Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring is one of the best known works of art in the world, and yet the painting is thoroughly misunderstood.
The Pearl Earring That Isn’t
Pull up an image of the painting. A high resolution scan is offered by Mauritshuis, the museum that owns it. Got it? Okay, zoom in on the pearl.
First, it’s huge. Even if they had cultured pearls back then, this would have been an amazing one. As a natural pearl, it’s unbelievable. Did Vermeer triple or quadruple it for effect? It seems unlikely.
Second, consider the color. It looks metallic, not pearl-like. I think of pearls as having the tone of a full moon: pearly off-white.
Third, consider the bright, defined reflections on its shiny surface. A pearl has a soft, diffuse glow; no sharp reflections. A strange error for the master of light–or our error?
This is a piece of tinny costume jewelry. Why do we call it a pearl?
The name was given to the painting long after it was new, but before it got a deep cleaning. At that point in its life the painting had yellowed old varnish that has since been removed. It made the earring look more dingy and off-white.
In Vermeer’s estate, the painting was referred to as a “tronie after the Turkish fashion’ (tronie meaning a character sketch), and then it was titled Girl With a Turban. In 1696, a painting that may have been this one was sold at auction as Portrait in Antique Costume, uncommonly artistic (Herbert Read, Johannes Vermeer, Knowledge Publications, 1965).
But wait. There’s an entire back-story about that pearl. Is the story false too?
As you’ll recall if you’ve seen the movie based on the book based on the painting, Vermeer asked his wife’s attractive young maid to pose. The pearls–which are said to belong to his wife and were secretly borrowed by the illicit couple–represent Vermeer’s improper transfer of affection from his wife to the young maid. And when, in order to get her to wear the pearls, he actually pierces her, u, ear.. Suffice it to say that symbolism and innuendo is rife.
Take the pearl away and is it just a girl dressing up for fun in cheap costume stuff from a trunk in the studio? Is it fair to remove the innuendo? The hint of scandal may be integral to this painting’s fame.
The Affair that Wasn’t
The painting is commonly said to portray the middle-aged (and very married) artist’s underaged love interest as she gives him a seductive, coy, flirtatious look over her shoulder. For instance, Wikipedia notes “the intimacy of the girl's gaze toward the viewer.” Visual-arts-cork.com goes further: “The unusually direct contact between subject and spectator, and the slightly parted position of the lips, presents a sense of immediacy so great as to imply significant intimacy.” Ooh la la.
In the popular novel and movie about the painting, the subject is a sixteen year old maid in the Vermeer household (which seems older than the girl we see in the painting). She secretly poses for the artist as sexual tension rises between them. The story is fraught with libido, which tells us…what? Perhaps only what those writing about the art want us to see.
Is her expression flirtatious? Let’s define a flirtatious glance. You probably know instinctively, but let’s be rigorous.
A 2021 study identified the following characteristics of female flirting: “Head turned to one side and tilted down slightly, a slight smile, and eyes turned forward (toward the implied target).” (Professor Parnia Haj-Mohamadi of Cornell and her associates in ‘Identifying a Facial Expression of Flirtation and its Effect on Men’ from the Journal of Sex Research, Feb. 2021).
Here’s a second opinion: “Flirtatious behaviors communicate romantic and sexual interest, and are distinct from other intimacy cues because they are more ambiguous and playful. Examples include coy smiles, raised eyebrows, hair tosses, head tilts…” (Laura Guerrero and Benjamin Wiedmaier, Nonverbal intimacy: Affectionate communication, positive involvement behavior, and flirtation, Chapter 19 of the book, Nonverbal Communication, 2013.)
The smile is central to these descriptions. Ronald Riggio of Claremont McKenna College describes a seductive smile as: “a slight smile that accompanies direct eye contact, with a slow glance away, but still holding the smile.” (As quoted in Psychology Today, Five Types of Smiles, April 2016, based on Friedman, Howard S., & Riggio, Ronald E., Individual differences in ability to encode complex affects. Personality and Individual Differences, 1999.)
The experts agree: The smile, the arched eyebrows, the playful tilt of the head. It’s sometimes called the come-hither look.
Do an image search for Young Girl Wearing a Pearl Earring by Rotari. This subject has an enigmatic smile as she strikes a playful pose. Someone is supposed to follow her, don’t you think?
Rotari illustrates the classic flirtatious smile to an even greater degree in A Girl with a Flower in Her Hair, where the smile is accompanied by playful twisting of braids in her fingertips.
When we compare these paintings to The Girl in the Pearl Earring, we see what’s wrong with the popular theory. No flirtatious smile. Her lips are parted and look relaxed, not smiling.
What we actually see is a younger teen who has dressed up in faux Middle Eastern garb with a gaudy piece of costume jewelry for an earring. She is giving us a tolerant, somewhat bored look such as would have bestowed on the artist as he told her to please hold still.
A painter may imbue his portrait with evidence of the ‘male gaze’ even if the model isn’t flirting, and we can see this in Rembrandt’s Portrait of Hendrikje Stoffels. Like the girl in Vermeer’s painting, her expression is more patient than flirtatious. However, the painter has recorded an obvious tell of his prurient interest: her clothing is strangely revealing. Rembrandt is telling us that she’s his lover, and we know from historical documents that he had a long affair with this young maid.
