Not long ago I had the good fortune to see the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer at The Frick Collection in New York City. The painting was part of a visiting exhibit of fifteen paintings from the Dutch Golden Age on loan from the Mauritshuis in Amsterdam. The Mauritshuis was then undergoing a renovation. The renovation is now complete and by all accounts a great success.
The Girl has of late become a celebrity. But for over two centuries she was a waif much neglected. When it came up for auction in the nineteenth century, only two persons recognized that the painting was a Vermeer. Fortunately, the two were known to each other and on friendly terms. They struck a bargain that eventually brought the painting into the Mauritshuis collection and recently to the exhibit at The Frick.
Now the Girl is the recipient of media attention of a sort usually lavished on a movie star or a rock star. I understand that she has, in fact, been the subject of a recent movie. One cannot but ask why this portrait out of the entire œuvre, albeit small, has risen, if risen it has, to this extraordinary status. She surely today enjoys more than the fifteen minutes of fame supposedly to be allotted to us all.
One cannot but wonder, Is this fame merely a consequence of favorable publicity engendered by who knows whom? Is she no more than another fleeting image within what some take to be an age of mere images? Or does she offer her admirers an inspiration of real artistic or humanistic value? Does she enjoy a renown truly deserved?
No doubt because of her media status she was besieged by fans at the museum. The line to the entrance went literally around the block. I was able to circumvent the line with the purchase of a membership. Once I found myself in her gallery, I had to edge my way slowly through the admiring throng in an attempt to get close to her. When I reached her, I discovered that she was separated from her fans by a velvet rope of the sort customarily reserved for celebrities, and she was under the watchful eyes of security guards.
I then discovered that the Girl is not a real person. I was shocked to learn that she is not a portrait of anyone in particular! I must admit that I should have known about this quaint fact of art history. The audio guide explained. She is what the Dutch used to call a tronie. A tronie is a stock character akin to the dramatic characters often found in comedy and farce. And as a tronie customarily is, so is she dressed up in an exotic costume.
Did I succumb to an upswell of publicity? Her grand acclaim appears to be much ado about nothing. Her fame seems to be a gaudy case enclosing a fake pearl, and her essence a mere emptiness. She would appear to be an Andy Warhol celebrity with a vengeance. The painting is tantamount to a portrait of Jackie Kennedy but with no Jackie!
The portrait itself, I must say, is subdued. The Girl does not give the appearance of a celebrity. The colors in reproductions, especially online, are almost always brighter, not to say poppier, than the original. But the actual colors exhibit hues that are toned down. The palette seems rather limited, too. Most predominately there are only blue, yellow, and white, with some black and gray shades.
Even the photo on the Mauritshuis website evinces a reduced tonality in its colors despite an electronically generated brightness:
Vermeer intentionally dampens the colors and reduces their brightness. He bleaches the colors out when they are in the light. The front and top of the turban and the end of its tail become almost white, for example. And he darkens the colors when they lie in shadow. The side of the turban and the back of the gown fade off into blackness. The tail of the turban and the folds in the gown also have many grayish tints.
Admittedly, the Girl may have lost some of her luster over time. The most recent restoration has done what could be done to brighten the colors. But one can obviously see that even the ultramarine blue of the turban, which would be the most brilliant color, Vermeer has both tinted with white on the front of the turban and shaded with black on its side.
The painting also seems rather shallow. The pictorial space is undeniably limited. It has only three primary planes, which compress its perspective. There is the face, which it is tilted toward us so that it appears as a plane not quite parallel to the surface of the painting. The front shoulder and upper arm are parallel the surface. The tail of the turban is almost parallel, but its top retreats slightly away from us.
The painting appears to be more a bas-relief than a portrait of a person in three full dimensions. The girl occupies a pictorial space little more than half the width of her body. She has a depth extending from her front shoulder slightly past the back of her ear. The top of her turban extends a little further back perhaps though it barely extends past her neck.
The monochrome background also compresses the pictorial space. The background of this portrait is now black. I understand that artists use a dark background of this kind with the purpose of keeping our gaze on the subject of a portrait. But this color also has the affect of accenting the grays and blacks of the shadows in the figure and in the drapery.
