Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665, oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, and we’re looking at probably their most famous painting. This is Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] Well, I would say not just their most well-known painting but maybe one of the most well-known paintings generally.

Dr. Zucker: [0:17] Only recently.

Dr. Harris: [0:19] True.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] It’s a painting that really seems to have ascended in the late 20th century. It’s interesting how our society picks out certain paintings for fame and that people really fall in love with. Perhaps it’s because this was the centerpiece of a film, this was the centerpiece of a novel, and perhaps because we know so little about the painting.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] It’s interesting that this is sometimes referred to as the Dutch “Mona Lisa.” In both cases, we have bust-length portraits of women in rather indeterminate backgrounds.

[0:48] We should be careful here because this may look like a portrait to us, but in fact it’s not a portrait. The Mona Lisa is, though for a long time her identity wasn’t known. Now, we are pretty confident we know who the Mona Lisa was, but in this case, this is not a portrait.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] This is known as a tronie, that is, a representation of a character, of a particular type of person, the way that we have, for instance, in modern American situation comedies. You have the villain. You have the hero. You have a certain type of person.

Dr. Harris: [1:16] We think this is a exotic type because of her turban and her clothing seems foreign, and also that rather oversized pearl earring.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] The way that we see her from the side but she turns towards us, and so there’s something momentary, there’s something very alluring, but we’re not addressing her directly.

Dr. Harris: [1:34] It’s a lot like the Mona Lisa. In both cases, we have gazes that seem enigmatic. What are they thinking? Who are they? What is our relationship to her? They’re both paintings that really open up possibilities for interpretation, with no one correct answer.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] So much so that somebody was able to produce an entire novel based on this single painting that we know so little about.

[1:55] What we do know about this painting, though, is that its technique is really quite extraordinary. The subtlety of light is stunning, the way in which the reflectivity of the pearl is cast against the darkness of her neck.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] The softness of her features and also the harmonies of those blues and golds.

Dr. Zucker: [2:12] We know that Vermeer worked very slowly. Some art historians have suggested that he only produced perhaps just two or three paintings a year and that his technique was really painstaking. We can see that in the care in which he’s creating form out of light.

Dr. Harris: [2:26] It’s so momentary, just like we look at Dutch landscapes and we have a sense of the passage of time as the clouds move across the landscape. Here, we have that same sense of a figure who’s just turned her head and is about to speak with us or is about to engage us but we don’t know what about.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] Our eyes are just in the process of focusing on her as she meets our gaze, and so we are complicit in this moment. I think the subtlety of color and the subtlety of light, the intimacy here, all of that allows us to register this very personal moment. Perhaps this is why this painting is so beloved.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024,