Essential Vermeer 3.0
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The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:

1. Slowly scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To hold and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click on the painting again and continue exploring.

2. To access Special Topics and Fact Sheet information and accessory images, single-click any list item. To release slide-in information, click on any list item and continue exploring.

The broadly painted turban

Sample of ultramarine blue paint

Compared to paint-handling of the time, the broad brushwork of the turban is astounding. The object is reduced to two flat, essential shapes of blue. The complicated series of folds, which in reality would have certainly be visible, have been entirely eliminated for the sake of simplicity.

The blue part of the turban was painted with natural ultramarine, an extremely costly pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan that Vermeer's contemporaries rarely used. The chromatic brilliance of this pigment can be clearly appreciated where it has been applied unadulterated (with lead white) in the rendering of the bright blue part of the girl's turban. Since Vermeer continued to employ this pigment without reserve even in the last few years of his life when he faced a dramatically deteriorating financial situation due to the war with France, the artist's rich Delft patron Pieter van Ruijven may have covered the cost.

The slash of white paint

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

This single, daring slash of white impasto represents some piece of chemisette worn beneath the rustic yellow ocher garment. Surprisingly, an almost identically shape brushstroke defines a garment worn by the model of Vermeer's Art of Painting. The paint of the stroke has most likely lost its original character due to early restorations, when hot irons were used to reline the deteriorating canvas.

The painting's restoration

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The Girl with a Pearl Earring was completely restored in 1994 by the department of the Mauritshuis in a room with a glass wall that permitted the public to follow restoration. The work's masterly three-dimensional effect, brilliant color and hitherto hidden subtleties of the flesh tones were revealed as they were originally intended by Vermeer.

Certain details, characteristic of Vermeer's technique, were also brought to light including a small light reflection near the left-hand corner of the figure's mouth. This highlight consists of two small pale pink spots of paint on top of each other. Vermeer painted a similar highlight on the lips of the Girl with a Red Hat in Washington.

Unique modeling of the girl's face

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer writers have frequently noted that no line or visible shift in tone defines the profile of the left-hand side of the girl's nose. The bridge of the nose is depicted precisely with the color of the adjacent cheek. The lines of the right side of the nose and nostril are lost in shadow. Moreover, the blue section of the turban has been reduced to two essential tones of ultramarine blue, one lighter and one darker.

These and other characteristics have led more than one scholar to believe that Vermeer had created the Girl with a Pearl Earring with the aid of camera obscura, a sort primitate photographic camera which obfuscates sharp lines and reduces the range of lights and darks.

The yellow garment

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The yellow garment worn by the young girl is unique in Vermeer's oeuvre and is, from a technical point of view, probably one of the painter's most generalized renderings. The broad, vigorous brushstrokes suggest rather than define the heavy folds of what would appear to be a cape or a loose-fitting, rustic garment made of some course fabric.

In 1950, P. T. A. Swillens suggestively accounted for the young girl's dress in the following manner: "The blue-yellow head covering of the portrait in The Hague and the yellow cape round the shoulders are not usual wear for those times. It is a special dress, which suits children and which children delight in, just because it is unusual and different and attractive in colour. Just with such a fancy-dress children betray that they are still childish."

Using a badger brush

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail of restoration), Johannes Vermeer

Before the 1994 restoration, the painting was not in good condition from an aesthetic point of view. The old layers of varnish had yellowed considerably and had to be removed with cotton swabs immersed in solvent. The old varnish can be seen on the left-hand side of the image above. Some areas of the face that appeared discolored were in fact earlier retouches that had flaked off. The old retouches were removed and the damaged areas were restored to integrate them with the lighter tone of the painting.

Vermeer most likely employed a badger brush, a kind of fan-shaped flat brush with soft bristles, to delicately blend the lighter tone of the skin with the darker shadowed areas of the deep shadows to the right. Badger brushes, also called sweeteners, were used sparingly in the 17th century but became the rage among Neoclassical painters who strove for the softest tonal transitions possible.

The turban

Boy in a Turban, Michiel Sweerts

Boy in a Turban
Michiel Sweerts
87 x 74 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Like many other Dutch painters Vermeer enjoyed introducing an exotic note in his paintings welcoming the possibility to show off his technical prowess. However, the type of turban worn by Vermeer's young girl is so unusual that no reasonable comparison has been found in the context of European painting. In the 17th century, a Dutch girl would not have been easily seen wearing a turban. Critics now believe that Vermeer drew his inspiration from art rather than life, specifically from Michael Sweerts' A Boy Wearing a Turban and Holding a Nosegay, an excellent example of the Dutch tronie tradition.

