The young girl of 12 or 13-yrs of age is wearing a turban and glancing sideways over her shoulder towards the viewer. Her facial features show slight surprise and expectancy, with turned eyes wide, and lips parted in a sensual but innocent expression.

The dark background accentuates the true-to-life features of the girl who Vermeer has captured in exceptional detail. The light and shade, the colours and tones, and the outline all have an almost photographic allure.

Johannes Vermeer created Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1665 during the height of the Dutch Golden Age. The painting is one of the best-known examples from the Baroque art period and is of the Realism genre.

The medium is oil on a canvas 44.5-cm high, and 39-cm wide. The painting is currently owned and displayed by the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, The Hague, Netherlands.

A suggested interpretation of this painting is that the idea comes from the Devout Life, a 1608 publication by St Francis De Sales. He said that women should only hear undefiled words – “The Oriental Pearls of the Gospel”. This quote is represented by the innocent young virgin wearing oriental clothing and a pearl earring.

Originally this painting was titled Girl with a Turban but became Girl with a Pearl Earring in the later 20th-century. This painting, which some have nicknamed The Mona Lisa of the North, is a tronie rather than a portrait. Tronie is the term for a study of the facial expressions of a subject, rather than a commissioned portrait designed to promote an image of wealth, political, religious or social status. Of particular interest is the clothing the girl is wearing. Although her face is clearly European, she is dressed in Eastern fashion. The turban was popular as a prop for tronies at the time, as they enabled the artist to demonstrate their skill in replicating the complex colours, shades and textures of the folded material.

Vermeer employed the Dutch custom of using a dark background. When coupled with the technique of underpainting using a monochromatic ground, this created a 3D effect and making the figure appear to stand out from the canvas. He also used a green ochre undercoat as a base for the expensive pigments such as ultramarine with which he created the rich and vibrant tones of the turban and gown.

Brown and red ochres were used to enhance the definition of the girl’s facial features by accentuating the light and shade to give a life-like image. Vermeer’s deft use of brushstrokes in this painting creates a clear and well-defined image. He applied the final coat thinly, using light linear brushstrokes to give the impression of movement of the delicate material. Highlights are one of Vermeer’s trademarks, and these are effectively used on the turban. The unusually large pearl earring, which some say is not a real pearl, was achieved with only two carefully applied brushstrokes.

Many experts have claimed that Vermeer may have made use of a camera obscura as an aid for much of his work. The camera obscura is an early form of large pinhole camera which enables an image to be projected onto a surface. The artist is then able to trace the outlines and duplicate the image using their chosen medium. This technique may have been further advanced by the use of a lens or curved mirror. While this is only speculation, it is significant that Vermeer was a close associate of the pioneer lens maker Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek who was the executor of Vermeer’s estate.

More recently, X-ray examination of the Girl with a Pearl Earring shows that the underpainting was executed using well defined sharp edges between light and dark shapes. X-rays of contemporary works of that time, however, reveal a tentative foundation build up, including adjustments and corrections. While this is not conclusive evidence, it does lend weight to the theory that Vermeer used some form of mechanical or optical aid in his work.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a well-travelled painting. In 1881, it was bought at auction in The Hague by Arnoldus Andries des Tombe for two guilders, equivalent to about 24 Euros purchasing power in today’s money. The painting was in poor condition, and with no family to leave it to, Des Tombe donated it, along with other paintings, to The Royal Picture Gallery in Mauritshuis in 1902. Then in 1994, the painting was restored, which involved removing the old faded varnish and touch-up repairs that had been carried out previously. This restoration allowed the original vivid colours used by Vermeer to shine through; it also enhanced the intimacy of the girl’s enchanting gaze.

In 2012, while the Gallery was being renovated, Girl with a Pearl Earring was included in a travelling exhibition. The Japanese National Museum of Western Art was the first venue. The exhibition then travelled to the United States of America where it was on display in Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York City. From the USA, it went to Italy where it was exhibited at Bologna. Finally, in June 2014, Girl with a Pearl Earring was returned to Mauritshuis Museum where it will remain indefinitely.

Except for two cityscapes; The Little Street and View of Delft, all Vermeer’s works were portraits or tronies and his subjects were mostly women and girls. He liked to paint a broad cross-section of 17th-century Dutch society, ranging from wealthy nobility and merchants in their splendid dwellings, down to a simple peasant milkmaid at work. It appears that Vermeer liked to promote his idealistic way of life by portraying women in traditionally accepted socio-cultural roles; thereby ensuring the maintenance of domestic order and moral values.

Other titles of Vermeer’s work:

  • The Milkmaid (1658)
  • The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659)
  • The Music Lesson (1665)
  • Art of Painting (1668)
  • Lady Seated at a Virginal (1672)
  • The Geographer (1669)
  • The Astronomer (1668)
  • The Little Street (1658)
  • View of Delft (1661)

Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632, to Reynier Vermeer and Digna Baltens. In 1653, he married Catharina Bolnes. Vermeer’s fortune took a downturn due to the economic situation caused by the French invasion in 1672, and he died in debt in 1675 leaving his wife and eleven surviving children.

Vermeer was not especially famous during his lifetime, as his output was small and collected by local patrons. His paintings were admired locally by connoisseurs in Delft and Amsterdam. By the 19th-century, several of his works were erroneously attributed to more prolific Dutch artists. After the French art critic Theophile Thore published favourable descriptions of Vermeer’s work in 1866, interest in his art increased dramatically.

Then in the 20th-century, there was such demand from collectors for Vermeer’s art, that forgeries were produced; notably by Han Van Meegeren in the 1930s. Vermeer’s fame continues to rise to the present day due to exhibitions of his work in America and at the Mauritshuis Gallery in The Hague.