Against a deep, dark backdrop is a girl wearing a big pearl earring and a turban. You end up under a spell dazzled by her big eyes, glossy lips, and glistening pearl jewelry. Who is this girl looking as magical as Mona Lisa?
“Girl with a Pearl Earring” drawn by Johannes Vermeer is one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. Although he is considered one of the greatest Dutch artists in the 17th century, he only produced 36 pieces over his lifetime. Little is known about his life except that he spent his whole life in Delft, the Netherlands, had 14 children, and cared for his mother-in-law.
Not until Tracy Chevalier published the novel “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in 1999, which was followed by a movie with the same title released in 2003, did he start earning widespread fame. The movie says the artist hires this girl as a maid and asks her to wear a Turkish turban and his wife’s pearl earring. With her mouth slightly open, the girl under the spotlight seems to want to say something over her shoulder. A drop of tears, which her moist eyes might have shed, shines on the earring.
It may sound plausible that the model is the artist’s maid, but it is false. It is not a portrait but a ‘tronie’ – a painting of an imaginary figure drawn to study facial expressions and looks. We know little about the artist’s inspiration, the title, and when it was drawn. The title as we know it today was given as recently as the late 20th century. One obvious thing is that the artist intended to depict her as a noble lady by drawing a pearl earring and using as much ultramarine pigment as he wanted. Back then, this rare material was more expensive than gold. It was so priceless that it was only used to color the Virgin Mary’s blue cloth.
Pearls symbolize purity and beauty. The artist might have wished to reflect an entity as pure and divine as the Virgin Mary or the timeless allure in the girl’s dazzlingly magical expression on her face.