Sweerts' painting dates c. 1655–1656 or about ten years before the Girl with a Pearl Earring was presumably painted. The out-of-the-ordinary garb, the black background (typical of Sweerts) and the curious turban coupled with the distinctive blue/light-yellow color scheme may have indeed struck Vermeer's imagination.

It is possible that the piece of fabric used as a makeshift turban, whatever its practical use may have been, appears in other pictures by Vermeer. Its material and the light yellow color with a blue border color seem to be comparable to the one seen draping from the still life in The Art of Painting and The Love Letter.

The pearl

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The young girl's so-called drop pearl hangs freely and motionless, caught within a recessive pool of space. Its form and substance are defined by the thick white fleck of impasto which registers the same beams of light that rake across the girl's face, and by the soft reflection that has gathered up some of the light cast off by the white collar below. Its ovoid shape conveys the experience of weight and volume, qualities which are less appreciable in a spherically formed pearl. It is likely that a pearl of such dimension and form did not exist and that the artist had either represented an artificial one or deliberately exaggerated its dimensions, no great feat for a painter so technically proficient as Vermeer.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

In the 1994 restoration of the painting, the reflection under the pearl contained a small, bright highlight which was not, it was discovered, a part of the original painting. After careful examination, it was seen that it was a flake of paint colored by surrounded by a light-toned filler that had stuck to the spot during an earlier restoration. Once the flake was removed, the pearl regained its original softness.

The dark background

Pigments used in background of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

The background of the Girl with a Pearl Earring does not appear as it does when it came off the Vermeer's easel some 340 years ago. Recent analysis demonstrates that the artist had painted a transparent glaze of green paint over the dark underpainting. Originally, the background must have appeared as a smooth, glossy, hard and deep translucent green. This tone set against the warm flesh tone probably produced a more vibrant optical effect than the one which can be observed today. The green glaze was composed of three pigments: indigo (a natural dye from the indigo plant) and weld (a natural dye from the yellow flowers of the woud plant widely used to dye clothes in Vermeer's day).

Dark backgrounds were widely used in portraiture to enhance the three-dimensional effect of the figure. In fragment 232 of the Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci noted that a dark background makes an object appear lighter and vice versa.

Critical assessment

It is always the beauty of this portrait head, its purity, freshness, radiance, sensuality that is singled out for comment. Vermeer himself, as Gowing notes, provides the metaphor: she is like a pearl. Yet there is a sense in which this response, no matter how inevitable, begs the question of the. painting, and evades the claims it makes on the viewer. For to look at it is to be implicated in a relationship so urgent that to take an instinctive step backward into aesthetic appreciation would seem in this case a defensive, an act of betrayal and bad faith. It is me at whom she gazes, with real, unguarded human emotions, and with an erotic intensity that demands something just as real and human in return. The relationship may be only with an image, yet it involves all that art is supposed to keep at bay.

Edward A. Snow, A Study of Vermeer, 1979

The signature

Signature of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

Inscribed top left corner IVMeer (IVM in ligature).

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)


Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1665–1666
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1665–1667
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1665–1667
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

Technical report

The fine, plain-weave linen support, which has been lined, has a threadcount of 14.7 x 14.3 per cm². Only fragments of the original tacking edges survive.

The composition was laid in with light and dark areas. The ground is a thick, yellowish-white layer containing lead white; chalk, and possibly umber.

The dark background and the deeper shadows of the girl's face, turban, and bodice were established with a mixture of black and earth pigments and further modeled with a paler, ocher color. The shadow of her nose was underpainted with red lake while the highlights on her nose, right cheek and forehead have a thick, cream-colored underpaint. The turban was painted with varying shades of an ultramarine and lead white mixture; wet-in-wet, over which a blue glaze was applied, except in the highlights. A thin, off-white scumble of paint over the brown shadow of the girl's neck defines the pearl and is painted more opaquely at the bottom where the pearl reflects the white collar. Small hairs from Vermeer's brush are found in the half-tones of the flesh areas.

* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring with frame


  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695); Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 38, 39 or 40 [tronien];
  • Braams sale, The Hague, 1881 (day and month unknown), to Des Tombe;
  • Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, The Hague (1881-d.1902);
  • 1903 bequest of Arnoldus des Tombe to the Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague (inv. 670).


