15 Lovely Facts About Girl With A Pearl Earring

wikimedia commons
wikimedia commons

Despite a deceptively simple composition, Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring has captured the imaginations of art fans around the world. While little is certain about the girl behind the mesmerizing gaze, here's what we do know about this now-legendary work.

1. No one knows for sure who the girl is.

Scholars estimate the painting was completed in 1665. The painting is an example of a type of work called a tronie. Popular in the Dutch Golden Age, tronies were paintings that focused on the face of a subject with an added element of fantasy or an exaggeration of expression that differentiates them from portraits.

2. Speculation on her identity led to a novel, movie, and stage production.

All titled Girl with a Pearl Earring, these works began with American novelist Tracy Chevalier, whose 1999 historical novel spun a love story between Vermeer and a servant girl turned muse. In 2004, Chevalier's book was adapted into an acclaimed feature film, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. Then in 2008, a stage adaptation was produced in London.

Though the story is compelling, it may not have been grounded in historical fact. Historian J.M. Montias suggested that a household servant modeled for Vermeer’s Milkmaid, but not this particular masterpiece.

3. The girl may be Vermeer's daughter.

Journalists Jean-Louis Vaudoyer and Lawrence Weschler have proposed that the lovely girl who sat for Vermeer was in fact the eldest of his 10 children, Maria. She might also be the model in Art of Painting and Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

4. The girl in the painting may be an artist in her own right.

In 2014, Benjamin Binstock, a specialist on Renaissance and Baroque art, declared that Maria may have been more than just Girl with a Pearl Earring's model—she might also have been the artist who created one fifth of the works attributed to her father. These "misfit" Vermeers that might be Maria's include Mistress and Maid, Girl With a Red Hat, and Woman with a Lute. Notably, each includes a model wearing a familiar earring.

5. Girl with a Pearl Earring isn't its only name.

The painting has alternately been called Girl In A Turban, Head Of Girl In A Turban, The Young Girl With Turban, and Head of a Young Girl.

6. The painting also has a nickname.

Often Girl with a Pearl Earring is referred to as the "Mona Lisa of the North." This is partially because of the girl's curious expression, and in part because of the mystery surrounding the piece itself.

7. The uncertainty of her story is a key to its allure.

When Girl with a Pearl Earring toured the U.S. in 2013, the painting drew a massive turnout at each of its stops. Assistant curator of San Francisco’s de Young museum told The Wall Street Journal, "Sometimes the questions are more intriguing because they can't be answered. Who was she? What was she thinking? What was her relationship with Vermeer? The mystery is part of its popularity."

8. Her earring might have religious overtones.

Some scholars have theorized that Girl with a Pearl Earring may be a portrait of chastity, making a connection between the painting and the teachings of early 17th century bishop St. Francis De Sales, who wrote, "Both now and in the past it has been customary for women to hang pearls from their ears; as Pliny observed, they gain pleasure from the sensation of the swinging pearls touching them. But I know that God's friend, Isaac, sent earrings to chaste Rebecca as a first token of his love. This leads me to think that this jewel has a spiritual meaning, namely that the first part of the body that a man wants, and which a woman must loyally protect, is the ear; no word or sound should enter it other than the sweet sound of chaste words, which are the oriental pearls of the gospel."

9. Vermeer likely used the same earring for another of his paintings.

A similar teardrop pearl can be spotted in A Woman Brought A Letter By A Maid. Vermeer often reused props, models, and settings in his works.

10. It probably wasn’t a real pearl.

In December of 2014, Vincent Icke, a professor of Theoretical Astronomy, wrote in New Scientist that the light reflecting off the earring in Girl with a Pearl Earring wouldn't match that of an actual pearl.

The size of the pearl also makes it suspect. Curators Quentin Buvelot and Ariane van Suchtelen explained, "Large pearls were rare and ended up in the hands of the richest people on the planet. In the seventeenth century, cheaper glass pearls, usually from Venice, were also quite common. They were made from glass, which was lacquered to give it a matte finish. Maybe the girl is wearing such a handcrafted 'pearl'."

11. Its black background was once a glossy green.

Modern restorations of the painting found trace amounts of indigo and weld, a glaze mixture that would have made the dark underpainting glisten. Over the centuries, pigments in the glaze have broken down to change the painting’s color.

12. The paint used for the turban was incredibly expensive.

Made from a crushed deep blue semi-precious stone called lapis lazuli, the ultramarine paint Vermeer used on the turban was one only a few of his contemporaries dared employ. Despite ultramarine's high price tag, Vermeer notably used the color even in times of financial hardship, possibly thanks to funding from his generous patron Pieter van Ruijven.

13. Vermeer may have used mechanical means to create this painting and many more.

The Dutch master's distinctive style avoids hard lines, relying on shades of light and shadow alone. Art historians have long debated whether mechanical means may have helped Vermeer render light in this way. A camera obscura is the most popular theory, and the 2013 documentary Tim's Vermeer followed an experiment that seemed to prove that Vermeer's method included a careful arrangement of mirrors to guide his hand in painting.

14. This priceless painting sold for next to nothing.

More than two hundred years passed between the painting's creation and its sale at auction in 1881. There, Dutch Army officer and art collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombe purchased Girl with a Pearl Earring for just 2 guilders with a 30-cent premium. Upon des Tombe's death in the winter of 1902, the work was willed to The Hague's art museum the Mauritshuis, where it can still be seen today.

15. Girl with a Pearl Earring will never leave home again.

In recent years, The Mauritshuis loaned Girl with a Pearl Earring to Japan, Italy and the United States for exhibitions. But once this tour concluded in July of 2014, the museum announced the painting would stay in their collection within their walls indefinitely. And so Girl with a Pearl Earring joined the ranks of Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Picasso's Guernica, and Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as works sworn to stay safe in their home museums for all time.

