Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Jan Vermeer
Interpretation of Dutch Interior Genre Painting

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Woman with a Pearl Necklace by Jan Vermeer
Woman with a Pearl Necklace
By Jan Vermeer.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever,
and a key expression of
Protestant Reformation art
from the mid-17th century.

Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662-64)


Interpretation of Woman with a Pearl Necklace
Analysis of Other Works by Vermeer


Artist: Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Medium: Oil painting
Type: Genre painting
Movement: Dutch Realism
Location: Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin.

For explanations of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Education
To appreciate painters of
the Delft School like
Johannes Vermeer and
Pieter de Hooch, see
our educational essays:
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and also:
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Interpretation of Woman with a Pearl Necklace

This exquisite example of Dutch Realist genre painting contains a stillness and introspection that gives it a feeling of Eastern meditation. Indeed, several art historians see it as clear evidence of Vermeer's interest in Chinese art and philosophy. One of Vermeer's "pearl pictures", it is related to other works like Woman Holding a Balance (1662-63) and Woman Writing a Letter (c.1665-66), both in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC - both among the greatest genre paintings on show in America. Characterized by Vermeer's hallmark painting technique, including his soft-edge brushwork and yellow-blue-grey colour palette, it is as usual a masterclass in fine art painting. The picture, one of the treasures of 17th-Century Dutch painting, hangs in the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.



Listed in the major Vermeer sale of 1696 as item No 36: "A young lady adorning herself, very beautiful", this work - like Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c.1662-64, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) and Woman Holding a Balance - depicts a single woman who is concentrating on some small task, to the exclusion of everything else. Here, the girl gazes at her reflection in a mirror while fastening two yellow ribbons which are attached to a pearl necklace around her neck. There is an unusually large, empty space between herself on the right and the mirror on the left, which focuses attention on the girl and her quiet self-absorption as she finishes her toilette. In the left foreground, which Vermeer has left mostly in shadow, a solid table can be seen partly covered by a thick rug. On the surface of the table we can pick out a chinese urn, as well as a cosmetic powder brush. The girl is wearing a similar yellow and white silk/fur jacket, to the one featured in Woman Writing a Letter (c.1665-66) and The Love Letter (c.1666, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), and a red ribbon in her hair. As in many of Vermeer's interiors featuring a single female, the scene is illuminated by light coming in through a window to the left, and is then diffused and dispersed by the bare whiteness and greyness of the bare wall.

In its basic compositional structure the work can be related to the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c.1657, Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden) with its profile, positioning of the model and the use of various elements - such as the table - to define the spatial position of the young woman. In addition, the marvellous light effects echo those found in The Milkmaid (c.1658, Rijksmuseum) and Young Woman with a Water Jug/Pitcher (c.1664-65, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), while the artist's pearl motif, both jewels and tonality, is explored to its fullest. Optically and colouristically, Woman with a Pearl Necklace is one of the artist's most subtle and beautiful explorations of the physical world. It may have been influenced by A Young Woman at her Toilette by Gerard Terborch (1617-81).

Typically for Vermeer, the action takes place in one small corner of a room and against an unadorned, silvery grey-white wall. Although the action is incomplete - the woman is still pulling tight the ribbon around her neck in order to fasten the necklace - Vermeer has in no way stressed the ongoing motion, the progress in time, but has given us a perfectly balanced moment which seems to eternalize the act rather than capture it. Only the numerous small changes observable around the hands and fingers reveal traces of his struggle to achieve this end.

Moral Message

Some art experts have not been willing to see in this canvas Vermeer's customary moral pronouncements, despite the inclusion of objects (pearls, mirror, cosmetic brush) used to adorn and decorate the body, and which point unmistakeably in the direction of personal vanity - a vice known to 17th-Century art as vanitas. What's more, as mentioned above, this work is closely related to Woman Holding a Balance, one of Vermeer's most overt examples of vanitas painting**, painted around 1662-3. The latter work features a painting of the Last Judgment which serves as a warning against worldly vanities - a warning which might be thought to intrude into Woman with a Pearl Necklace as well. (**See works by Harmen van Steenwyck: 1612-56.)


Arguably Vermeer's greatest skill is his ability to create a sense of intimacy in his interiors, giving the viewer a feeling of voyeurism. Nowhere is this skill better displayed than in Woman with a Pearl Necklace. The subject gazes into her mirror entirely unaware of her surroundings: allowing the viewer to imagine he is peering into a lady's chamber.

Vermeer's Painting Technique

Like Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest painters in 17th-century Holland achieved a high degree of mastery in producing "soft" (less noticeable) edges in their paintings. Rembrandt, Vermeer and Gerard Terborch, in particular, were meticulous in ensuring sufficient variation of contour in order to create a natural sense of form, space and light. In Woman with a Pearl Necklace, for instance, Vermeer goes to great lengths to blur the back edge of the woman's yellow jacket, so as to increase the roundness and three-dimensional solidity of her figure. Had he not done so, the girl would have looked much flatter - as if she was fastened to the wall. A similar blurring is visible (left background) around the edges of the chair.

Jan Vermeer (1632-75)

Vermeer not only sold his own pictures but also those of other Dutch Realist artists. However, his art dealership - which he inherited from his father - ran into difficulty as a result of of war between France and the Netherlands, causing him extreme financial hardship in his last years. Thus one of the world's best artists of all time died in poverty, while his pictures sell today for tens of millions.



Analysis of Other Works by Johannes Vermeer

Little Street (1658)
Soldier and a Laughing Girl (1658)
Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665)
Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666)
The Art of Painting: An Allegory (c.1666-73)
The Lacemaker (c.1669-70)

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

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