  • The Hague 1890
    Catalogus der tentoonstelling van schilderijen van oude meesters
    Pulchri Studio
    57, no. 117
  • Paris April–May1921
    Exposition hollandaise: Tableaux, aquarelles et dessins anciens et modernes
    Jeu de Paume
    10, no. 106 and ill.
  • Rome January 5–April 28, 1928
    Mostra di capolavori della pittura olandese
    Galleria Borghese
    100, no. 125 and ill., as "Testa di Fanciulla"
  • London January 4–March 9, 1929
    Exhibition of Dutch Art, 1450–1900
    Royal Academy of Arts
    145, no. 306
  • The Hague 1945
    Nederlandsche kunst van de XVde en XVIde eeuw
    no. 134
  • Antwerp 1946
    De Hollandsche Schilderkunst van Jeroen Bosch tot Rembrandt. Keuze van Meesterwerken uit Nederlandsche Musea
    Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten
    no. 91 and ill.
  • Delft November–April, 1950
    Het Koninklijke kabinet 'Het Mauritshuis' in het museum 'Het Prinsenhof' te Delft
    Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof
    11, no. 27
  • The Hague June 24–September 5, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer
    no. V and ill.
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer
    Musée de l'Orangerie
    no. VI and ill.
  • Washington D.C. April 23–October 31, 1982
    Mauritshuis, Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age
    National Gallery of Art
    120–121, no. 38 and ill.
  • Tokyo April 24–June 10, 1984
    Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age from the Royal Picture Gallery
    110–111, no. 40 and ill., as "Head of a Girl"
  • Paris February 19–June 30, 1986
    De Rembrandt à Vermeer: Les peintres hollandais au Mauritshuis à la Haye
    Grand Palais
    358–362, no. 54 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    National Gallery of Art
    166–169, no. 15 and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    166–169, no. 15 and ill.
  • Osaka April 4–July 2, 2000
    The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer
    Osaka Municipal Museum of Art
    186–189, no. 34 and ill.
  • Tokyo June 20–September 17, 2012
    Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery
    Tokyo Art Museum
  • Kobe October 1, 2012–December 23, 2013
    Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery
    City Museum Kobe.
  • San Francisco January 26–June 2, 2013
    Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery
    M. H. de Young Memorial Museum
  • Atlanta June 22–September 29, 2013
    Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery
    High Museum of Art
  • New York October 22, 2013–January 12, 2014
    Masterpieces from the Royal Picture Gallery
    The Frick Collection
  • Bologna February 8–May 25, 2014
    La ragazza con l'orecchino di perla: Il mito della Golden Age. Da Vermeer a Rembrandt capolavori dal Mauritshuis
    Palazzo Fava
  • The Hague October 7, 2021–January 9, 2022
    Facelifts & Makeovers
    Mauritshuis, The Hague

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring in scale
Vermeer's life Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leave 500 guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual patron/painter one. It would seem that in his life-time the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer's artistic output.
Dutch painting

Rembrandt paints The Jewish Bride.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Physician in His Study.

c. 1665 Gerrit Dou painted Woman at the Clavichord and a Self-Portrait in which he resembled Rembrandt.

European painting & architecture

Bernini finishes high altar, St. Peter's, Rome (begun 1656).

Murillo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Nicolas Poussin, French painter, dies. Known as the founder of French Classicism, he spent most of his career in Rome which he reached at age 30 in 1624. His Greco-Romanism work includes The Death of Chione and The Abduction of the Sabine Women.

Compagnie Saint-Gobain is founded by royal decree to make mirrors for France's Louis XIV. It will become Europe's largest glass-maker.

Francesco Borromini completes Rome's Church of San Andrea delle Fratte.


Molière: Don Giovanni.

Sep 22, Moliere's L'amour Medecin, premiered in Paris.


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society begins publication.

Science & philosophy

Giovanni Cassini determines rotations of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.

Peter Chamberlen, court physician to Charles 11, invents midwifery forceps

Pierre de Fermat, French mathematician, dies. His equation xn + yn = zn is called Fermat's Last Theorem and remained unproven for many years. The history of its resolution and final proof by Andrew Wiles is told by Amir D. Aczel in his 1996 book Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh was published in 1997. In 1905 Paul Wolfskehl, a German mathematician, bequeathed a reward of 100,000 marks to whoever could find a proof to Fermat's "last theorem." It stumped mathematicians until 1993, when Andrew John Wiles made a breakthrough.

Francis Grimaldi: Physicomathesis de lumine (posth.) explains diffraction of light.

