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.