Young Girl with a Pearl, an oil painting on canvas (1665), is one of the best known works by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. It depicts an imaginary young woman in an exotic dress and a very large pearl earring. The work is kept in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. Discovery.
Vermeer, a keen observer
An observant and deliberate painter, Vermeer produced only 36 known works during his lifetime, whereas many of his contemporaries produced hundreds. Like his peers, he mostly depicted scenes of ordinary life, later called “genre” painting, often of women going about their daily business. Notable examples include The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (ca. 1657) and The Music Lesson (ca. 1665). He sometimes signed his paintings. While the signature “IVMeer” appears on the painting “Girl with a Pearl,” the painting is nevertheless undated. Historians believe that Vermeer painted this small canvas (44.5 × 39 cm) around 1665, during the period when he executed a group of paintings with a common pearl motif.
Young Girl with a Pearl depicts a young woman in a dark, shallow space, an intimate setting that draws the viewer’s attention exclusively to her. She wears a blue and gold turban, the pearl earring and a gold jacket with a white collar visible underneath. Unlike many of Vermeer’s subjects, she does not focus on a daily chore and ignore her viewer. Instead, caught in a fleeting moment, she turns her head over her shoulder, meeting the viewer’s gaze with wide eyes and parted lips as if she were about to speak.
Her enigmatic expression, coupled with the mystery of her identity, has led some to compare her to the equivocal subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. 1503-19). But unlike the Mona Lisa, the Girl with a Pearl is not a portrait but a “tronie,” the Dutch term for a figure. A young woman might have sat for Vermeer, but the painting is not intended to represent her or any specific individual, in the same way that Leonardo’s work represented an existing person (probably Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant). Vermeer’s subject is a generic young woman in exotic dress, a study in facial expression and costume. The work demonstrates Vermeer’s technical expertise and interest in the representation of light.
The gentle modeling of the subject’s face reveals his mastery of using light rather than line to create form, while the reflection on her lips and the earring show his concern for depicting the effect of light on different surfaces.