The background was originally green, a contemporary photochemical analysis informs us. Or, at least, there were green overtones in the now dark black pigment. One cannot but wonder how a greenish black background might affect the painting and its colors and its depth. Perhaps someone who has the requisite computer skills with assistance from an art historian could attempt to reconstruct the original hue for us.
Yet amidst what might otherwise seem to be a lackluster painting one does yet find two brilliant flashes. There are the youthful, playful, eyes. They are lighthearted and engaging with a hint of pertness. And there are the red lips. They are the brightest color in the painting as we now have it and most likely as Vermeer actually painted it. Her lips, also playful, are slightly open with the hint of burgeoning smile. They contain a moist lushness tempered only by white highlights.
The girl looks directly at us. Vermeer has placed us in the position of whoever apparently caught her unawares. We find her having turned her head toward us. We are an intruder, and we have disturbed her in some fashion. She has perhaps just turned from her mirror and dresser. Her costume offers only the tiniest suggestion of motion. Because it does not fall straight down, the turban tail appears to trail slightly the turn of her head.
The face surely captivates us and holds our attention. That its brightness in character and color contrasts with the toned-down hues of the costume, is undeniable. Vermeer would appear to wish that we contemplate the face of the girl more than her gown or turban.
But we must not overlook the pearl earring. If you were before the painting, you would find that the earring is not easily discernable. In any reproduction that I have seen it appears more clearly present and more prominent than it actually is. The face of the girl is brightly lit and stands out prominently, but the pearl earring emergences only slowly from the shadows beside and behind her head. One almost has to make an effort to find it.
Vermeer painted the pearl very deftly with what appear to be only two strokes of his brush. The top stroke captures the ambient light, and the bottom stroke the reflected light from the white collar. This artistic fact you can see for yourself if you go to the Mauritishuis website and magnify the pearl by double-clicking once or twice on the reproduction there.
I hope this exercise is not too disconcerting. I take these double-clicks to be the electronic equivalent of using a magnifying glass to examine the brushwork. Admittedly, a magnifying glass would serve better if only one could gain access to the painting. I also concede that the portrait does not have the same palette in a reproduction. But the palette is not now at issue.
What is disconcerting, I find, is that the pearl appears to be a phantom object. It seems to be without substance. Vermeer constructed this precious object so wistfully that it seems to be no more than a mere effervescence of an ephemeral sort. Only the barest suggestion of substance lies in a very slight tug on the earlobe by an indiscernible filament presumably fastened to the pearl.
One might venture to say, I think, that the pearl is also a tronie. Or, at least, one might say that it is a tronie-like object. As does the girl, so does the pearl seem to be a mere nothing reflecting its circumstance rather than an actual something revealing its essence.
The pearl is in fact too large to be real. Its size is, admittedly, somewhat hard to judge precisely. But it is surely larger than any known natural pearl. If extant, would rival, if not surpass, the most famous pearls of history. And its tug on the earlobe, if it were real, ought to be greater than it is.
And yet Vermeer makes this ephemeral pearl a focus of his painting. The girl and her face are surely the primary foci of the portrait. The contrast between her bright face with the all but drabness of her costume and the darkness of the background cannot but continually draw our attention to her. Not to mention her engaging eyes and moist lips.
But the face of the girl is slightly off-center, and it serves to compose in part a rectangular frame for the pearl earring. Her face parallels the tail of the turban, and together they make up the left and right sides of the frame. The turban, especially its lighted top, and her shoulder, though both lighted and in shadow, complete the top and the bottom of the rectangle.
Within this frame the pearl is centered in an area even darker and smaller. It is nestled within the shadows of the receding portion of the turban, the cheek of the girl, the shadowed back of the shoulder and a very opaque shadow in front of the turban tail. The pearl is almost hidden within this dark area. The collar also has a whiteness that detracts from it, I would add.
Vermeer, then, is drawing our attention to two subjects. He very likely wants us to contemplate both the girl and the pearl. But the one subject is clear, and the other rather obscure. With the light and the portrayal of her eyes and lips, he draws our attention to the face of the girl. But with her face and her exotic costume he also draws our attention, though it is almost a distraction, to the pearl earring.
