Known as "the Mona Lisa of the North", Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" has become one of the most iconic artworks in history. But who was the woman who inspired it?
We all recognize it and have been enticed by her mysterious and enigmatic stare. But who’s the girl that inspired Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece? In the 2003 film Girl with a Pearl Earring, we’re introduced to Griet, a young beautiful girl, played by Scarlett Johansson, who works as a maid after her painter father goes blind. The owner of the house where she works is none other than Vermeer, and that's where the story begins. One day she’s asked to clean the master’s studio, and she finally meets the famous artist. They both start talking to each other about art, paint, light techniques, and colors, and he gets really intrigued by this young maid with knowledge about art. Naturally, he becomes very fond of her, but not in the cheesy and romantic way. So, was this Griet real? Why did he paint her?
In the movie, when Vermeer’s patron sees her, he becomes extremely infatuated with her, to the point that he asks Vermeer if he can take her as his maid, which he refuses politely. In exchange, he offers to paint her for him. Now, this film is actually an adaptation of a 1999 novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier. The novel is a historical fiction inspired by the emblematic painting and the mysterious life of Vermeer, but there’s actually no evidence to prove the story, and I don’t think it was never Chevalier’s intention to pass it in that way. Then, if this isn’t the story, which is? What’s behind the artwork that has been popularly known as “The Mona Lisa of the North”?
As I said, very little is known about the artist's life, so we can't even know if his model even existed. What it’s known is that he was a famous artist in his small town of Delft in the Netherlands, but since most of his paintings were actually bought by his main patron to decorate his house, he didn’t really have an international acknowledgment. Another crucial factor to understand the mystery behind the model's identity can be traced to the last years of Vermeer's life. Wealthy people stopped buying his work due to the economic crisis caused by the Franco-Dutch War of 1672. As a result, he was highly in debt and, according to his wife, all those pressures sickened him and caused his death. She had to renounce to basically all their properties and will, so his work ended up in hands of his creditors.
Besides that, he never had an apprentice as many artists have had, so there’s isn’t really a school of Vermeer. That obscurity was probably the reason why he was barely or not even mentioned in the major books of the time talking about the Golden Age of Dutch painting, like Arnold Houbraken’s Grand Theatre of Dutch Painters and Women Artists. He was forgotten until the nineteenth century, when two critics discovered his work and decided to write an essay on him and his work, including his Girl with a Pearl Earring.
It was first auctioned in 1881, and it wasn’t in the best condition. According to Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis Gallery at The Hague and the precinct that hosts the painting, when it was first exhibited for the auction, it was all filthy, to the point that people didn’t really know what it was and the value it had. It was acquired by an art collector, and thanks to the sudden interest people started to have towards this obscure Dutch artist, it soon became a sensation. But the popularity of the painting really came by the late twentieth century, when it was borrowed to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in the nineties. The painting was selected to be the center of all publicity, and its captivating and alluring expressions ended up conquering the world.
Still, no matter how famous and how many have devoted their careers to its study, one of the very few things we know is that it was painted around 1665. Of course, there are diverse theories, including her being his daughter or even his mistress. Others believe she never actually existed and was just a product of his style to portray human figures, which could also be possible. Now, what we do know is that the painting isn’t really a portrait as many believed for years, but a type of painting known as tronie. These were studies of busts dressed in exotic clothing and were kind of popular at the time. For instance, the turban she’s wearing doesn't really belong to the fashion of his time. These paintings were a window for people to travel to a fantasy realm, and the pearl is also evidence of it. What art critics claim is that the piece is definitely too big to be actually real, since it would have weighed too much.
So, to wrap things up, we might never know who she was, and that’s actually what makes the enigma of the painting so alluring. The fact that she’s not really facing at the spectator or that her mouth is open, as if she were saying something, invites the spectator to fill in the blanks with their own imagination. Many believe that this isn’t even Vermeer’s best work, but it has become so popular to the point that it is considered a masterpiece of art history, precisely due to this unresolved mystery. More than that, actually discovering her identity would be taking that enigmatic essence that attracts millions of visitors every year or that inspires many to honor the painting.
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