Why is Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” considered a masterpiece? – James Earle


Is she turning towards you
or away from you? No one can agree. She’s the mysterious subject
of Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” a painting often referred to
as the ‘Mona Lisa of the North.’ Belonging to a Dutch style of idealized,
sometimes overly expressive paintings known as tronies, the “Girl with the Pearl Earring”
has the allure and subtlety characteristic
of Vermeer’s work. But this painting stands apart from
the quiet narrative scenes that we observe from afar in many
of Vermeer’s paintings. A girl reading a letter. A piano lesson. A portrait artist at work. These paintings give us a sense of
intimacy while retaining their distance, a drawn curtain often emphasizes
the separation. We can witness a milkmaid
serenely pouring a bowl of milk, but that milk isn’t for us. We’re only onlookers. The studied composition
in Vermeer’s paintings invokes a balanced harmony. With the checkered floor in many
of his works, Vermeer demonstrates his command
of perspective and foreshortening. That’s a technique that uses distortion to give the illusion
of an object receding into the distance. Other elements, like sight lines,
mirrors, and light sources describe the moment through space
and position. The woman reading
a letter by an open window is precisely placed so the window
can reflect her image back to the viewer. Vermeer would even hide the leg
of an easel for the sake of composition. The absence of these very elements brings
the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” to life. Vermeer’s treatment of light and shadow,
or chiaroscuro, uses a dark, flat background to further
spotlight her three-dimensionality. Instead of being like a set piece
in a theatrical narrative scene, she becomes a psychological subject. Her eye contact and slightly parted lips,
as if she is about to say something, draw us into her gaze. Traditional subjects of portraiture
were often nobility or religious figures. So why was Vermeer painting
an anonymous girl? In the 17th century, the city of Delft,
like the Netherlands in general, had turned against ruling aristocracy
and the Catholic church. After eight decades of rebellion
against Spanish power, the Dutch came to favor the idea
of self-rule and a political republic. Cities like Delft were unsupervised
by kings or bishops, so many artists like Vermeer
were left without traditional patrons. Fortunately, business innovation spearheaded by
the Dutch East India Company transformed the economic landscape
in the Netherlands. It created a merchant class
and new type of patron. Wishing to be represented
in the paintings they financed, these merchants preferred
middle class subjects depicted in spaces that looked
like their own homes surrounded by familiar objects. The maps that appear in Vermeer’s
paintings, for example, were considered fashionable and worldly by the merchant class of what is known
as the Dutch Golden Age. The oriental turban worn by the “Girl
with the Pearl Earring” also emphasizes the worldliness
of the merchant class, and the pearl itself, a symbol of wealth,
is actually an exaggeration. Vermeer couldn’t have afforded
a real pearl of its size. It was likely just a glass or tin drop
varnished to look like a pearl. This mirage of wealth is mirrored
in the painting itself. In greater context, the pearl appears
round and heavy, but a detailed view shows that it’s
just a floating smudge of paint. Upon close inspection, we are reminded
of Vermeer’s power as an illusion maker. While we may never know the real identity
of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” we can engage with her portrait
in a way that is unforgettable. As she hangs in her permanent home
in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, her presence is simultaneously penetrating
and subtle. In her enigmatic way, she represents
the birth of a modern perspective on economics, politics, and love.

100 thoughts on “Why is Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” considered a masterpiece? – James Earle

  1. I wouldn't call it just a floating smudge of paint, looks pretty realistic even up close.

  2. Would a photo I take with my phone have any less meaning? If not, why?

  3. She appears to me as if she is turning towards because her left eye has gone as far as it could go to see who or what she is turning towards.

  4. She is so beautiful, makes me wonder what all the beautiful people of that time looked like, far before plastic surgery and Instagram obsession

  5. She’s very beautiful, the first time I saw this painting I was stunned. And I’m no art critic or fanatic.

  6. Ive always thought that the girl is somehow very suprised of “our” presence

    Not that we are not meant to be there
    She was not meant to be there

    You can trust my opinion because I’m a 13 year old Dutch boyyy

    ^^^^^^
    Joke

  7. Why do you care about who the girl in the painting is! She is dead and her skeleton may also have vanished by now! Just enjoy the painting man!!

  8. I just saw her yesterday in the Mauritshuis because of this video ❤️

  9. One day, I'm gonna show my art in an exhibit and people will wonder and theorise about my artwork, and one day, many years later, I'm going to answer their questions with, "Idk I just drew some random chick lol"
    Unless I don't get into an exhibit, which is highly likely.

  10. Nah.. She just want my fries that I'm eating while watching this

  11. She looks like she's wanting a pearl necklace to go with the earrings.

  12. "Is she turning towards you or away from you?" bro her body is clearly facing left… doesn't take a genius to figure that out

  13. I don't know much about art but it's true that this painting is very memorable. I first saw this portrait at the back of a very old edition of Reader's Digest magazine when I was still in grade school. I have never forgotten her face since.

