The Girl with a Pearl Earring painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer and considered one of the most beautiful and most recognised paintings in the world.
In this week's product focus, we will explore the humble origins of the painting, the life and work of this classic Dutch artist, and exactly how a fictional novel in 1999 created an air of mystery for one of the most famous female-led paintings in the world.
Did You Know? Due to its increased popularity and exposure since the 21st century, the painting has been nicknamed the 'Mona Lisa of the North.'
ABOUT THE PAINTING
The Girl with a Pearl Earring is without question Vermeer’s most famous painting. It is not a portrait as such, but a ‘tronie’, which is defined as a painting of an imaginary figure. Tronies depict a certain type or character; in this case a girl in an exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear.
It is still unclear whom Vermeer first painted it for in 1665-66. Still, it ended up in his patron’s collection, then later sold on by his son-in-law, and was marked as lost until it resurfaced 200 years later when a collector bought it for 2 guilders (a little less than $1 US Dollar), and discovered it was a Vermeer once it had been cleaned.
On the collector’s death in 1902, it was donated to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where it has hung ever since and is deemed ‘priceless’.
Use of Colours
After the restoration of the painting in 1994, the subtle colour scheme, as well as the intimacy of the Girl's gaze, have been greatly enhanced. It was also discovered that the dark background we see today was originally a deep enamel-like green instead of black.
The blue in Vermeer's paintings is very intense and bold, created using a special pigment, ultramarine, for the colour. It was made of a bright blue mineral called lazurite from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, from Afghanistan.
Did You Know? Ultramarine was very rare at the time, so it was the most expensive pigment you could buy, even more costly than gold. However, Vermeer loved using this colour within clothing and shadows of his artworks despite the price.
The striking colours of her turban and her clothes contrast with both the darker background and her pale skin, with her bright blue turban accentuating her face. As a result, many believe she's looking directly at the viewer and looks as if she is about to say something.
A classic staple in any female's jewellery box, pearls, either real or imitation, were very fashionable in Vermeer's day. You can see them in many paintings from that time. But of course, there is no other painting quite as famous for featuring the white dropped earrings.
Vermeer appeared to be very fond of pearl earrings as they appear in 18 of his 36 paintings, half to be precise. He was also incredibly good at painting pearls, using only a few perfectly placed strokes of his brush.
With this painting, Vermeer indeed showed that he mastered the use of lights, demonstrated throughout the shining pearl, the clothing, and her face's subtlety.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Johannes Vermeer, (October 1632 – December 1675) was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialised in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life and female identities. He is famous for his intimate household scenes with fantastic light. In other paintings by Vermeer, such as the View of Delft featured below, he managed to create a calm, almost timeless atmosphere.
Another of Vermeer’s famous paintings, The View of Delft
Vermeer was always known to spend a long time on every painting, resulting in him not completing many pictures during his lifetime. Therefore, we know of only 36 paintings by him in existence. There is a sense of mystery around the artist as there was relatively little known about Vermeer's life until recently. Vermeer seems to have been devoted exclusively to his art, living out his life in the city of Delft.
He was a fairly modest man, who struggled with financial difficulties during his entire life and sadly died of a sudden illness attributed to this economic stress. In 1653, he converted to Catholicism and married his wife Catharina Bolenes in a small and private ceremony. They had 11 children together during their marriage.
He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter during his lifetime, recognised in Delft and The Hague. He frequently used costly pigments (such as the rare ultramarine blue mentioned) and is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.
Whilst Vermeer had been a respected artist in Delft; he was almost unknown outside his hometown. A local patron named Pieter van Ruijven had purchased much of his output after his death, which reduced the possibility of his fame spreading. Vermeer also never had any pupils, though one scholar has suggested that Vermeer taught his eldest daughter Maria to paint.
Additionally, his family obligations with so many children may have taken up much of his time, as would acting as both an art dealer and inn-keeper in running the family businesses. Alongside this, his extraordinary precision as a painter may have limited his output.
It wasn't until the 19th century that Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger helped to rediscover Vermeer. They published an essay attributing 36 pictures to him and therefore generated more artist exposure. Since that time, Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.
