mystery is part of what makes the picture so intriguing.
It’s a ‘tronie’, a Dutch word meaning ‘head’. In the 17th century there was a fashion for such paintings in the Low Countries of northern Europe. Although some tronies depicted still-life subjects like flowers or fruit, most, like Girl With A Pearl Earring, depicted people. Unlike portraits the focus was not on creating an accurate record of an individual but rather on capturing expression or character.
As such, it isn’t intended to be deep or meaningful: the focus is meant to be on the subject as she appears. And she appears young, somehow vulnerable, and, with her body turned away even as her eyes gaze out from the painting, perhaps somewhat remote. Her lips are parted, perhaps to speak, although if so we’ll never know what she said. And of course, all of this is an effect that Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) intentionally set out to create.
Vermeer was a master of creating effect. He worked slowly and carefully in high-quality materials, painting mainly people in domestic interiors. His death left his wife and children in debt, but his works remain admired today.
Girl With A Pearl Earring is painted in oil on canvas. It measures a modest 44.5cm by 39cm and is held at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, in the Netherlands.