Art

7 Massage Guns That Are on Sale Right Now

Jawku/Actigun
Jawku/Actigun

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17 Surprising Facts About Frida Kahlo

Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The life and work of Frida Kahlo—one of Mexico's greatest painters—were both defined by pain and perseverance. Getting to know how Kahlo lived provides greater insight into her masterful paintings, which are rich with detail and personal iconography.

1. Frida Kahlo was born in the same house she died.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its vivid blue exterior. There, she was raised by her mother, Matilde, and encouraged by her photographer father, Guillermo. Years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. And on July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

2. Frida Kahlo's beloved home is now a museum.

Casa Azul is also known as The Frida Kahlo Museum. As a tribute to Kahlo, Rivera donated the house in 1958 as well as all of the artwork, created by both him and Kahlo, that it contained. Much of the interior has been preserved just the way Kahlo had it in the 1950s, making the space a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors a look at her work, life, and personal artifacts, including the urn that holds her ashes.

3. A third of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self-portraits.

Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life in order to create a series of 55 surreal and uniquely revealing self-portraits. Of these, she famously declared, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

4. A surreal accident had a big impact on Frida Kahlo's life.

On September 17, 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo boarded a bus with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias, only to be forever marred when it crossed a train's path. Recalling the tragedy, Arias described the bus as "burst(ing) into a thousand pieces," with a handrail ripping through Kahlo's torso.

He later recounted, "Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer."

5. Frida Kahlo’s path to painting began with that collision.

The accident broke Kahlo's spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and frequently bedbound. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father's paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed. Of her life's hardships, Kahlo once proclaimed, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

6. Frida Kahlo once dreamed of being a doctor.

As a child, Kahlo contracted polio, which withered her right leg and sparked an interest in the healing power of medicine. Unfortunately, the injuries from the train accident forced the teenager to abandon her plans to study medicine.

7. Frida Kahlo’s poor health shaped her art.

In the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 surgeries, including the eventual amputation of her foot due to a case of gangrene. She explored her frustrations with her body's frailty in paintings like The Broken Column, which centers on her shattered spine, and Without Hope, which dramatically depicted a period where her doctor prescribed force-feeding. On the back of the latter, she wrote, "Not the least hope remains to me ... Everything moves in time with what the belly contains."

8. Frida Kahlo didn’t view herself as a surrealist.

She rejected the label, saying, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

9. Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage sparked more pain and paintings.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929.

From there, they were each other's greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo's perspective.

10. Frida Kahlo grieved privately and publicly for the children she never had.

Modern doctors believe that the bus accident had irreparably damaged Kahlo's uterus, which made pregnancies impossible to carry to term. In 1932, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a provocative self-portrait that marks one of several devastating miscarriages she suffered.

The piece would be displayed to the world in a 1938 gallery show. But Kahlo kept private personal letters to her friend, Doctor Leo Eloesser, in which she wrote, "I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'" This letter, along with others from their decades-long exchange, were released in 2007, having been hidden for almost 50 years by a patron worried about their contents.

11. Frida Kahlo once arrived to an art show in an ambulance.

In 1953, toward the end of her short life, the painter was overjoyed about her first solo exhibition in Mexico. But a hospital stay threatened her attendance. Against doctors' orders, Kahlo made an incredible entrance, pulling up in an ambulance as if in a limousine.

12. Frida Kahlo is rumored to have had several famous lovers.

When she wasn't recovering from surgery or confined to a recuperation bed, Kahlo was full of life, relishing the chance to dance, socialize, and flirt. While American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico City for the creation of his History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, he and Kahlo began a passionate affair that evolved into a life-long friendship.

Three years later, while visiting Paris, the bisexual painter struck up a romance with the city's "Black Pearl" entertainer Josephine Baker. And many have speculated that the artist and activist also bedded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia stayed in Kahlo's family home after they were granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

13. Frida Kahlo was fiercely proud of her heritage.

Though she'd lived in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Kahlo was always drawn back to her hometown, Mexico City. She favored traditional Mexican garb, the long colorful skirts she was known for, and the Huipile blouses of Mexico’s matriarchal Tehuantepec society. Perhaps most telling, she told the press she was born in 1910, cutting three years off her age so she could claim the same birth year as the Mexican Revolution.

14. Frida Kahlo had several exotic pets.

Casa Azul boasts a lovely garden where Kahlo had her own animal kingdom. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a dog breed that dates back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo owned a pair of spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, which can be spotted in Self Portrait with Monkeys. She also cared for an Amazon parrot called Bonito, who would perform tricks if promised a pat of butter as a reward, a fawn named Granizo, and an eagle nicknamed Gertrudis Caca Blanca (a.k.a. Gertrude White Shit).

15. Frida Kahlo has emerged as a feminist icon.

Though in her time some dismissed this passionate painter as little more than "the wife of Master Mural Painter (Diego Rivera)," Kahlo's imaginative art drew acclaim from the likes of Pablo Picasso and film star Edward G. Robinson. After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo's reputation eclipsed Rivera's, and she grew to become one of the world's most famous painters.

Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo's deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others' definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.

16. Frida Kahlo’s personal style has become a vibrant part of her legacy.

Frida's art and its influence were not simply spawned from the paint she put to canvas. Her distinctive personal style has proved influential in the world of fashion, inspiring designers like Raffaella Curiel, Maya Hansen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana. (In 2019, Vans even launched a collection of shoes featuring her work.)

17. Frida Kahlo's work is record-breaking.

On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale in six years, her 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) sold for over $8 million—the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latin American artist.

This story was updated in 2020.