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  • 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 sightlines, 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 8 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—a 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.

Is she turning towards you or away from you?

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B1 TED-Ed vermeer pearl earring dutch girl

【TED-Ed】Why is Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring" considered a masterpiece? - James Earle

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    April Lu posted on 2020/10/11
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