Upon the rediscovery of Vermeer's work, several prominent Dutch artists modelled their style on his work, including Simon Duiker. In the 20th century, Vermeer's admirers included Salvador Dalí, who painted his own version of The Lacemaker (on commission from collector Robert Lehman) and pitted large copies of the original against a rhinoceros in some surrealist experiments.
Who Exactly is the Girl with a Pearl Earring?
As we have explored, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fictional person, a young beauty as portrayed by Vermeer.
This led to many unknowns and mysteries about the girl within the painting, including the exact influence and muse for Vermeer. Later within 21st-century popular culture, fictional stories have created the girl as a character named Griet. However, we don’t know who the original girl was or what she’s thinking. Indeed, we know very little about Vermeer himself.
Within Vermeer's limited 36 paintings currently known, they all often depicted women on their own, doing everyday things like pouring milk, writing letters, playing the lutes.
Whilst we are unclear of exactly who these women are, they are likely to be members of the family household or people known to Vermeer. This means we may never know the exact relationship between the girl wearing the pearl earring and the painter himself.
Girl with a Pearl Earring In Popular Culture
Vermeer's reputation and works have been featured in both literature and films. In 1999, American author Tracy Chevalier published 'Girl with a Pearl Earring', a novel directly inspired by this famous work of the same name. Set in 17th century Delft, Holland, Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the girl in the painting and the artwork itself.
In the wake of the mystery around the girl in the painting, Chevalier provided an alternative, fictional answer: She was the family maid's assistant, Griet, who became Vermeer's love interest.
Since being published, Chevalier's novel has sold over five million copies worldwide, suggesting there's a shared curiosity about this particular Vermeer work. Chevalier has spoken at lengths about why she's been fascinated with Girl with a Pearl Earring since she was 19 and how that turned into inspiration for the book.
Scarlett Johansson playing Griet in the 2003 film version of the painting.
The novel's success led to a 2003 drama film, directed by Peter Webber from a screenplay by Olivia Hetreed. Scarlett Johansson stars as Griet, a young 17th-century servant in the household of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth) when he painted the Girl with a Pearl Earring in the city of Delft in Holland.
Hetreed read the novel before its publication, and her husband's production company convinced Chevalier to sell the film rights, leading to commercial success and critical acclaim.
This popularity was greatened even further when artist Banksy turned the painting into graffiti on a Bristol wall within the United Kingdom. As a result, a security alarm was added in place of her earring.
Banksy version of ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ featuring a security alarm
HOW TO WEAR: GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING POCKET SQUARE
This pocket square is both beautiful and entirely versatile at the same time. The striking blue and yellow of the girl’s headscarf, set against a black background, make for a colourful statement, alongside the expert capturing of light and shade on her luminous skin.
Below we explore our favourite ways to wear this iconic pocket square with your outfit.
Pair with a Yellow Tie
The yellow hues within the painting create a richness and luxurious tone to the pocket square, so pairing with a similar colour tie will pull your outfit together and complement it with ease.
We suggest using our Burnt Yellow and Blue Floral Repeat Silk Tie. This classic floral print is handmade in England and made from high-quality silk. It provides a subtle addition to an outfit and can be used in both casual and formal occasions, as well as matching with a variety of more exciting and colourful pocket square designs.
Match with a Navy Tailored Jacket
A navy tailored jacket is the most common and sophisticated way to style any outfit for all events, either work or pleasure.
Most of our pocket squares suit our navy made to order tailored jacket as this classic menswear item is extremely versatile and durable over time. Additionally, The Girl with a Pearl Earring painting has rich blue and yellow tones, which will capture and complement any navy jacket when folded correctly.
Style with a Roll-Neck Cashmere Jumper
The Girl with a Pearl Earring painting has a deep black backdrop behind the famous figure, creating a sizeable negative space to complement your outfit. We suggest pairing this with a dark coloured (for example, black or green) cashmere roll-neck jumper to break up your outfit.
Using knitwear under your tailoring is a modern yet contemporary way to add some creative flair to your outfit.
What Makes Our Pocket Squares So Special?