Vermeer, “Girl with Pearl Earring”


Johannes Vermeer,
“The Girl with Pearl Earring”

The faint blush on her cheeks, a symbol of coyness and modesty, is only a ruse. She is direct and profound and her gaze affirms that; the two gray-blue orbs fixed on the viewer. Surely, a shy girl would have eyes downcast. Her lips also affirm her directness and apparent desirability; they are slightly opened and red with youth. Surely, a shy girl would have her lips shut tight, and her face indifferent and wall-like. Again, she is not shy, and Vermeer does not depict her as being that way. He depicts her as a beauty, one rivaling Venus, and as desirable, but in a modest way. He does not display her beauty in the way that Bouguereau would—with eyes turned skyward and with hair overflowing over bare shoulders and breasts—he displays her in a way that requires the viewer to see past her physicality. The viewer takes in the eyes and lips and skin, the symbols of her beauty, but also takes in her clothes that mark her as a working-woman—in many ways, an ordinary woman. Then the eyes linger on that tear-shaped pearl—that mysterious token that adorns her dainty ear—and how it contradicts her clothes, but affirms her beauty. The pearl inspires questions in us, as its existence with her is baffling. When we look closely at the pearl, we see that it is nothing more than three brushstrokes: one oblong white stroke, one rectangular, grayish stroke, and one tiny, circular stroke—all that exist without touching. The pearl, then, is an illusion, a fabrication of our imagination, a trick played on us by our eyes. Perhaps, the girl is an illusion as well.

–Amara Johnson