Girl with a Pearl Earring by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of Dutch Portrait, Head of a Girl With a Turban

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Girl with a Pearl Earring by Jan Vermeer
Girl with a Pearl Earring
(Head of a Girl with a Turban)
By Jan Vermeer.
Seen as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664-6)


Interpretation of Girl with a Pearl Earring
Analysis of Other Works by Vermeer


Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait art (Study of a Girl's Head)
Movement: Dutch Realism
Museum: Mauritshuis, The Hague.

For more masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To appreciate painters like
the Dutch Realist Vermeer,
see our educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
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Interpretation of Girl with a Pearl Earring

Nicknamed the "Mona Lisa of the North", this beautiful painting - one of the most famous Baroque portraits - shows that, in addition to his mastery of Dutch Realist genre painting, Vermeer was also a master portraitist. His skill in painting the heads of young women is well known from works like Head of a Girl (1672, Metropolitan Museum), The Milkmaid (1658, Rijksmuseum), Lady Writing a Letter (c.1665-70) and Girl with a Red Hat (1666) both in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC., but for sheer impact Girl with a Pearl Earring ranks alongside works by the best portrait artists in Holland such as Rembrandt (1606-69) and Van Dyck (1599-1641). In fact, technically speaking, this well known picture - known also as Head of a Girl with a Turban - is not a portrait but a study of a girl's head, known in Vermeer's day as a "tronie". Partly because of this, the work cannot be distinguished from several other "heads", and thus its provenance can only be traced back as far as 1882, when it was acquired by the art collection of Dutchman A. A. des Tombe. In 1903 it was donated to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague.




The composition of Girl with a Pearl Earring is delightfully simple. Unlike most of the other paintings by the Delft master, the subject here is only a simple head of a girl looking over her shoulder at the viewer. No hint of a setting is provided, other than its atmospherically dark tone. This too is unusual for the mature Vermeer. 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. The girl is wearing a simple brownish-yellow top, which contrasts strongly with her bright white collar. A further contrast is offered by her blue and yellow or turban (or chaperon) which gives the picture a distinctly exotic effect. Turbans were a relatively common accessory in Europe from the 15th century, as is shown by Man in a Red Turban (1433, National Gallery, London), the famous self-portrait by Jan Van Eyck. Indeed, Vermeer's older contemporary, Rembrandt, painted single figures and heads in exotic costume throughout his life, and that similar small heads with unusual headgear by Carel Fabritius (1622-54) - who taught Vermeer - indicate that he may have carried this tradition to Delft.

The Meaning of the Girl with a Pearl Earring

The final but most noticeable feature of this picture is the girl's enormous, tear-shaped pearl earring. A similar item of jewellery can be seen in A Woman Brought a Letter by a Maid (aka Lady with Her Maidservant) (c.1667, Frick Collection, New York). This pearl earring, possibly along with the girl's turban, may unlock the meaning of the painting.

It seems that the message of the painting derives from ideas expressed by the mystic St Francis De Sales (1567-1622) in the Introduction to the Devout Life (1608), published in Holland in 1616. In a nutshell, De Sales wrote that women should protect their ears from unclean words, and that they should allow them to hear only chaste words - the "oriental pearls of the gospel." Using this text as a reference, it seems that the pearl earring in Vermeer's painting represents chastity, while the "oriental" element mentioned is illustrated by the girl's turban. (For a painting promoting virtue and industry, see The Lacemaker (c.1669, Louvre, Paris.)

Vermeer's Painting Methods: Camera Obscura

X-rays of this canvas have provided surprising information about Vermeer's painting methods. In most examples of 17th-Century Dutch painting, the under-painting reveals adjustments and corrections of edges, shapes, and forms. Here, however, rather than the tentative building up of elements, we find only a sharp pattern of light and dark. This is all the more unusual since there is no sign of either line or a preliminary drawing to guide the master to this perfection. Such an unusual procedure once again provides clear evidence in support of Vermeer's use of the camera obscura. Indeed, one art critic has suggested that the sharply contrasting patterns of light and dark may be Vermeer's direct transcription of the incidence of light as viewed through his camera obscura. If this is so, it would begin to account for the almost photographic directness apparent in this unusually naturalistic work.

Jan Vermeer

Leader of the Delft School of Dutch Baroque art and one of the most consistent Dutch Realist artists of the mid/late 17th-Century, Vermeer is primarily noted for his domestic interiors, lit by a window on the left, and typically containing a girl or young woman engaged in some relatively unimportant task: see for instance, Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662-64, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin). These pictures are characterized by yellow, blue and grey colour pigments, a cool light, a beautifully serene sense of balance, order and - above all - intimacy.



Analysis of Other Paintings by Vermeer

Little Street (1658)
Soldier and a Laughing Girl (1658)
Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1662)
Woman Holding a Balance (1662-3)
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (Artist in his Studio) (c.1666-1673)

• For more about 17th century Dutch portraiture, see our main index: Homepage.

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