|Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mauritshuis|
By Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief
Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring ended its visit to San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum today.
This work was part of an exhibition of thirty-five 17th century Dutch paintings on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Maurithuis in The Hague. Girl with a Pearl Earring is considered not a portrait but a “tronie”, the study of an anonymous face meant to portray certain characters or types rather than recognizable persons, but this has not stopped viewers from speculating on the sitter’s identity.
In Tracy Chevalier’s 2001 novel titled after the painting, the author speculates that the girl in the painting is a peasant maid employed in the Vermeer household. Art historian Benjamin Binstock proposes in his book Vermeer’s Family Secrets that the model is Johannes Vermeer’s daughter Maria, who helped the family of 11 surviving children (four died young) produce paintings as her father’s unofficial apprentice until her marriage. Vermeer, the artist of The View of Delft and The Astronomer, died at the age of 43. His work went unrecognized for almost two centuries until rehabilitated by the French writer Théophile Thoré in 1866. The Mauritshuis purchased Diana and Her Nymphs in 1876 as a painting by Nicholaes Maes (1634-1693). At an auction in 1881 in The Hague, The Girl with a Pearl Earring sold for “two guilders, plus the buyer’s premium of thirty cents”, according to Quentin Buvelot and Ariane van Suchtelen in the chapter “Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer: The Dutch Mona Lisa” in the exhibit’s catalogue, Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis:
Over the years Vermeer’s technique became increasingly refined. His talent for using small dots of paint to create an illusion of light playing on the surface of an object is indeed masterly. This “pointillism” was applied to great effect in The Milkmaid, for example, in which countless tiny highlights make the bread rolls and earthenware seen almost palpable. It has often been surmised that this technique indicates the use of optical devices, such as the camera obscura, but there is no proof of this theory.
As for the history of Vermeer’s paintings, Buvelot and Suchtelen wrote:
The inventory of Vermeer’s possessions – drawn up in 1676, three months after his death – records “Two tronies painted in Turkish fashion.” One of these works may well have been Girl with a Pearl Earring, since her striking turban is characteristic of the traditional attire of the Ottoman Empire, to which Turkey once belonged. If so, it means that Vermeer never parted with the painting.
Twenty years later, on May 16, 1696, twenty-one paintings by Vermeer were sold at auction in Amsterdam from the estate of the Delft printer Jacob Dissius (1653-1976), who owned more than half of what is now Vermeer’s known oeuvre. This impressive collection of Vermeer’s had come from the estate of Dissius’s father-in-law, Pieter van Ruijven (1624-1674), a well-to-do Delft rentier.
The collecting history of Girl with a Pearl Earring is largely unknown:
The provenance of Girl with a Pearl Earring is unclear until 1881, when it was offered at a sale in The Hague, where the collection of a certain Mr. Braams was put up for auction. Victor de Stuers (1843-1916), an important art historian, recognized the quality of the painting and advised his friend Arnoldus des Tombe (1818-1902) to buy it.
When Des Tombe, a neighbor of the Maritshuis, died in 1902, Girl with a Pearl Earring was one of 12 paintings given to the Royal Picture Gallery. In 1995-1996, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. displayed this tronie in a Vermeer retrospective.