vermeer: girl with a pearl earring

girl with a pearl earring, the famous johannes vermeer (1632-1675) painting, also known as the dutch mona lisa’, is making a rare appearance at the de young museum in san francisco from 26 january-2 june 2013.

the exhibition, girl with a pearl earring:  dutch paintings from the mauritshuis, features 35 paintings from mauritshuis, the royal picture gallery in the hague, netherlands.  the dutch museum is currently undergoing a two year renovation.

after san francisco, the exhibition travels to the the high museum of art in atlanta from 22 june-29 september 2013, followed by the frick collection in new york from 22 october 2013-12 january 2014.

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | girl with a pearl earring | oil on canvas | 18.75″ x 15.75″ | c. 1665-1667 | mauritshuis | the hague, netherlands

photo credit mauritshuis

when the exhibition traveled to tokyo and kobe, japan from june 2012-january 2013, about 1.2 million visitors viewed the painting.  art historians are unable to totally explain its popularity.

‘sometimes the questions are more intriguing because they can’t be answered. 

who was she?  what was she thinking?  what was her relationship to vermeer? 

the mystery is part of its popularity.’

-melissa buron, assistant curator, de young museum

art historians unanimously agree upon the attribution of thirty four paintings to vermeer, who is renowned for his mastery of color and light.

vermeer’s color palette differs slightly from the color palette of other 17th century dutch painters.  instead of azurite, which was significantly less expensive, vermeer used natural ultramarine blue paint pigment.  this difference explains the purity, brilliance, and radiance of ‘vermeer blue’.  natural ultramarine blue pigment was made from crushed lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone that was imported to the netherlands from afghanistan via venice.  to prepare the paint, the lapis lazuli stone was crushed into powder.  then, the powder was washed to remove the impurities.  next, the pigment was
suspended in the vehicle by mulling the powder into the oil.  finally, the natural ultramarine blue oil paint was mixed with some lead white to make it more workable.

lapis lazuli stones

photo credit essential vermeer

this difference also explains vermeer’s masterful rendering of light.  unlike other dutch painters from the golden age, vermeer mixed natural ultramarine blue pigment into grey oil paint, which usually only used lead white, bone black, or raw umber as coloring agents.  vermeer was able to capture the luminosity of natural daylight by using tones and shades of the ultramarine blue-grey paint to render highlights and shadows.

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | the milkmaid | oil on canvas | 17.875″ x 16.125″ | c. 1658-1661 | the rijksmuseum | amsterdam, netherlands

vermeer highlighted the bread and the cloth with small dots that capture the luminosity of natural daylight

photo credits rijksmuseum and essential vermeer

the girl with a pearl earring is actually a tronie (face), instead of a portrait.   tronies are drawings or paintings of the head, face, or bust of an anonymous subject.  they are physiognomies, or studies of the subject’s external appearance, including their facial expression, type, or character.  during the 17th century, the term ‘turkish’ was used to describe exotic or foreign objects or garments.  so, it was not unusual for the subject of a tronie to be painted wearing ‘turkish’ garments, like the cloak and the turban worn by the girl with a pearl earring.

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | girl with a pearl earring | oil on canvas | 18.75″ x 15.75″ | c. 1665-1667 | mauritshuis | the hague, netherlands

photo credit mauritshuis

vermeer used broad brush strokes, a limited color palette, and the ‘wet-in-wet’ painting technique to simplify the folds of the turban.  he mixed the pigments directly on the canvas, painting the highlights in ultramarine blue mixed with lead white, and the shadows in pure ultramarine blue topped with blue glaze.

‘…vermeer painted everything with a cool, silvery palette and layered translucent oil glazes, dissolving all material reality with a pearl-like luminosity.’

-art historian robert baldwin

detail | turban

photo credit essential vermeer

vermeer only used three brush strokes to paint the teardrop shaped pearl earring.  a dark shadow suggests the shape of the pearl.  an opaque highlight on the front captures the luminosity and the luster.  and, a translucent highlight on the bottom captures the soft inner glow.

the painting was last restored in 1994.  during the restoration, art conservators removed a second opaque highlight from the bottom of the pearl after discovering that it was a flake of paint that adhered to the pearl during an earlier restoration.  the bottom of the pearl softly reflects the girl’s white undergarment once again.

detail | pearl earring

photo credit essential vermeer

eleven of the thirty four paintings attributed to vermeer, including the girl with a pearl earring, feature women with pearls.  so, in addition to blue, vermeer paintings are synonymous with pearls.

‘…vermeer’s beautiful women, ornamented with pearls, took on the familiar, pearl-like beauty of contemporary love lyrics where outer loveliness dissolved into an inner radiance.’

-art historian robert baldwin

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | a maid asleep | oil on canvas | 34.5″ x 30.125″ | c. 1656-1657 | metropolitan museum of art | new york, NY

detail | pearl earrings

photo credits metropolitan museum of art and essential vermeer

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | woman holding a balance | oil on canvas | 16.75″ x 15″ | c. 1662-1665 | national gallery of art | washington, DC

detail | two strands of pearls

photo credits national gallery of art and national gallery of art

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | woman with a lute | oil on canvas | 20.25″ x 18″ | c. 1662-1664 | metropolitan museum of art | new york, NY

detail | pearl earring and necklace

photo credits metropolitan museum of art

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | woman with a pearl necklace | oil on canvas | 21.625″ x 17.75″ | c. 1664 | staatliche museen zu berlin | berlin, germany

detail | pearl earring and necklace

photo credits essential vermeer and essential vermeer

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | a lady writing | oil on canvas | 17.75″ x 15.75″ | c. 1665-1666 | national gallery of art | washington, DC

detail | pearl earrings

photo credits national gallery of art and essential vermeer

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | the concert | oil on canvas | 28.5″ x 25.5″ | c. 1664-1667 | stolen from the isabella garner museum | boston, MA

detail | pearl earring and necklace

photo credits essential vermeer and essential vermeer

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | study of a young woman | oil on canvas | 17.5″ x 15.75″ | c. 1665-1667 | metropolitan museum of art | new york, NY

detail | pearl earring

photo credits metropolitan museum of art

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | mistress and maid | oil on canvas | 35.5″ x 31″ | c. 1666-1667 | the frick collection | new york, NY

detail | strand of pearls, pearl earring and necklace

photo credits the frick collection and the frick collection

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | the guitar player | oil on canvas | 20.25″ x 18.25″ | c. 1670-1672 | kenwood house | hampstead, london, united kingdom

detail | pearl necklace

photo credits essential vermeer

johannes vermeer (1632-1675) | a young woman standing at a virginal | oil on canvas | 20.375″ x 17.25″ | c. 1670-1673 | national gallery | london, united kingdom

detail | pearl necklace

photo credits national gallery and essential vermeer

who is your favorite ‘girl with a pearl’?

girl with a pearl earring:  dutch paintings from the mauritshuis

de young museum | fine arts museums of san francisco

26 january-2 june 2013

photo credit famsf

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