To find out the story of one of the world’s most iconic paintings, and how it keeps yielding its secrets, you should visit a small museum in the Dutch city of the Hague.
The compact Mauritshuis (Maurice House) is dedicated to artists of the Dutch Golden Age, from roughly 1580 to 1670, when this small nation facing the North Sea was a major maritime power on the top of its game in trade, science, military and art.
The collection covers most of the masters of the era, notably Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Rembrandt, who died at about age 60 in 1669, mastered not just painting but drawing and printmaking. In contrast, Vermeer left only 34 known paintings, of which three are in the Mauritshuis – including the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Vermeer spent his entire but relatively short life, from about 1632 to 1675, in the Delft in the western Netherlands. In this, leafy canal city famed for its tapestries, porcelain and breweries, the artist painted scenes of middle class life. Not only did he not venture far from Delft, he produced all of his paintings in two rooms of his house. Only three paintings were of outside scenes, including the much acclaimed landscape, A view of Delft. The fact that Vermeer had at least 10 children, that he spent many months completing each painting and preferred to paint with expensive pigments, meant that he died in debt – all of this the midst of the six-year Franco Dutch War.
Following his death Vermeer remained largely forgotten in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Many of his works were included in important collections and fetched high prices, but were often attributed to other artists, a state of affairs that did not change until about 1850, when Vermeer was rediscovered by the German museum director Gustav Waagen and the French journalist and critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger.
Girl with a Pearl Earring remained unknown until 1881, when it appeared at an auction in The Hague. The art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe bought the neglected painting for a mere two guilders, plus the buyer’s premium of 30 cents. Des Tombe died in 1902, and with no heirs, bequeathed 12 paintings to the Mauritshuis, including Girl with a Pearl Earring.
To this day, the painting continues to raise questions among art lovers and historians. New research discovered that Vermeer made changes to the composition as he painted: the position of the ear, the top of the headscarf and the back of the neck were shifted.
“The research identified and accurately mapped Vermeer’s colour palette in this painting for the first time,” says Abbie Vandivere, Head of The Girl in the Spotlight project and conservator at the Mauritshuis, on the museum’s website.
“The raw materials for the colours came from all over the world: regions that today belong to Mexico and Central America, England and possibly Asia or the West Indies. Vermeer’s liberal use of high-quality ultramarine in the headscarf and the jacket is striking.
“Made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli that came from what is now Afghanistan, the preparation of natural ultramarine was time-consuming and laborious. In the 17th century, the pigment was more precious than gold. One discovery from the recent project is that the stone may have first been heated at a high temperature, which made it easier to grind and produced a more intense blue colour.”
At the time Vermeer painted, the Dutch were a major maritime trading nation, and such pigments would have been available in Delft, although lapis lazuli – of which he used a fair amount to paint the girl’s turban – would have been extremely expensive.
Technically Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait, but a type of study referred to in Vermeer’s day as a tronie. They depict a certain type of character, not a specific person, often caught in a candid moment. In this case the girl is wearing an oriental turban and an enormous pearl in her ear.
The Girl with a Pearl Earring was title of a 1999 novel by Tracey Chevalier and was adapted to film in 2003, starring Scarlett Johansson as Griet, a young servant in the household of Vermeer, played by Colin Firth. It received generally favourable reviews and grossed US$31.4 million worldwide. It was nominated for 10 British Academy Film Awards, three Academy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards.
One mystery that still remains, perhaps forever, is the identity of the girl – or if indeed she ever existed. But such is its fame that staff at the Mauritshuis refer to the painting as “she”. The museum has been closed during the coronavirus crisis, but plans to reopen on June 1.