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.”
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.