An elusive, enchanting girl wearing an exotic turban and an unusually large, teardrop shaped pearl is frozen in action. She takes a momentary glance at you and me, either before turning into her darkness. Perhaps, it could be the first step to turn away from it so as to face and greet us, as well. Her eyes hold on to us while her lips are parted as if she has got something to say. This is Vermeer’s iconic painting, currently in the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, that has been declared as the most beautiful painting in the Netherlands in 2014.
Painted sometime around the 1660s, this masterpiece by Vermeer hibernated for quite a long while in neglect and oblivion before greatness was thrusted upon it by the mid nineteenth century. In fact des Tombe, the man who eventually donated the painting to the Mauritshuis museum, bought it for a very cheap price (2 guilders and 30 cents) in 1881.
The painting is a case study of an ironic obsession with oriental flavors and class struggles. It is considered to be a tronie and not a portrait. The difference is not only in the anonymity of the muse, but also in the level of flexibility allowed for the artist. A portrait is rigid in its demands. It is conservative and its purpose is to preserve the perfect picture of a person for posterity, thus becoming an icon of social position and class.
But a tronie, like this allows creative liberty. This mystery girl, for instance is clothed in the most exuberant and exotic flamboyance. Her features are delicate, divine and other worldly. She shines like a pearl, with the well crafted play of illumination in the painting, which is why it is often called The Pearl.
Yet her pearl earring, as iconic as it is, is merely an illusion. Upon closer inspection, one can see that in fact the girl’s ears are not pierced. Also, the contours of the pearl are deceptive. It merely floats, apparently. It is but a phantom of a pearl.
A team of researchers and art enthusiasts led by Abbie Vandivere, conservator at the Mauritshuis, examined the painting in depth for a project called, The Girl in the Spotlight. They discovered that the original painting was quite different from what we see today. The girl had eyelashes and she had a rich green curtain hanging behind her. Yet these were painted over and faded off in time. In short, Vermeer and time together gave us A Girl with a pearl earring.