Monday, January 2, 2012


("Girl with the Pearl Earring," Jan Vermeer, 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands)

I adore the cool white shimmer of pearls.

And I'm not alone in my affection for these glimmering globes.

Women and men the world over have bowed to the beauty of the pearl.

Quality diamonds sparkle, of course.

But only after they have been precisely cut and polished to perfection.

Pearls have no such needs.

In 1913, German zoologist Friedrich Alverdes discovered that pearls are formed when a foreign body such as a grain of sand penetrates the shell of the oyster.

In order to isolate the foreign invader and make sure it does no damage, the oyster covers it layer on layer, with a substance called nacre - or mother-of-pearl.

Two or three years later, this process produces a round, shimmering pearl.

Author Claudia Lanfranconi states:

"While all molluscs can produce pearls, the true pearl is formed only in certain varieties, of which the most important is the Meleagrina or Oriental pearl oyster."

Historically speaking, the gathering of beautiful pearls was no small feat.

Many of the largest and most evenly shaped pearls were found in the waters of the Persian Gulf or off the coasts of India.

Divers risked their lives to harvest the pearls from these bodies of water.

Burdened with weights, local divers were lowered to the bottom of the sea.

Here they searched for pearl oysters until their breath literally gave out.

They repeated this process as many as one hundred times a day.

Many of the local divers drowned from sheer exhaustion.

Or shark attacks.

According to Claudia:

"The oldest piece of pearl jewellery known to us today is more than 4,300 years old.  It was found during archaeological excavations in the winter palace of the Persian kings at Susa and can now be admired in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo."

So there we have it.

Now let's fast forward 6, 000 years - give or take a day or two.

The year is 1665.

Dutch painter Jan Vermeer is busy at his easel in his hometown of Delft.

In time, Jan will reveal the elegance of 17th century interiors on his canvases.

He will paint black and white marble tiled floors, jewel-toned windowpanes and richly colored clothing and tapestries.

Objects such as maps, paintings, musical instruments and furniture will fill Vermeer's rooms with the business of life.

Always - there will be light.

Light will drench Jan's rooms and the objects and the people within them.

We see examples of Vermeer's luscious interiors in his work, "Art of Painting."

("The Art of Painting," Jan Vermeer, 1665, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna, Austria)

This is, indeed, a majestic work of art.

But today we are on a different mission.

In that effort,  we will lay aside Jan's signature interiors for another time.

Today we will look at Jan's most beloved painting, "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

This painting has captured the hearts of viewers for centuries.

It is easy to understand why, isn't it?

Could anything be more simplistically beautiful?

I do not know how.

What do we see in Jan's painting?

First of all, the young girl is set against an atypical Vermeer background - one that is painted stark black.

Next, we see that she is presented to us in close-up.

This is also unusual in Vermeer's works.

Some historians have identified Jan's sitter as one of his daughters.

The identities of many of the men and women who are seen in Vermeer's paintings remain a mystery.

Actress Scarlett Johansson portrayed "Griet," a young housemaid who inspired Vermeer to greater artistic heights in the film, "Girl with the Pearl Earring."

Was Scarlett's portrayal true to life?

Great speculation surrounds that question.

The truth is this:  No one really knows.

What we do know is that Jan has chosen to focus on the childlike innocence of the young sitter's face.

Her casual glance backward at us, the viewers, is striking to be sure.

But her expression seems to be contemplative and serene.

Jan's trademark sumptuous fabrics surround the young girl's body.

The burnished gold of her outer cloak adds a note of deep contrast to the black background.

Light is projected onto the girl's eyes and lips making them shimmer and gleam.

Her creamy, dewy skin is highlighted by the brilliant blue of her headwrap.

The bright yellow drapery of her scarf adds an element of joy to the portrait.

Then, of course, there is that unforgettable pearl earring.

Jan has pulled out all his considerable technical skills to create that earring.

A while ago, I was privileged to stand in front of this painting at the Maurithuis in The Hague, Netherlands.

I could not take my eyes off the girl's earring.

The painter created that delicate jewel with just a few carefully placed brushstrokes.

Most of the earring does not really exist on the canvas.

It is the viewer's eye that fills-in-the-blanks and "sees" a complete earring.

The sparkling white collar just under the earring serves to highlight the few brushstrokes that make up the image of the pearl.

Technique like this is what separates run-of-the-mill artists from the true masters.

I stood mesmerized by the soft and deliberate simplicity of this painting.

With this work,  Jan Vermeer has created visual beauty that transcends the bounds of this mortal existence.

For that, I am supremely grateful.


Claudia Lanfranconi's quotes are taken from her delightful book, "Girls in Pearls."  I have used Claudia's British spelling of several words that appear in her quotes.

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