The Scarf that Is
The ultramarine blue in the headscarf was made from lapis lazuli and was “more valuable than gold in the 17th century.” (Theresa Matchemer, Researchers Reveal Hidden Details in Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, Smithsonian Magazine, April 29, 2020). One might guess that the painting was commissioned for some wealthy buyer who had promised a high price, however, it actually stayed with the Vermeer family until after his death. Either it failed to sell (which I doubt because it’s so beautifully done!) or they didn’t even try to sell it.
We can guess it may have been painted for personal reasons, not for profit.
This same blue pigment appears in other Vermeer paintings (the man in The Geographer wears a long coat of ultramarine blue). That said, the portion of the painting given over to lapis lazuli is more than in any other painting—due both to the extensive use of blue and to the lack of another element: The room. Where is it?
Vermeer painted in a brightly lit, large room of their house and we see its high bank of windows in numerous paintings. We usually see other elements of the room too. Girl with a Flute shows a young woman in costume (this time it’s a faux Chinese hat and jacket). She has the same dangling earrings of shiny tin and the same relaxed, slightly open mouth. However, the scene includes wallpaper, a dresser, and the so-called flute (which looks like a prop to me–it’s probably bamboo and might even be two pieces held like chopsticks?). Many Vermeers show women or girls in fancy dress, but always in the context of a room. Why does Pearl Earring exclude the room?
The big idea behind this painting was to pose a girl in what they imagined as a Turkish turban. Recall that it was first specifically described as Girl in a Turban. The headscarf was the focus and it’s what catches my eye, too. It’s bold, expensive, detailed.
I think this painting was conceived very simply as a color sketch of one of his daughters in a blue turban. I’d guess it was done for her because she wanted it.
Wait, who? A daughter? Isn’t this a flirtatious maid? Actually, many of the models for Vermeer’s paintings were members of his family. And the most likely candidate for the model in this painting is Maria, who not only posed for a number of paintings but studied under Vermeer and helped him with his later canvases. Thus she would have been in the studio more than any other family member and she might have wanted a portrait of herself - and even helped complete it.
A Family Affair
I’m a father, writer and artist, and I have at various times had a photography studio and an art and illustration studio in my home. I’m not the only artist who’s asked his kids to model, nor the only one whose daughters have sometimes requested fun dress-up portraits.
I can easily imagine Vermeer, while working with the thirteen or fourteen year old Maria, smilingly agreeing to a small side project involving a pose in dress-up clothes of her choice–even if it meant using quite a lot of that expensive blue paint. Maybe the room was left out because this was set up in a nook or corner (against a dark green curtain, we’re told by the experts), while some larger, more commercial project was staged under those famous windows at the far end of the room.
And maybe Maria got to practice her brush strokes, blending and smoothing the paint on her face and giving herself what she imagined was a grown up and elegant look.
We speculate because there isn’t a detailed written journal to tell us about daily life in Vermeer’s studio. Arthive.com reiterates a common complaint of art historians: “Jan Vermeer left no diaries or records of other sort behind.” Spoken like an historian, but not an artist! An entire body of artwork painted in the big living room of his house using his wife and children as models is a diary. It’s a very good record of a life consisting of art and family as they overlapped to an unusual extent.
Art was the family business. Younger children sometimes play around the margins of his paintings and members of his family (along with neighbors and friends) pose for the main figures. We see, over and over, Vermeer’s life through his art. What a fine record he left us if we just choose to see it.
The Vermeers exemplified the Dutch Golden Age household and more: A happy, boisterous, cheerful house full of children and good food, with the boundaries between work and family porous and the artistic endeavor a shared one. Children could come and go in the studio, which was probably not even a dedicated workspace but more an activity set up and pursued in the largest family room.
I’d like to live that way. I try to! We all should, I think. And while the social rules of the era were still visible–it was the so-called man of the household who signed and sold the art–everyone participated—the women of the family had essential roles too.
Maria modeled and helped paint and may have become so skilled as to have her hand be intertwined in many of ‘his’ most famous works. Her older sister also posed for paintings, and her mother appears in several. And let’s not forget whose house it was and how they afforded to live there. Vermeer’s mother in law supported them from her income and hosted them in her house. If she had been a wealthy man she would be lauded as his patron, the one whose belief in him made his artistic life and body of work possible.
Vermeer’s visual diary tells a compelling story of a family effort and gives us a fine example of how art and family can nurture each other. It does not even hint at tawdry affairs with young maids. And it doesn’t include a girl with a pearl earring.
It does, however, include a fabulous portrait of one of his daughters in a blue turban!
How do we know what’s so? Do we rely on the text about a painting, or do we trust ourselves to read what the artists themselves (in this case, a father and daughter) are telling us?
Yes, I believe that if we can’t see a famous painting for what it is, we are probably falling prey to many other deceptions too. But for the sake of simplicity–and for art’s sake–I’m confining my comments to this wonderful piece of art. I’ll leave it to you to take a heightened sense of seeing away with you and apply it elsewhere if you think it might do some good.