The painting Girl with a Pearl Earring (Het Meisje met de Parel) is painted by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch 17th century painter whose works are highly regarded and celebrated. This specific painting is an oil on canvas, 44.5 x 39 cm painting and is currently in New York City, although it is usually hung at The Hague. This essay is a formal analysis of the Girl with a Pearl Earring; it will go through the different aspects of this painting in terms of its colour, its form and its content, discussing the many different potentials of interpretations this painting bears. None of these ideas have been researched, so if they happen to coincide with a famous critic's, or even disagree with a famous critic, it bears no affect on the effect this painting had on me, the spectator.
A Short Philosophy of Art
It is important to discuss briefly the philosophy of aesthetics that surrounds this analysis. With what mind is this analysis written, and what justifies the structure and content of this essay itself? The dismembering of art works into colours, dimensions, texture and techniques rationalises the process and takes away the immediate emotional and aesthetic affects of the painting. It takes away the mystery and the wonder that surrounds a painting, and reduces it to different logical elements and factors. The separation of form and content is false-an artwork is a piece whole in itself, and is not a conglomeration of different forms and elements when it is complete, but a work of creativity in and of itself.
Nevertheless, it is important to analyse and critique a painting to logical forms-sometimes it is one of the most valuable ways of experiencing the painting at all.
The Analysis of Girl with a Pearl Earring
This painting is of a young lady, or a younger girl, with her head turned towards the spectator (and the painter, who is both). Her profile is painted against a black background, which brings out the colours in her face and her clothes. She seems to be of European descent, which is likely considering the painter is Dutch. Her gaze is fixed at us, or whatever is beyond us, or whatever was beyond her. But her gaze is not stern but soft, making it look like she will look away at any moment while we look at her. It is difficult to say whether it is us she is interested in, or whether it is what she was looking at at that moment while she was painted. The pose she holds is not one that seems to be a purposeful one, but one that bears an air of reality-a natural pose, as some may call it.
She is wearing something brown, perhaps a coat. It covers her shoulders and her neck, and the white shirt she is wearing underneath adds a touch of sophistication to her attire. The brown, however, is not a rich, deep brown but a simple, wooden brown, which suggests she may be of a middle class household. The head covering is blue and pale yellow, and covers all of her hair. It is difficult to say what colour her hair is because of the covering, and her eyebrows are too light and match with her fair skin tone very much. She is wearing the colours of nature, suggesting a down-to-earthiness of her personality. Perhaps she loves nature, or works around nature, hence her wearing colours that seem to echo her surroundings. Brown may represent soil, while the white with is may represent a certain purity, or a regeneration of life in white flowers. The blue and the yellow echo the colours of the sky that she may work under, or the elements of the earth that she cares about.
The lighting of this painting is very telling and could be interpreted in a number of interesting ways. Where is this light that is hitting her face coming from, and why is it not shining anything in the background? In the reflection of her eyes, and in her pearl earring, you can see that there is an angle to the light that illuminates her face, and it is not from straight ahead but a little to the left. It is not some mere coincidence that the profile of her face is angled correctly to the light-she is going towards that light, and has stopped to look back. The darkness in the background is in strong contrast to the colours of her face, the emotions she is subtly expressing and the colours of her clothes. The background thus holds a sense of macabre; a grimness that surrounds this girl, and her escape seems to be towards the light. Is this girl dead, and is giving this world and the life she left behind one last look before she ascends to Heaven? If so, the dark background may suggest the corruption and worldly immorality that surrounds us, making this a very Christian painting. She could be facing a choice, between going towards the light, or being enveloped in the darkness. Since the source of the light is mysterious, it echoes the blind faith that is required to believe in God, as we cannot see Him. Her gaze may be a mirroring of similar choices we have to make in our lives, whether we believe in God or not, and her expectant, sad look holds that struggle.