But note now another curious fact about the portrait. The girl herself would appear to resemble a pearl. Vermeer has painted her as one would paint an object subtly lustrous and luminous. Her face and her costume present surfaces that softly glow with color. They have a delicate sheen accented with light and shadow, and their sheen offsets their less than brilliant tones.
With this painting Vermeer would appear to anticipate the modern cubists and their precursors. Paul Cezanne comes to mind at once. Vermeer creates volume in this portrait with different tints and shades of color. I doubt that one could find many, if any, outlines in the painting. Even the eyes and lips are made up of small dabs of paint. Not to mention the pearl.
But Vermeer has a different purpose than these modern painters. I do not think that his purpose is to create a new painterly aesthetic. I would suggest that his intention is to create a particular painterly affect. His wish is to make the girl resemble the pearl.
Why would Vermeer have this purpose? I suspect that Vermeer wishes us to view the girl as an entity as ephemeral as the pearl. I submit that he wants us especially to see her diversion as ephemeral. She is engaged in a playful pretense, I would say. She is obviously dressed up in an exotic costume, and she is adorned with a pearl of an improbable size.
The girl is making up a role for herself, and she has dressed up for the made-up occasion. Her pretense is an activity as imaginary as her pearl earring. We have caught her unawares at her playacting, and she turns from her imagined world and gazes out of it into our world. Vermeer captures her in the moment of awakening and portrays her with a vestige of playfulness.
We can now see a profundity in the portrait, I think. The girl gazes out of one imaginary world into another. She gazes out of her imaginary world into ours! Do we not all indulge in pretence at each moment of our lives? Indeed, we are obliged to make up roles for ourselves, and we often dress up for the occasion. To deny that we play a role is to play a role, and even not to dress up is to dress up.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring is allegory of human life. Our pretenses and their accoutrements are little more than imagined values that we place on ourselves in the face of an awkward metaphysical truth. Behind each pretense lies a conceit all but hidden. But behind each conceit we find, if we can permit ourselves to peer into it, an emptiness.
Perhaps we might remind ourselves how a pearl gets its value. Obviously we give it any value that it may have. What, after all, is a pearl? It is an oddity of marine biology. A pearl is merely an accretion of calcium carbonate formed by a mollusk within its shell to alleviate an unwelcome irritant.
We can set what an economist would call a market value on a pearl if we have a desire for it. But we can also give a pearl what a philosopher would call a fancy value. We give an object a value of this kind if it catches our fancy. That is, if we find that it appeals to our sensibilities.
Indeed, one could distinguish, if one wished, a fancy value taken in the superficial accretions of a cultured pearl, so-called, and another taken in the deeper and finer accretions of a natural pearl. But I leave to my reader the pleasures of this diversion.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring, I would conclude, is a playful vanitas. The girl reminds us that life and its preoccupations are but evanescent ephemeralities, and that any philosophical sureties, if we credit them, can be but wispy conceits. We are ephemeral and wispy in a futile response to an uncomfortable metaphysical irritant. Our pretendings and ponderings are only stutterings and stumblings in the face of a disconcerting void deep within us.
There is a learnéd debate about who the model was for the portrait. The scholars argue that the model is likely a daughter of Vermeer. Perhaps she is. But this debate is beside the point. I would argue that she is us! The painting is a mirror in which we encounter ourselves. The Girl is a reflection of who we truly are. In this painting we not only the observer, but we are also the observed! We catch ourselves in an intimate moment of candor.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring is more than worthy of her fame. She is of an exquisite artistic value but most of all of a value terribly human. One might say that these two qualities make of her a paradox. She represents the consummate skill of an accomplished artist, and yet she also represents the ultimate nothingness of this very skill and of all human accomplishment.
We are all tronies! We are in appearance more or less stock characters, and in essence we are truly no one in particular. Behind our vain persona is the nothingness of our humanity. And how vain we can be! Yet with our vanity we can but make a doomed attempt to elude the terror of our humanity and its inexorable emptiness.
Johannes Vermeer took what was an artistic convention, and in the Girl with a Pearl Earring he transcended the convention. Indeed, he transcended human life itself and all our conventions!