Isaac Newton experiments on gravitation; invents differential calculus.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, with illustrations of objects viewed through a microscope, is published. The book greatly influences both scientists and educated laypeople. In it, Hooke describes cells (viewed in sections of cork) for the first time. Fundamentally, it is the first book dealing with observations through a microscope, comparing light to waves in water.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat dies at Castres January 12 at age 63, having (with the late Blaise Pascal) founded the probability theory. His remains will be reburied in the family vault at Toulouse.


English naval forces defeat a Dutch fleet off Lowestoft June 3 as a Second Anglo-Dutch war begins, 11 years after the end of the first such war. General George Monck, 1st duke of Albemarle, commands the English fleet, Charles II bestows a knighthood on Irish-born pirate Robert Holmes, 42, and promotes him to acting rear admiral, giving him command of the new third-rate battleship Defiance, but the Dutch block the entrance to the Thames in October

Feb 6, Anne Stuart, queen of England (1702–1714), is born.

At least 68,000 Londoners died of the plague in this year.

University of Kiel is founded.

The second war between England and the United Provinces breaks out. It will last until 1667 and devastate the art market.

Mar 11, A new legal code was approved for the Dutch and English towns, guaranteeing religious observances unhindered.

Nov 7, The London Gazette, the oldest surviving journal, is first published.

Ceylon becomes important trade centre for the VOC

Vermeer's life

The Concert presents a very similar deep spatial recession similar to the earlier Music Lesson. Vermeer's interest in the accurate portrayal of three dimensional perspective to create such an effect was shared by other interior genre painters of the time, however, only Vermeer seems to have fully and consciously understood the expressive function of perspective. The two paintings' underlying theme of music between male and female company is also analogous although few critics believe they were conceived as a pendant.

In the paintings of the 1660s the painted surfaces are smoother and less tactile, the lighting schemes tend to be less bold. These pictures convey and impalpable air of reticence and introspection, unique among genre painters with the possible exception of Gerrit ter Borch.

Dutch painting Frans Hals, eminent Dutch portrait painter, dies. It was formerly believed that he died in the Oudemannenhuis almshouse in Haarlem which was later became the Frans Halsmuseum.
European painting & architecture

François Mansart, French architect, dies.

Apr 9, 1st public art exhibition (Palais Royale, Paris).

Music Dec 5, Francesco Antonio Nicola Scarlatti, composer, is born.
Literature Le Misanthrope by Molière is palyed at the Palais-Royal, Paris.
Science & philosophy

Laws of gravity established by Cambridge University mathematics professor Isaac Newton, 23, state that the attraction exerted by gravity between any two bodies is directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton has returned to his native Woolsthorpe because the plague at Cambridge has closed Trinity College, where he is a fellow; he has observed the fall of an apple in an orchard at Woolsthorpe and calculates that at a distance of one foot the attraction between two objects is 100 times stronger than at 10 feet. Although he does not fully comprehend the nature of gravity, he concludes that the force exerted on the apple is the same as that exerted on Earth by the moon.

Calculusis invented by Isaac Newton will prove to be one of the most effective tool for scientific investigation ever produced by mathematics.

Nov 14, Samuel Pepys reported the on first blood transfusion, which was between dogs.

The plague decimates London and Isaac Newton moved to the country. He had already discovered the binomial theorem at Cambridge and was offered the post of professor of mathematics. Newton formulates his law of universal gravitation.

A French Academy of Sciences (Académie Royale des Sciences) founded by Louis XIV at Paris seeks to rival London's 4-year-old Royal Society. Jean Baptiste Colbert has persuaded the king to begin subsidizing scientists. Christiaan Huygens, along with 19 other scientists, is elected as a founding member. After the French Revolution, the Royale is dropped and the character of the academy changes. It later becomes the Institut de France.


Sep 2, The Great Fire of London, started at Pudding Lane, began to demolish about four-fifths of London when in the house of King Charles II's baker, Thomas Farrinor, forgets to extinguish his oven. The flames raged uncontrollably for the next few days, helped along by the wind, as well as by warehouses full of oil and other flammable substances. Approximately 13,200 houses, 90 churches and 50 livery company halls burn down or explode. But the fire claimed only 16 lives, and it actually helped impede the spread of the deadly Black Plague, as most of the disease-carrying rats were killed in the fire.

Because almost all European paper is made from recycled cloth rags, which are becoming increasingly scarce as more and more books and other materials are printed, the English Parliament bans burial in cotton or linen cloth so as to preserve the cloth for paper manufacture.

Vermeer's life

Vermeer's name is mentioned in a poem by Arnold Bon in Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft) published in 1667. It is the most significant and direct reference to Vermeer's art to be found. The poem written by Arnold Bon, Bleyswyck's publisher, was composed in the honor of Carel Fabritius who had died in the famous ammunitions explosion. Vermeer's name is lauded in the poem's last stanza.

Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midst and at the height of his powers,
But happily there arose out of the fire
Vermeer, who masterfully trod in his path.

Maria Thins empowers Vermeer to collect various debts owed to her and to reinvest the money according to his will and discretion. Vermeer's mother-on-law evidently maintained her moral and financial support of Vermeer and his family.

Another of Vermeer's children is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.

Dutch painting Gabriel Metsu, ecclectic Dutch painter, dies.
European painting & architecture

Francesco Borromini, Italian sculptor and architect, dies. Borromini designed the San Ivo della Sapienza church in Rome.

Alonso Cano, Spanish painter and architect, dies.

Music German composer-organist-harpsichordist Johann Jakob Froberger dies at Héricourt, France. His keyboard suites will be published in 1693, arranged in the order that will become standard: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.

Paradise Lost is written by John Milton, who has been blind since 1652 but has dictated to his daughters the 10-volume work on the fall of man, Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Milton's Adam questions the angel Raphael about celestial mechanics, Raphael replies with some vague hints and then says that "the rest from Man or Angel the great Architect did wisely conceal and not divulge His secrets to be scann'd by them who ought rather admire." The work enjoys sales of 1,300 copies in 18 months and will be enlarged to 12 volumes in 1684, the year of Milton's death; Annus Mirabilis by John Dryden is about the Dutch War and last year's Great Fire.

Nov 7, Jean Racine's Andromaque, premiered in Paris.

Science & philosophy National Observatory, Paris, founded
History Pope Alexander VII dies. Giulio Rospigliosi becomes Pope Clement IX.

c. 1667 In France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, the fork begins to achieve popularity as an eating implement. Formerly, only knives and spoons had been used.

Jun 18, The Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and threatened London. They burned 3 ships and capture the English flagship.

Jun 21, The Peace of Breda endsthe Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–1667) and sees the Dutch cede New Amsterdam (on Manhattan Island) to the English in exchange for the island of Surinam.

De Verstandige Kok (The Sensible Cook) is published for the first time. Geared towards middle- and upper middle-class families, the book advises a regular and balanced diet, including fresh meat at least once a week, frequent servings of bread and cheese, stew, fresh vegetables and salads. While simple dishes, such as porridge, pancakes and soup with bread are eaten by all classes, studies reveal that only the affluent have regular access to fresh vegetables during the period; the less wealthy depend on dried peas and beans.

The Turkish turban in European painting

Man in a Turban, Jan van Eyck

Man in a Turban
Jan van Eyck
25.5 x 19 cm.
National Gallery, London

The appearance of the young girl's turban within the context of Vermeer's seemingly quintessential Dutch oeuvre should not come as a complete surprise. Other objects of "Turkish" origin may be associated with the painter. Some of the carpets which appear as table coverings—contemporary painters rarely represented these precious imports lying on the ground—are of Turkish origin. They must have been appreciated for their evocative floral motifs and the large mass of warm red color which enlivened the otherwise geometrical and cold interiors.

However, we must not believe that anything called "Turkish" in contemporary accounts really came from that country. The term was loosely used to describe exotic imported objects which were much in vogue. In the inventory (29 February 1676) taken shortly after the artist's death, we find listed among other things, "a Turkish mantle of the aforesaid Sr. Vermeer," "a pair of Turkish trousers" and "a black Turkish mantle" all in the "great hallway" of his house. Some scholars have suggested that the two tronien in "Turkish dress" found in the kitchen could possibly have been by Vermeer's hand.

A painting made of crushed pearls

Vermeer's women are often associated with the pearls eleven of them wear, so much that his oeuvre has become synonymous with the pearl. In 1908, Jan Veth articulated a widespread sentiment while observing the Girl with a Pearl Earring: "More than with any other VERMEER one could say that it looks as if it were blended from the dust of crushed pearls." In the 17th century, pearls were an important status symbol.

Who posed for the painting?

Details of Johannes Vermeer's Art of Painting and Girl with a Pearl Earring

Careful consideration of the Girl with a Pearl Earring gives rise to the question of how far the painting is to be taken as a portrait. P. T. A. Swillens, who compiled the first exhaustive study of the artist's life and work in 1950, believed that one of the most important characteristics of a 17th-century portrait was its likeness. And although we can no longer judge her anymore, the girl would not be called a beauty in an aesthetic sense. Swillens writes that Vermeer made no attempt to idealize her.

