The Girl’s Pearl Earring

I have always had an affinity for pearls.  It could be because the pearl is my birthstone.  Or because I once read that it symbolized “tears of joy and sorrow”:  its split personality struck me as both tragic and evocative.  Perhaps it is its silky richness – its delicate decadence.  Or just maybe it is the pearl’s origins – in the belly of an oyster, rooted in its bed far beneath the sea.

Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring” sounds like such a humble thing; yet it is a miracle of color and light. There are no lines in the painting, no harsh borders:  only subtle frontiers that are seen by the mind as much as they are by the eye.  The juxtaposition of texture and shadow is as imperceptible as the descending twilight that softens yet changes the landscape.  The touch that molded her face is as ethereal as gossamer.

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Vermeer painted with light as if it stood in waiting pools on his palette; it is the defining grace of the portrait.  It stretches in blue valleys across the girl’s turban.  It glows like a melted star from her lower lip.  It warms her moon-like face in a hushed, radiant patina.  But most of all, it is the creating force; the central, incandescent life of her pearl earring.

The singular bauble hangs like a dainty planet, stolen from its galaxy and forced to glow in metallic glory by itself.  Softly oval, the pearl’s gentle curves nestle against the acquiescent shadows of the girl’s neck.  Within it is a world of elusive prisms:  silver, brown, gold, lavender, blue.  The colors are stirred together to create an object as warm as an alchemist’s elixir yet cool enough to calm the rich flesh of a young girl.

The girl’s earring must have weighed heavily from her ear – as if it were trying to get her attention.  If she listened, what would she hear?  The painful throbbing of the steel hook that had inelegantly punctured her earlobe – the tincture of rust that now ran through her blood?  Or perhaps she heard something else.  Perhaps she heard the sound of her treasure’s parents: childless, buried at sea and softly crying.

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5 responses to “The Girl’s Pearl Earring

  1. Thank you for this! Pearls are not supposed to be heavy, though I’ve always wondered about that large earring dangling from such a delicate little ear. But no reproduction will ever do the painting justice. When I saw it at the de Young last year, I was surprised at how much it was like an Impressionist painting, all color and light.

  2. What a surprising twist at the end, and such a creative approach to a painting that’s been both written about and turned into film.

    I never tire of Vermeer, and this is the reason: “Vermeer painted with light as if it stood in waiting pools on his palette.” That’s exactly right, although I couldn’t have phrased it that way. You’ve made me want to revisit his work during this quite gloomy time of year. We could use some extra light, and his is some of the best to be had.

  3. Hangaku – there are some experts who question as to whether it is a pearl at all, due to its size. For me, I think it Needs to be an pearl: a suitable vessel for color and light in all their purest forms.

    shoreacres – it’s what I wanted to do: take a painting that is so well known, and approach it with care and differently. It is one of my favorite paintings and I know it by heart.

    I am not a painterly girl, but somehow Vermeer has become one of my favorite artists. His talent goes beyond the use of color, but to a grasp of shadow and light; as if he held the natural world in his hand.

  4. You must see the movie “Tim’s Vermeer.” You’ll love it! You’ll see Vermeer in a whole new “light” so to speak it… a very new light.

  5. Your lovely, illuminating words persuaded me to take a closer look at this painting. It no longer seems so plain and earthly to me.

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