A simple, luminous beauty: a young girl wearing a turban on her head with a single pearl earring hanging from her earlobe, slightly off-centre of the canvas. Why did the Dutch painter, Jan (also known as Johannes) Vermeer (1632-1675), choose a single pearl earring over rubies and sapphires? Why does the simplicity of his subject and his composition in addition to the luminosity of his use of light and colour still fascinate the viewer?
These elements were enough to fascinate American author, Tracie Chevalier (b. 1962), who wrote an historical novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring in 2001, on this very subject. Her novel became the basis for the movie with the same title in 2003. While female beauty remains a hallmark of art throughout the centuries, the relationship between women and jewelry raises new questions; yet, Vermeer’s masterpiece promises much more than just the pearl earring.
A Simple Subject
Vermeer’s paintings were always small. Girl with a Pearl Earring measures only 46.5 by 40 cm. He used simple, commonplace subject matter. At first glance, Girl with a Pearl Earring is merely an ordinary young girl in a turban, wearing a single pearl earring and looking out of the canvas at the viewer.
Vermeer captured common people, mostly women, going about their everyday chores in his paintings much like the camera would capture a subject a few centuries later. A woman holding a water jug, a woman sleeping, a milkmaid, a woman reading, as biography.com points out, two of his trademarks are “his realistic renderings of figures and objects and his fascination with light.”
Domesticity and everyday life became, in Vermeer’s paintings, a reflective thing of simple beauty. His works were realistic and popular to the local population of his hometown of Delft, Netherlands. “Thus,” as Artble points out, “he can be described as a painter of the people for the people.”
The simple composition and the commonplace scenes in Vermeer’s paintings, become something quite extraordinary. “Vermeer,” as Helen Gardner writes Art Through the Ages, “in his lighting and composing of the scene, raises it to the level of some holy, sacramental act.” There is a beauty in the humble piety of Vermeer’s characters, the scenes and the composition.
Mirrors and the Master of Light and Colour
Vermeer was a constant student of light. He made use of mirrors and he used the camera obscura, an ancestor of the modern camera. This device had a tiny pinhole which acted as a lens and projected an image upon a screen or a wall.
Others used the camera obscura to copy an image directly from its projection. But that wasn’t Vermeer’s intent. He was a perfectionist, using the camera obscura to help him create the perfect compositional stability and arrangement. Using the limited colours available in Delft at the time, Vermeer was able to create an image of calm and serenity. According to Garner, his colour was “so true to the optical facts and so subtly modulated that it suggests Vermeer was far ahead of his time in colour science.”
Vermeer’s masterful use of colour indicated the artist’s understanding of light and shadow, both which are not, as many earlier artists believed, devoid of colour. According to Gardner, experts suggest that Vermeer “perceived the phenomenon called by photographers disks of confusion. These appear in out-of-focus films, and Vermeer could have seen them in images projected by the primitive lenses of the camera obscura.”
Vermeer’s technique was to use the camera obscura and mirrors to capture the minutest of details in his subject, to highlight aspects of surfaces and objects with stark lighting conditions creating spectacular effects. The entire process allowed Vermeer more flexibility in creating moods and atmosphere in his paintings, giving an almost three-dimensional realism as well as some deep psychological experience with the model in this single captured moment.
Brushwork and Line Drawing
Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring in a cool, silvery palette. The composition itself is laid out to make the best use of the light and dark areas to compliment the composition. The ground colour is thick, a yellowish-white layer with lead white; he created the dark background and the deep shadows of the figure, using a mixture of black and earth pigments as well as some paler ochers.
Arthur Wheelock’s exhibition catalogue “Johannes Vermeer” goes on to point out that “The shadow of her nose was underpainted with red lake while the highlights on her nose, right cheek and forehead have a thick, cream colored underpaint. The turban was painted with varying shades of an ultramarine and lead-white mixture; wet-in-wet, over which a blue glaze was applied, except in the highlights. A thin, off-white scumble of paint over the brown shadow of the girl’s neck defines the pearl, and is painted more opaquely at the bottom where the pearl reflects the white collar. Small hairs from Vermeer’s brush are found in the half-tones of the flesh areas.”
The Painter’s Palette
Paint colours were hard to attain in the seventeenth-century and what colours were available provided a very limited range. The artist purchased the paint in a raw powder form from an apothecary and the artist would grind up and mix the powder with water. The powder was very expensive, so the painter had to use the paint frugally.
The expense, however, did not seem to stop the cash-strapped artist in Vermeer. He insisted on using great quantities of ultramarine, which was very expensive. Ultramarine was very rare, being made from pigments of the crushed lapis lazuli, a semi-precious gem stone.
Vermeer didn’t just use ultramarine here and there in the painting; he used it as an undercoat, a primer in effect, underneath the entire painting. So why would an artist whose main income was his paintings, one who painted very few works in his entire life, insist on using one of the most expensive materials in his work? According to Artble, Vermeer used ultramarine to, “enhance the painting’s visual quality and surface which, he believed, resulted in his techniques being enhanced.”
Every painter needs his/her palette: the kaleidoscope of colour possibilities that make the painting come to life. Chevalier captured this very well in her book and the movie tried to mimic the opening scene. The scene captures the young girl who became the model in Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665-7), in her mother’s kitchen cutting up vegetables. Not an unusual task in itself, but the girl arranges the vegetables on a platter with the distinct colour coordination that a painter would use to mix paint on his palette.
Vermeer was very particular about his colours. He wanted top-quality paint and mixed it in a very particular manner. Both the book and movie highlight this, asking the reader or viewer to consider why colour plays such an important role to this artist?
Neither the book nor movie provide an evident answer to this important question. Instead, the artist’s finished paintings offer the answer even there are very few, only 35 according to the Rijks Museum. Vermeer was a very particular painter, seeking ultimate perfection. If the colours weren’t right, he believed that the painting, was incomplete, and even inadequate.
The Simple Girl and Luminous Pearl
In the painting, novel and film, Girl with a Pearl Earring is a study in light and colour; one artist’s vision of the simplicity of life as represented in one simple jewel: the pearl.