Contemporary scholars are not in agreement on the subject. According to Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. the painting is an "idealized study" which reveals Vermeer's "classical tendencies."

Not a single sitter in Vermeer's extant paintings has ever been identified, including the young girl in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Various critics believe that she may have been Vermeer's first daughter, Maria, who would have been about 12 or 13 years old in 1665–1667, the dates that specialists have assigned to the painting. However, this painting was certainly not a portrait in the 17th-century sense of the term, but rather a tronie. In any case, she resembles the model in Vermeer's Art of Painting.

Sold in 1881 for "next to nothing"

Arnoldus Andries des Tombe

Arnoldus Andries des Tombe

The Girl with a Pearl Earring reemerged in the Netherlands 300 years after it left the artist's studio. Shortly after it was sold for next to nothing.

The history of the acquisition of the Vermeer has by now become legendary. In 1881 Arnoldus Andries des Tombe purchased Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring at a sale at the Venduhuis der Notarissen in the Nobelstraat in The Hague for 2 guilders with a 30 cent premium. Unfortunately, the invoice, which was given to the Mauritshuis in 1944, has disappeared without a trace. Thanks to a notice in the former daily newspaper Het Vaderland of 3 March 1903, in which the bequest was made public (pasted in the Mauritshuis' cuttings album), we know that Victor de Stuers had recognized the painting as a work by Vermeer. De Stuers was Des Tombe's neighbor—his collection in his residence at 24 Parkstraat was also open to all interested parties—and the two gentlemen had gone together to the auction preview. Des Tombe and De Stuers agreed not to bid against each other. After its acquisition, the badly neglected canvas was sent to Antwerp, where it was "restored" by the painter Van der Haeghen. In the Des Tombe family, however, the story was that Des Tombe and his friend De Stuers had seen a painting that "seemed rather beautiful but was too dirty to evaluate properly." In this version, it was only after the picture had been cleaned that the signature became visible, making clear the identity of the painter.

After Des Tombe's death on 16 December 1902 (his wife had died the year before and their marriage had remained childless) it turned out that he had secretly bequeathed 12 paintings to the Mauritshuis, including Vermeer's famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.

(from Quentin Buvelot, "COLLECTING HISTORY: ON DES TOMBE, DONOR OF VERMEER'S GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING" in the Mauritshuis Bulletin, volume 17, no. 1, March 2004)

The painting's signature

The signature of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

The signature of the Girl with a Pearl Earring is located in the upper left corner. It was painted with a lighter toned pigment over the dark background but it is so faint that many spectators do not notice it and it is usually not visible in reproductions. Vermeer used light-toned signatures in other paintings as well. The style is also comparable to other signatures by the artist. Although the pigments of the signature cannot be analyzed due to the abraded paint layer, the Mauritshuis, where the painting is permanently housed, has always maintained that it is authentic.

Inspired by an Italian painting?

Beatrice Cenci, attributed to Guido Reni

Beatrice Cenci
attributed to Guido Reni
64.5 x 49 cm.
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Roma

While the thematic and compositional origins of some of Vermeer's works have proven easy to trace, other of his works pose more problems. And it is hardly out of the question that such an uncomplicated motif as the Girl with a Pearl Earring could have been devised independently.

Nonetheless, Vermeer scholars have proposed a wide variety of Dutch and foreign models including, traditionally, the Beatrice Cenci by the Italian painter Guido Reni.* While such a connection may appear far-fetched, Vermeer certainly knew the Beatrice Cenci story which had captured Europe's collective imagination and he could have seen one of the many copies of Reni's original or engravings which circulated throughout Europe.

Beatrice, the daughter of the rich and powerful Francesco Cenci, suffered from her father's mistreatment. Violent and dissolute, he imprisoned Beatrice and her stepmother in the Castle of Petrella Salto, near Rieti. With the blessing of her stepmother and two brothers, all of whom shared her exasperation at his continued abuse, Beatrice murdered her father in 1598. She was apprehended and, after a trial that riveted the attention of the citizens of Rome, condemned to death at the order of Pope Clement VIII, who may have been motivated by the hope of confiscating the assets of the family. In the presence of an enormous crowd, Beatrice was decapitated in the Ponte Sant'Angelo in September of 1599, instantly becoming a symbol of innocence oppressed.

It has been hypothesized that the great Italian painter Caravaggio was present at the decapitation and was inspired to paint his Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes. The precise and realistic rendering of Caravaggio's scene, anatomically and physiologically correct to the minutest details, presupposes the artist's observation of a real decapitation.

