Johannes Vermeer, “Girl With a Pearl Earring” (c. 1665 – 1667) and “Girl Interrupted at Her Music” (c. 1658 – 1651)

21 Aug

Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665 – 1667)

Girl Interrupted at Her Music (c. 1658 – 1651)

What always strikes me about the work of the Delft Master, Jan Vermeer,  is its theatricalityGirl With a Pearl Earring is not a traditional portrait but a sort of facial still-life designed to capture an iconic “look.”  In the Dutch tradition this sort of painting was called a tronie — Rembrandt and Hals also used the form.  We’ve all seen this look, but it’s hard to define or capture because it’s so fleeting: a passing glimpse of humanity.  Speaking of theatricality, for some reason this girl, with this look, reminds me of Gwyneth Paltrow.  Is it just me?

In Girl Interrupted at Her Music Vermeer captures a split second in time — the moment when a girl is distracted from her study of a piece of music while being attended-upon by a suitor (music and courtship were intertwined in the 17th Century).  Even modern photography  struggles to capture the sort of spontaneity Vermeer crystallizes here.   (By the way, this painting inspired the title of Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted, about her confinement in a mental hospital in the 1960s after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.  You may remember the movie, featuring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.)

Another fascinating aspect of much of  Vermeer’s work — in evidence in these two paintings — is his unabashed use of Ultramarine Blue pigment.  In the 17th Century blue pigment had only just become available to European artists.  (Prior to this black was generally used to represent blue.)  Blue pigment in the time of Vermeer was derived from Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious gemstone mined in Afghanistan and transported by sailing vessel to Europe.  The term “ultramarine” referenced the fact that the pigment was from “across the ocean.”  Blue was an exotic color in the 17th Century and the most expensive pigment on Vermeer’s palette by a wide margin.

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