Vermeer is one of the most admired of all Dutch artists, but he was little known in his own day and remained relatively obscure until the end of the 19th century. One reason is that he only painted a small number of pictures, perhaps thirty-five, primarily for a small circle of patrons in Delft.
The painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665) has been in the collection of the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague since 1902, having been donated by art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, who purchased the work in 1881 for just two guilders and thirty cents.
No one knows who the girl was. In his excellent book A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now (2001), Anthony Bailey speculates that it might have been one of Vermeer’s daughters. Of the pearl itself, Bailey says that it is probably artificial:
“This girl of Vermeer’s seems to be wearing a glass ‘drop earring’ which has been varnished to look like an immense pearl; such earrings were fashionable in Holland, as we see in paintings of women by van Mieris, Metsu and Terboch. But Vermeer’s pearl is probably doubly artificial, having been enlarged to such a size by the painter’s imagination and desire to adorn the girl with something spectacular.”
Vermeer spent much of his later life in penury (he died in 1675 aged only 43), so a fake pearl seems more likely than a gigantic natural pearl sported by what appears to be a servant girl. During conservation treatment in 1994, one of three highlights on the pearl’s surface was revealed to be a flake of loosened paint. With the speck removed, the pearl appeared as originally intended. It was also discovered that Vermeer applied a translucent green paint over dark underpaint to create the background. Over time the pigments have discoloured, making the setting appear completely black.
A 17th century viewer would have looked at Vermeer’s painting and seen not a portrait but a type of picture known as a “tronie” – a study of a head and shoulders. The turban in “Girl with a Pearl Earring” gives an oriental touch to the canvas, hinting at exotic realms.
In 1999 the iconic status of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was reinforced by the American novelist Tracey Chevalier in her book of the same name. Recently, the artist otherwise known as Banksy reinterpreted the painting on a wall in Bristol, England. Humorously, he made use of an alarm box for the famous earring, titling it “Girl with the Pierced Eardrum”. Needless to say, the painting was promptly vandalised.