The influential Vermeer writer Lawrence Gowing proposed the influence of Jan Scorel's female portraits. Bot the Scorel and Reni influences have been largely set aside in favor of somewhat less exotic connections with the Dutch painter Michiel Sweerts.

* While the Beatrice Cenci is traditionally attributed to Reni, its poor quality in comparison to other works of the master has led many critics to reject it as an autograph work. Instead, it could be by a painter in the immediate circle of Reni, possibly Elisabetta Sirani, who is known for rendering the master's models in abbreviated and reduced form.

Beautiful women and jewels

Portrait of Maria Louisa de Tassis, Anthony van Dyck

Portrait of Maria Louisa de Tassis (detail)
Anthony van Dyck
c. 1629/30
129 x 93 cm.
Grand Ducal Collection, Vaduz, Liechtenstein

As art historian Robert Baldwin pointed out that there existed a "tradition of comparing beautiful women to jewels. In court culture, the beautiful woman took on a jewel-like preciousness and radiance which worked, ultimately, to represent an inner beauty beyond material splendor. (This is how jewels had long worked in Christian representations of the sacred, their richness and luminosity pointing to a celestial beauty.). In European court poetry, the lady was either described as jewel-like or said to surpass the beauty of all jewels."

However, "Vermeer also went beyond a suspect material beauty by avoiding the extensive use of jewels seen in courtly portraits and representations of artists like Van Dyck and Mignard and by restricting himself to the simpler pearl, avoiding rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. More importantly, Vermeer painted everything with a cool, silvery palette and layered, translucent oil glazes, dissolving all material reality with a pearl-like luminosity. Visualized in such a manner, Vermeer's beautiful women, ornamented with pearls, took on the familiar, pearl-like beauty of contemporary love lyrics where outer loveliness dissolved into an inner radiance."

Vermeer & the fijnschilder school of art

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Cunera van der Cock, Frans van Mieris the Elder

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Cunera van der Cock
Frans van Mieris the Elder
c. 1657–1658
16 x 13.3 cm.
National Gallery, London

Although this portrait by the fijnschilder (fine painter) Frans van Mieris has been linked with the Girl with a Pearl Earring, few works document so well how fundamentally diverse were the artistic means and goals so divergent from those of his contemporaries. It is true that Vermeer did share with the fijnschilder mode a common reservoir of motifs but it would be hard to enlist him as a true believer in their exasperated search of detail. Nor had the fijnschilderens ever displayed the detached interest in the activities of light or the intricacies of pictorial design which are hallmarks of Vermeer's art.

As detailed as Vermeer's works may appear to the relaxed eye of the 21st-century viewer, the broadness of his painting technique contrasts with the microscopic rendering of detail which was the principal calling card of this school. His modeling is so generalized that the fabric of the girl's yellow garment has never been satisfactorily identified. Instead, the individual hairs of the fur trim in Van Mieris' picture have been rendered one by one to ensure recognition. While such rendering induces the viewer to draw as close as possible to admire the work detail by detail, Vermeer's more essential approach suggests the viewer to step back and relate to the image as a whole.

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Cunera, Frans van Mieris the Elder

Portrait of the Artist's Wife, Cunera
van der Cock
Frans van Mieris the Elder
c. 1657–1658
16 x 13.3 cm.
National Gallery, London

The fijnschilder mode had reached such extremes because pupils were forever trying to outdo their masters in producing the most convincing illusion of surface textures.

Curiously, the fijnschilder school evolved in the very years when the Dutch art market had begun to contract due to a downturn in the nation's economic conditions and subsequentially exasperated by the war with France. The once-bustling art market was not only flooded with low-priced paintings by living artists but with works of previous generations which slowly worked their way back into the market as their original purchasers passed away. Instead of devising new tactics to abbreviate production time and beat competition, the fijnschilder took the opposite approach and invested unprecedented time and energy on each work, which, moreover, were usually very small. In fact, they targeted the tastes and pockets of the uppermost burgers whose wealth had not been adversely affected by the economic crisis but, on the contrary, had prospered as never before.

Thus, it may not be unreasonable that the essential "simplicity" and sobriety of Vermeer's technique might not have been fully appreciated amidst the dominant fijnschilder tastes of the day. While it is true that Vermeer's art was recognized among elite connoisseurs, he had gained neither the international reputation nor the prices of his competitors.

Pricing a masterwork

Given its present iconic status, it may come as a surprise that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was uncovered only in 1881 after 200 years of neglect. While it is true that Vermeer's name had been largely forgotten by mainstream art history, some of his flagship works had held their own in important European art collections even if a few had been attributed to other painters to augment their value.

