Monday, August 4, 2008

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Time for some art talk.

I recently watched the 2003 film based on the 1999 historical novel by Tracey Chevalier based on the painting by Johannes Vermeer (circa 1665-1675). I was really moved by the film and touched by the rather personal performances of Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansen as the maid and subject of the painting, Greit. The film also sported a rather early cameo by Cilian Murphy, and of course, no one other than the Tom Wilkinson played the weird villain-patron. I haven't read the book, but after watching the film this time, I am quite tempted to make it one of my many upcoming purchases.

Wanting to know more of course, I perused wikipedia and for a chance of finding out more about the film, but it wasn't until researching the book that I came across this great website: . To put it simply, I was kinda amazed by this guys in-depth study of the painting and had some of my own thoughts, of course. This is his website <> if you are interested in this painting and want to know much more than I do about it or will be able to write about in the rest of this blog.

What really stirred me was the comment that Vermeer's (aka Colin Firth's) wife said when she was finally able to get her greedy eyes all over the painting, which is that it was "obscene." So maybe there is a lot more going on in the novel/film that I can figure out because I don't exactly see how that painting is obscene. It a portrait of a fully clothed girl. Is it some class thing? Is this way too poor girl not supposed to be sporting these pearls and glossy fabrics?

It's just kind of interesting that this is now one of his more famous paintings because supposedly it was never sold during his lifetime is apparently moderately different from more of his other works. Jonathan Janson says that we know the less about this painting than any of Vermeer's others, which is just how this works of course (the one you really want to know the most about is the one its too hard to find information on). Some people call this painting the "Dutch Mona Lisa," and I kind of find that appropriate since there is something quite enigmatic about her. What is she looking at? Why capture just her? In a lot of Vermeer's other's paintings, you see the workroom studio he used (and which is captured brilliantly in the film). I wander how much of Chevalier's speculation/Griet's lines in the film about the chair making the model feel trapped influenced this painting. Is that why she is painted with just the background? To give her more freedom. Is she the pearl? The expensive symbol of virginity, vanity, and femininity...
I rather like what Arthur Wheelock writes, "As this girl stares out at the viewer with liquid eyes and parted mouth, she radiates purity, captivating all the gaze upon her. Her soft, smooth skin is as unblemished as the surface of her large tear-drop shaped earring - like a vision emanating from the darkness, she belongs to not specific time or place. Her exotic turban, wrapping her head in crystalline blue, is surmounted by a striking yellow fabric that falls behind her shoulders, lending an air of mystery to the image." (taken from Janson's website).

However, there is also something quite critical that can be said about her dress and the pearl. Some of the stirrings of Orientalism and the fascination with the East. Apparently, Vermeer owned quite about of Turkish materials, and the turban was quite a commonplace headdress in paintings (see Jan van Eyck's Man With a Turban, 1433).

I think what moves me most about this painting is that it demands the imagination rather than controls it. Unlike some paintings like say Starry Night or La Grande Jette, with Vermeer's Girl you have to use your own mind and imagination to see what is going on underneath the surface, to see what is being expressed on the canvas. All that we have before us is this girl looking at us, but it is up to the viewer/us to create the rest, whereas with other paintings, with so much material presented for the viewer, commands the mind rather than allows it to move more. I hope that makes some sense.

Peace out.


spring said...

I, for one, also think there was just some good ole fashion jealousy behind the wife's comment that the painting was "obscene". Also, I think this comment exposes some of the wife's depressingly latent sexuality. You know how the most vocal critics of prostitution are sometimes the ones most deeply engaged in the prostitution market? Or how some proponents of "family values" are the skeeziest human specimens? Or how people who gay bash are just too scared to be honest about their own homoerotic fantasies? The wife's comment, to me, is along those same lines...

Laminated Fragments said...

I would definitely agree with what you said, as long as we are hypothesizing about the book. Lol. Apparently, some of the stuff I read about Vermeer's actual life suggests that he loved his wife a lot. They apparently had around 12 kids when most people usually only had 3-4. Ah, just something I wanted to mention.

Laminated Fragments said...

I also forgot to add that just because you have kids doesn't mean you love one another. I know that.