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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring, ca. 1665, Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer
She was first featured in a painting. In modern times she has inspired a novel, a motion picture, a stage play, a Barbie Doll, and the backside of a Bristol, England, apartment building. Yet, despite all this we don't even know her name. In 1999, Tracy Chevalier called her Griet, though the name is as fictional as her novel, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the 2003 motion picture starring Scarlett Johansson based upon the novel. We know she was probably a servant girl in the extensive household of the painter, Johannes Vermeer (who had eleven children). The painting isn't dated so, as with its subject, all we can do is conjecture. The best guess is around 1665. And perhaps most ironic of all, the pear-shaped "pearl" earring was fake, probably made of polished tin or glass. A man with a wife and eleven kids to feed could hardly have afforded such an outsized bauble.
The painting, as seen today in the Mauritshuis Museum
(below) in The Hague.
Sometimes referred to as “the Dutch Mona Lisa”, The Girl with a Pearl Earring was painted by Johannes Vermeer. Relatively little is known about the artist and his works, and this painting is no exception. It is unclear whether the painting was commissioned, and if so, by whom. In any case, it is probably not meant as a conventional portrait, but a "tronie," the Dutch term for an unconventional portrait, basically a painted head. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is universally recognized as Johannes Vermeer's absolute masterwork. Yet the painting remained in complete obscurity until it was rediscovered in 1882 and sold for two guilders (about €24 or $28 today), the price of a reproduction. At the time the painting was in poor condition. Thus a number of questions arise. Did Vermeer sell the painting during his lifetime? Why was the original background a deep, transparent green rather than the black we see today? What significance did the turban have? Which painting procedures did Vermeer employ? Which pigments did he use? Was it drawn using a camera obscura?

The Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, Netherlands,
where Vermeer's masterpiece resides today.
Girl with a Pearl Earring,
1999, Tracy Chevalier
After the most recent restoration of the painting in 1994, the subtle color scheme has been greatly enhanced. During the restoration, it was discovered that the dark background, today somewhat mottled, was initially intended by the painter to be a deep enamel-like green. This effect was produced by applying a thin, trans-parent glaze, over the present-day black background. However, the two organic pigments of the green glaze, indigo and weld (both plant dyes), have faded. The ground is dense and yellowish in color and is composed of chalk, lead white, ocher and a little black. The dark back-ground of the painting contains bone black, weld, chalk, small amounts of red ochre, and indigo. The face and draperies were painted mainly using ochres, natural ultramarine, bone black, charcoal black and lead white. So, given its mundane essence, why is Girl with a Pearl Earring considered such a masterpiece of the painter's art? Click on the video below, which explains the details better than I ever could.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is also a 1999 historical novel written by Tracy Chevalier. Set in 17th century Delft, Holland, the novel was inspired by Delft school painter Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl with a Pearl Earring (above, right). Chevalier presents a fictional account of Vermeer, the model, and the painting. The novel was adapted into a 2003 film of the same name and a 2008 play. When published in the United States in January 2000, the book became a New York Times bestseller, going on to sell over two million copies in thirty-six languages.

Scarlett Johansson as Griet, the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The movie poster for
the 2003 film based
on the novel.
Screenwriter, Olivia Hetreed, read the novel before its publication. She and her husband's production company convinced Chevalier to sell the film rights. Initially, the production was to feature Kate Hudson as Griet with Mike Newell directing. Hudson withdrew shortly before filming began, however, and the film was placed in hiatus until the hiring of director Peter Webber, who re-initiated the casting process. As his feature film debut, Webber sought to avoid employing traditional characteristics of the period film drama. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra used distinctive lighting and color schemes similar to Vermeer's paintings. Scarlett Johansson starred as Griet, a young 17th-century servant in the household of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer (played by Colin Firth) and set in the city of Delft, Holland. When released in December, 2003, Girl with a Pearl Earring earned a worldwide gross of over $31-million (from a $10-million budget). It garnered mostly positive reviews with critics praising the film's visuals and performances while ques-tioning elements of its story. The film was subsequently nominated for ten British film awards, three Academy Awards, and two Golden Globe Awards.

And finally, a 2014 mural by street artist, Banksy, was been painted on a wall in his home city of Bristol, England. The image, a parody of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, was posted on his website. Girl with a Pierced Eardrum is painted on a building in Hanover Place in the city's Harbourside district. It incorporates an alarm box as the model's earring. The work was vandalized within 24-hours after its appearance with splotches of black paint (below).

Girl with the Pierced Eardrum, 2014,
Banksy, Bristol, England.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
the Barbie version, Mariel Clayton


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