In the 17th century, a work of art was seen through different eyes than today. First of all, the Girl with a Pearl Earring was not seen as a portrait but a tronie, a sort of characteristic bust-length figure whose power to capture the purchaser's eye, rather than the sitter's personal identity, was the artist's main concern. Tronien were made for the open market and sold in great numbers at low prices. As odd as it may seem, a painting's worth was often determined not only by its beauty or by its author's reputation. The hierarchical importance of subject matter was held in great consideration and a tronie such as the Girl with a Pearl Earring was definitely on the lower rungs of the ladder, not too distant from landscape and the lowest of all categories, still life.

This mindset may be reflected in the relatively low price the Girl with a Pearl Earring may have fetched in the 1696 Amsterdam auction of 21 Vermeer paintings. Some scholars conjecture that it corresponds to "a tronie in antique dress, uncommonly artful" sold at 46 guilders, a trifle if compared to the equally sized Milkmaid or the Woman Holding a Balance which earned 175 and 155 guilders respectively. However, is not out of the question that it was another tronie sold in the same auction for only 17 guilders. Johan Larson, a Hague/London sculptor was known to have had another Vermeer tronie valued at only 10 guilders. In deference to the category, a Rembrandt tronie was sold for a mere 7 guilders in the same sale as the two Vermeer's.

The Young Mother, Gerrit Dou

The Young Mother
Gerrit Dou
73.5 x 55.5 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

How were the prices of paintings determined in Vermeer's time? There exists a number of period documents that testify the price of a painting was directly correlated to labor hours spent. Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris could demand from 5 to 6 guilders per hour for their fine paintings, which are comparable in style and compositional complexity to Vermeer's more elaborate interiors. Dou, who was as scrupulous an accountant as a painter technician, daily noted the exact number of hours he devoted to a painting to calculate its market value.

But Dou and Van Mieris were hardly the norm. They represent the absolute high end of the art market in Europe. Dou once received the astronomical sum of 4,000 guilders from the States of Holland for the Young Mother while Van Mieris was paid 2,500 by Cosimo III of the Medici family for a Family Concert. Even the successful landscape painter Jan van Goyen is known to have charged from 8 to 10 guilders a day's work. A small painting, which he could easily make in a single day, might go for 10 guilders while a large one for 60 guilders. It would appear that only Rembrandt attempted, and not always successfully, to establish the value of a painting by its artistic merit and his international reputation rather than the hours of labor spent. Although judged outlandish by a traveling French diplomat who had inquired into the price of a Vermeer painting, the highest sum associated with a Vermeer painting in the artist's lifetime was 600 guilders.

A fake pearl?

Being so large there can be little doubt that the "drop" pearl worn by the young girl is either fake or a product of the artist's imagination. At the time, imitation pearls were being produced so that common women could afford what formerly only kings and queens wore. Various methods were used.

Ancient Romans coated glass beads with silver and then coated them with glass again. Various combinations of natural substances were used to produce the typical iridescent effect of the natural pearl, such as powdered glass and egg whites, or shells and fish scales. Other times protuberances of mother-of-pearl were cut to shape and buffed. Venetian glassmakers became so successful at creating artificial pearls that by the 16th century Venetian pearl merchants imposed corporal punishments on those caught forging pearls. A number of recipes describe how to create white pearls in vitro from a paste based on talc or alum. Leonardo da Vinci suggested softening small seed pearls with lemon juice. When this mixture dried to a powder, it was mixed with egg white to form a paste that could be formed as one wished. Once dry, the artificial pearl was placed on a small turning lathe and polished.



One particularity successful method was invented by the French rosary maker named M. Jacquin. The story goes that Jaquin had observed a film of silver particles on the water's surface of a tub in which fish, called ablette, or bleak, were soaking. He skimmed the particles and dehydrating them, producing an iridescent powder that he thought might be used as a pigment. He began experimenting in the manufacture of faux pearls. After a series of initial trials, he discovered that applied to the exteriors of glass beads the wearer's body heat and sweat caused the coating to dissolve. However, when he injected the mixture into a hollow glass bead and allowed it to drain out of a second hole, it held fast. The bead was then filled with wax to give it the proper weight. This secret was closely guarded until 1716 when the famous French naturalist M. de Reamur was able to duplicate the manufacturing process. Cultured pearls were patented in 1916.

Diderot's <em>Encyclopédie

A plate from Diderot's Encyclopédie showing faux pearl manufacturing

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