Why is Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” Considered a Masterpiece?: An Animated Introduction

Long­time Open Cul­ture read­ers will have encoun­tered Johannes Ver­meer here in var­i­ous forms: his paint­ings have appeared as ani­ma­tions, as the sub­ject of a doc­u­men­tary, and even free for the down­load in high res­o­lu­tion as well as view­able in aug­ment­ed real­i­ty. Though paint­ed in the mid-17th-cen­tu­ry Nether­lands, the Dutch mas­ter’s work now appeals to mod­ern view­ers every­where. Most who enter Ver­meer’s world pass through the gate­way of Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring, his 1665 por­trait of just that. What is it about that young lady against a plain black back­ground, so much sim­pler an image than the detailed domes­tic inte­ri­ors that con­sti­tute most of Ver­meer’s oeu­vre, that cap­ti­vates us?

In the TED-Ed les­son above, art his­to­ri­an James Ear­le places Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring in con­text with the rest of Ver­meer’s work, reveal­ing how it fits in as well as how it stands apart. “Instead of being like a set piece in a the­atri­cal nar­ra­tive scene, she becomes a psy­cho­log­i­cal object,” Ear­le says. “Her eye con­tact and slight­ly part­ed lips, as if she is about to say some­thing, draw us into her gaze” — one aspect of what’s made the paint­ing’s rep­u­ta­tion as “the Mona Lisa of the North.”

Though not a mem­ber of the nobil­i­ty or cler­gy, the tra­di­tion­al sources for sub­jects of por­trai­ture in Ver­meer’s day, this “anony­mous girl” is enno­bled by how the artist depicts her. This reflects the chang­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic real­i­ties of the Nether­lands at the time, a coun­try that had “turned against the rul­ing aris­toc­ra­cy and the Catholic Church.”

Cities like Ver­meer’s home­town of Delft, Ear­le tells us, “were unsu­per­vised by kings or bish­ops, so many artists like Ver­meer were left with­out tra­di­tion­al patrons.” But the ascen­dant mer­chant class, dri­ven by the inno­va­tion of the Dutch East India Com­pa­ny, pro­duced new ones. These mid­dle-class patrons pre­ferred to be depict­ed with sym­bols of their own world­li­ness: maps hang­ing on the wall in domes­tic inte­ri­ors, or more osten­ta­tious­ly the “ori­en­tal tur­ban” worn by the sub­ject of Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring. They also tend­ed to appear with sym­bols of wealth of the kind almost par­o­died by the implau­si­bly large pearl ear­ring itself. “Like­ly just a glass or tin drop var­nished to look like a pearl,” the object nonethe­less appears to poss­es con­sid­er­able shape and weight” — at least before “a detailed view shows that it’s just a float­ing smudge of paint.” But what a smudge, in the behold­ing of which “we are remind­ed of Ver­meer’s pow­er as an illu­sion-mak­er.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load All 36 of Jan Vermeer’s Beau­ti­ful­ly Rare Paint­ings (Most in Bril­liant High Res­o­lu­tion)

Mas­ter of Light: A Close Look at the Paint­ings of Johannes Ver­meer Nar­rat­ed by Meryl Streep

Paint­ings by Car­avag­gio, Ver­meer, & Oth­er Great Mas­ters Come to Life in a New Ani­mat­ed Video

See the Com­plete Works of Ver­meer in Aug­ment­ed Real­i­ty: Google Makes Them Avail­able on Your Smart­phone

Inge­nious Impro­vised Recre­ations of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring, Using Mate­ri­als Found Around the House

Meet Noto­ri­ous Art Forg­er Han Van Meegeren, Who Fooled the Nazis with His Coun­ter­feit Ver­meers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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