Arts Everyday Living: Deciphering Vermeer–His Elusive Women, Pearl Treasures

For CIRCLES OF ART session next week: the visions of Vermeer! (Originally published in 2014.)





Will she ever be as beautiful as her pearls? Struck by her own reflection, the Woman with Pearl Necklace carefully holds her precious gift between her fingers. With lips slightly parted and eyes partially glazed, she seems mesmerized by her own perfection.

But do mirrors sometimes lie?

 Fast Facts

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Art historians have debated whether this painting represents the theme of vanity, often associated with the mirror since the Renaissance.  The pursuit of truth and self-knowledge is another possibility, although the model does not appear to be seeking either one of the these attributes. Whatever the meaning, Vermeer’s subject is enjoying herself and everyday pleasures.

The Deleted Map: X-rays have revealed that Vermeer originally depicted a large map, probably of the Netherlands, on the wall. Why did he decide to eliminate it?  Perhaps because its presence would have distracted from the interaction between the woman and the mirror. In addition, a musical instrument once rested on the foreground chair and tiles could be seen under the table.

A Favorite Jacket: “A yellow satin mantle with fur trimming” was found among Vermeer’s belongings at his death. This jacket appears six times in the artist’s works.  What material was it made of? Probably not ermine as sometimes assumed, but the decidedly less appealing squirrel or cat fur.

Tasty Masterpiece: Thore-Burger, who is credited with rediscovering Vermeer in the 19th century, was particularly drawn to this work describing it as “delicious.”


Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1664, oil on canvas, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldgalerie


Does the Woman Holding a Balance remind you of a Dutch madonna, illuminated by the ethereal light passing over her porcelain features and swelling form.  Delicately weighing the material and the spiritual in her tranquil space: the tempting pearls that radiate earthly prosperity with the soul’s salvation, represented by the portrayal of the Last Judgement hanging behind her.

Fast Facts

A Change of Titles:  Earlier called Goldweigher or Girl Weighing Pearls because many art experts believed that the woman was weighing some type of metal in the small pans. However, microscopic examination has confirmed they are actually empty.

The Artist’s Wife? Catharina Vermeer may be the model, not only in this work but in  Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Both figures are wearing a bulky jacket, which could indicate pregnancy, a constant state for Catharina who had at least 15 children. Yet, other scholars argue that a fuller shape and line was then fashionable in Dutch society.

Count the Boxes: The detail oriented Vermeer has depicted three boxes: one for jewelry, draped with pearls and gold chain; a second nearby which might be used to store the balance; and a third closest to the viewer, probably intended for the coins (three gold and one silver) lying on the table.

A Picture Within a Picture: Paintings are common in the artist’s body of works, and like The Last Judgement below basically served a symbolic purpose. Since the cleaning of Woman Holding a Balance in 1994, this religious scene is much clearer, demonstrating Vermeer’s skill at simulating paintings on a small scale.  Note too the gilt decoration on the frame, another revelation of the restoration of two decades ago.

A Magical Room: Woman Holding a Balance and Woman with a Pearl Necklace were set in the same room, sharing the black mirror, yellow curtain, and table. Although, the mood of each work is quite different, affected in particular by the quality of the light as it flows through the window  in the upper corner.


Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


 It is likely that you recognize her by now. The captivating Mona Lisa of the North, the subject of her own book, and world traveler, perhaps visiting your local museum in a special exhibition. Yet one essential question is still unanswered: who is she?

 Fast Facts

The Case of the Missing Painting: Where was this beloved work for some 200 years? Its location was unknown until 1881, when it was purchased by a collector in the Hague for the paltry sum of just over 2 guilders. The dating, likely in the mid-1660s, is uncertain, because Girl with a Pearl Earring is unique when compared with the genre scenes Vermeer was producing at the time.

Only a Tronie: Individual portraiture is rare among the artist’s remaining paintings.  She might be a tronie, or a non-commissioned portrait, usually purchased cheaply in the Dutch art market, unlike several of Vermeer’s works that were probably paid for by affluent patrons such as Pieter Claez van Ruijven.

Turkish Connection?  Her turban was not the usual head covering of the average young lady of Delft (the artist’s home city). Was it from Turkey or some other exotic country? Actually, Vermeer might have been inspired by the work of a contemporary painter; apparently he adapted the ideas and examples of his colleagues.

Maybe Maria: Did Maria, the eldest of Vermeer’s numerous daughters, pose for her father, never realizing her impact on posterity? No proof unfortunately has been found regarding either the participation of Maria or her mother Catharina in the artist’s painting sessions.

Glaze after Glaze: In Girl with a Pearl Earring, Vermeer employed thin layers of pigment or glazes to capture the extraordinary softness of his sitter’s flesh. Or to emphasize the folds of the turban of ultramarine blue (derived from the gem lapis lazuli), brushed with expressive broad strokes.

A Precise Touch: Do you see the white accent of paint on the tear drop pearl that inevitably attracts every viewer?  Or the pink dot of pigment on her mouth that was recently uncovered by the 1994 restoration? How about the gleam in her eyes?



Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665-1666, oil on canvas, Maurithuis, The Hague