    Along with very memorable artworks for me are The Scream, The Pieta, Starry night. Too common, I know. Famous. But from where I grew up, people has little to no knowledge about art, let alone western art. I just learned their names probably in college. So those are real art, because they commanded your brain to remember their images for a long time.

  14. Even Netherlands started prospering and had a golden age because of India!

  15. i always see it as forlorn glance. An expression of immense longing and within it a glimmer of hope. almost as if shes expecting a reply.

  16. I had the picture of this painting in one of my encyclopaedias. I didn't know why I used to stare at it for a while whenever I stumbled upon it while turning pages. I knew there's something special about it.

  17. Artists normally do not think about everything in paintings they just paint what they think to paint. Most of the painting choices were subliminal. So your interpretation is just as valid as anyone else. It does not matter if the artist intended for a deeper meaning or not the painting still has that meaning to the people who interpret it that way.

  18. unsubbed because of the glorification of the VOC and colonialism. Bad on you.

  19. I tried to make this painting… really really hard for me… you should make a teenage girl without eyebrow but still look pretty and a bit smile on her lips but she look really really smile on all her face skin and eyes…

  20. I just imagined Bad Guy music goes when i approach her, and when she turned around she said "duh."

  21. This painting is so much better than the mona lisa purely due to the incredible use of light, she look like shes sat in front of a light box before electrical lighting was even invented!

  22. Me after watching the video: so why is it considered masterpiece? 🤔

  23. The earring is hammered silver. A pearl that large would never be worn by a simple peasant girl.

  24. Vermeer paved the way for other artists(and Dutch Masters) to capture and express the glow and fixation of the way light is represented onto a canvas an/or subject.The play between the golden and brightness of the lighting are true genius.

  25. She toured the country a few years ago and came to San Fran. Im 3 hours away. I wanted to see her soo bad and I missed her. Someday I will see her.

  26. Probably the most embarrassing TED-ED ever. Did this video maker not know about Tim's Vermeer, the movie that explained how Vermeer "painted photographs" centuries before there were any photographs? Vermeer was not making choices about what color to paint the pearl. The shades on that pearl are the exact shades that would have appeared on a color photograph taken at that moment, because Vermeer painted using lenses that were centuries ahead of his time.

  27. Art is not a planned static work. It happens, it flows. Art is a dynamic expression.

  28. She just looks so ethereal and quiet. It feels so calm and like she’s just about to warmly smile at you.

  29. I don't get it. What does Vermeer painting a pearl has to do with him not being able to afford a real one?

  30. he painted so well because he used technology: optical methods (lens) or/together camera obscura

  31. I think that she is shy and a little afraid. He liked her face because she is beautiful. She is shy and enigmatic and he wanted to give her that Mona Lisa quality by drawing her without eyebrows. He wanted to see how her face would look like with a jewel but didn't want the pearl to steal the beauty of her face. That's why he decided to put her in that position. The light falls beautifully on her face and the jewel gives that glim of light that we imagine only a maiden from an aristocratic family would have. I feel that he painted early in the morning because the light is cold. Just like when the sun comes up and the room is still dark.He thought of her as a girl who could be of an aristocratic family because she is aristocratic. He liked her beauty so much that didn't want her hair to hide any part of her face that is why she wears the turban. Also the fabric of it is luxurius to bring out more her aristicracy. Also a half open mouth with wet lips is a sign of sensuality. I think that this is what he was thinking about her and I can imagine how fast his heart would bit and how much he would like to kiss her and he couldn't so he draw her just to bring her close to him. This is just my romantic opinion. I am not an art critic. Just a romantic.

  32. We may never know, the painter might not have thought that much when making the art as we do right now.

  33. I have taken art history twice in college and this is the first time I have actually appreciated the elements of Vermeer's paintings. They were always beautiful to me but this video did a great job in demonstrating those pesky vocabulary terms that I only ever memorized.

  34. What if it was his first love? You know the moment you first saw someone and she looks on your way and everything just seems to be in slow motion.

  35. Some: "Is she turning away?"
    Others: "Is she turning towards?"
    Me: "… She's looking at me"

  36. Just saw here a few hours ago in Den Haag. She's magnetic. This is the third time I see her live, but every time I just can't walk away from her. I stood there for like half an hour and I couldn't move, or look away. This painting is true magic.

  37. Or maybe he saw her in the street and while he was walking she looked back at him (not on purpose) and thought she was so beautiful and his only focus was on her and went home and painted her through memory idk

  38. 4:10 is that a filter that turns the photo of the museum into a painting?

  39. She wants you to come up behind and kiss her neck…to start. Here eyes tell.

  40. She was just talking to her self about how much she hates you and then you walked in

  41. It looks like somebody said something to her and she turned and she was about to speak like somebody maybe said you look very lovely tonight and she turned and gave them a look the look that's in her eyes looks like that to me.

    It's very simple but it says a lot I think it's a fantastic painting not because the world says it is or because everybody thinks it is I like other paintings that people don't think are that great but I will tell you this is a thousand times better than the Mona Lisa I've been to the Louvre Museum and seen the Mona Lisa what a disappointment I would love to see this painting and reality.

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