However, the validity of almost every interpretation of the painting is based on the initial interpretation of her facial expression. Her expression seems to be sorrowful, or pensive - perhaps she was expecting or dreading a call, someone who was about to call for her and she looked back with a certain disappointment, a fear or dread that what she was bothered about may actually unravel. But because she is looking at us, perhaps it is us that she is disappointed in, or us that she is dreading. Is it a reflection of our guilts that we project into her, and her expression tells us the tale of our own sins? She has caught us sinning, and this 'natural pose' is of the precise moment she realises that we have failed. Her lack of wrinkles or stress lines represent an innocence and naivete, so maybe something has scarred her, and this moment is the first time she has suffered a worry. However, the maturity in her face, and the sadness that the contours of her eyes are made of, imply a very different type of girl, one who has suffered a lot and is saddened by the corruption she sees. The shine in her eyes makes her look like she is about to cry, and her parted lips seem like she is about to say something, or wants to say something, but the parted lips are an expression in itself and she may feel that in itself is sufficient.
It may also be that something has suddenly caught her attention, and she has looked back, not in a manner of surprise but of expectancy. Again, it is difficult to miss the sorrowful emotion in her face, and the intense gaze that keeps getting stronger the more we look at her. She is looking back at us, or maybe even lower, at our hearts, looking straight into our soul, the substantia et essentia of a person-our passions, our sins, our guilts, our freedoms and our illusions of privacy are all imbibed and sucked out by one look. But perhaps her look of disappointment is actually a look of worry, in which case she actually cares to help us, to make us see ourselves and in that fix ourselves, or repent.
It is important to discuss her pearl earring. After all, it is mentioned in the title of the painting, which is usually the first thing people might notice after noticing the girl's eyes. Why is she the girl with "a" pearl earring? Is it because we can only see this one side of hers, and so this is the reality of her figure for us? Vermeer might be suggesting that reality is subjective, and whatever angle we see of the girl is what is true to us, so it does not matter if we are told she is wearing another earring, because we only see one. He might be playing with our minds and challenging us to question reality versus actuality i.e. what is it that we perceive versus what we think reality is. Also, what is so important about the shape of the earring? Her earring seems to be shaped like a tear, but the strokes of the painting suggest it is quite a heavy earring. Is her life summed up in one heavy tear that she must wear as a sort of adornment to her personality? It is an appendage, and as long as she wears it it remains a part of her. The shape of the pearl earring could also imply a social class-maybe she is actually of a higher class but chooses to live humbly and modestly. There is not an air of affluence about her, although there certainly is a lot of elegance in her being. Her round, deep eyes, her parted lips, her soft skin and the glow on her face all contribute to the elegance of her profile. She may be wearing the only thing that is telling of her wealth. In which case the pearl earring is indicative of her richness, not her sadness. This is not to say that it could not be both, of course.
Another interesting aspect of her earring is its position. It does not seem attached to her but sort of suspended near her ear. It suggests some type of flow of sorrow, some type of freeness that is still bound by the folds of misery. A disconnect, however, between the pains she suffers and the colours of her life-she does not like to carry these sorrows around with her, but they are always there at her shoulder, never forgotten. The title may contradict this interpretation, though, because if there was such a disconnect then it could have been called Girl and a Pearl Earring, rather than Girl "with" a Pearl Earring. The conjunction insinuates that she is with it, not without.
All such interpretations are simply a few of the ones her gaze, her facial features, the darkness in her eyes and the surrounding external aspects of the painting. Certainly Vermeer painted a masterpiece with this painting-it is so because it not only bears such artistic potential interpretations (and the best art hold the most), but it is a clear reflection of ourselves, and everyone's being may be a masterpiece to them. It is impossible to separate this girl from her clothes, or from her surrounding-everything in this painting connects with every other aspect of it and helps us weave a new narrative that we may attach to her. We start a new tale every time we look at her and think about what she is trying to communicate, forgetting that it is not her we are looking at but ourselves, for our interpretations and thoughts are a result of our experiences. For these reasons, it is this painting that I choose to formally analyse, although criminally dissecting every mysterious element I could into something "expressionable".