During the era of the Baroque Age, Jan Vermeer was an artist that encapsulated the idea of bringing emotion into his paintings. As a part of the changes that came in the 17th Century, artists began to shift the focus of art from solely religious and educational to depicting dramatic emotion in the real world. In his paintings, Vermeer did just that. He took the techniques and artistic concepts of his time and placed his own, personal touch on them. In particular, one of his art pieces, Girl with a Pearl Earring, shows Vermeer’s concentration of personality and emotion. By looking deeply into Girl with a Pearl Earring, one will see how Vermeer’s creative ability captivates the heart and mind through the simple image of a fleeting moment in time.
Jan Vermeer was born in Delft, Holland in 1632. He lived during the Golden Age, which was a time in the 17th Century that brought Holland much wealth economically and socially. This Golden Age was a Dutch period within the Baroque Age in which art held a Barroco feel. These kinds of artworks centered in on depth in a realistic subject and using light to portray an emotional feeling.(1) Vermeer’s paintings fit in well to this time period. Another specific characteristic of this time was the new discovery of importance on reason. Rene Descartes wrote the Discourse on Method during the period of significant painters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt. The idea of reason was vital to the art world because of the shifting focus of art to Realism.(2) Subjects were not simply religious or historical anymore, but they were everyday life occurrences—things most Dutch people could relate to. However, these subjects were not only familiar, but so much so that they stirred a feeling of deep emotion. By looking at Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring one is brought to that state of connection.
While painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer used four very distinct elements of direction, color, motion, and dimension. The subject of this image is simply a girl. However by his uses of these elements, Vermeer’s depiction of this girl is alarming, yet captivating. The direction of her body is turned at such an odd angle, but because of that, there is a sense of dimension. Artists sometimes use a black background to enhance the feeling of a 3-dimensional subject, and Vermeer did just that. If it were a white background, the girl would not stand out quite so much.(3) Also, use of blue and yellow, which is one of Vermeer’s key characteristics, on the subject brings serenity to this picture even though the rest of it is slightly disturbing.(4) The motion of this painting is such that makes the viewer feel as though they are invited to wherever it is that this girl is headed. These elements of direction, color, dimension, and motion are brought together harmoniously throughout the painting.
Girl with a Pearl Earring was not one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, but it coordinates with his other works beautifully. Several other paintings include subjects of girls with interesting and soft features—one of these features being pearls. It is interesting to look through some of his other pieces and see that he added a pearl necklace or pearl earring in many of them. This addition of jewelry to the picture brings a sense of familiarity to the Dutch people—emphasizing Realism. It also has a connotation of vanity—emphasis on the temporary, material things and passing moments.(5) Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., in his book Vermeer and the Art of Painting, says this about Vermeer’s artwork, “Vermeer’s images, whether of a single figure lost in thought or of a quiet street scene, are intimate ones that remind us of moments or events in our lives so fleeting that we hardly are aware of their existence. Vermeer’s genius was to capture their beauty in ways that we can relate to our own experiences."(6) Vermeer has several well-known images, but something that connects them all is this reoccurring idea of emotion within a brief second of life.
After looking at the surface level description and analysis of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, one might want to analyze even deeper. In order to fully understand Vermeer’s goal of captivating the heart and mind within a fleeting, real moment, one must look at how he engages this idea throughout his paintings. As mentioned earlier, Girl with a Pearl Earring does have the subject of a girl, but it is much more than that. This painting has the ambiance of exotic wonder and depth. The technical features of it truly help draw in the viewer’s eye and become simply compelled. Light, dominance, and movement are three key methods that Vermeer used to purposely bring that wonder and curiosity.
Like many other paintings in the Baroque Age, light was a tool used to create shadows and articulate features of the main subject.(7) One of the most distinctive portions of this image is the girl’s face. The look she is giving is crucial to how one analyzes the message. However, it is not only the look; it is the brightness cast on her face. There is a very strong sense of light in this image. The source seems to be coming from the left as the angled side of her body is illuminated and the backside facing the opposite way, is dark—almost black. The first thing that most viewers would notice about this painting would be the girl’s face because of the light on it. Also, her eyes and lips are intriguing and dominate the time spent looking at this image. Within this work, Vermeer uses such a unique tone of movement. This is another tactic that is seen in a lot of other Vermeer paintings such as Girl with the Red Hat and Portrait of a Young Woman.(8) The side angle of the subject in Girl with a Pearl Earring brings the suggestion that she is not just posing, but could possibly be going somewhere. As the eye is drawn into the face of the girl, it notices that her head is turned as well as her body—the indication that she is looking back and inviting the viewer in to see what is ahead of her. These three techniques of light, dominance, and movement that Vermeer uses in this painting once again emphasize that his work is captivating and emotional because it shows a single instant in time. There is nothing stale about this picture. It moves the viewer’s heart and mind to a state of realness and authenticity of the fleeting moments within this girl’s life.
Through all of these techniques, the Vermeer is trying to communicate that time truly flies by. There are moments in each person’s life that are real and genuine, but when society gets caught up in a fast pace, these moments become fleeting, and they pass without notice. In this painting, Vermeer catches the viewer’s attention with captivating emotion and depth of meaning. This awareness causes the onlooker to pause, stop, and take in this moment of the girl’s life. As a painter of Realism in an Age of Reason, Vermeer has been impacted by Rene Descartes’ concept, “I think, therefore I am."(9) Vermeer is teaching his audience to just be. He is an advocate of leading a real and authentic life. Fleeting moments do not come back, and they must be lived out. By the expression on the girl’s face in this painting, this idea is understood.
Although this work was not created out of a biblical text or Christian worldview, it can be looked at as such. Girl with a Pearl Earring has the ability to make the onlooker stop and appreciate. This concept is so very prevalent in a Christian’s life. Vermeer has conveyed the value of each moment in life, and he does that through the creativity God inherited him with. Most people have busy lifestyles and hardly take time to simply stop and live in the moments that pass by, but art has a way of causing a person to be humbled and stilled—this could only come from something divine. By looking deep into Vermeer’s artwork, one can see that God gave him a strong gift of artistry, and through Girl with a Pearl Earring, Christians can be reminded of the importance of taking life one fleeting moment at a time.