Mystery persists over Vermeer's earmarked girl

— No one knows who she is, whether maid or mistress.

Much of her past -- more than 200 years of it -- is a mystery. When she was rediscovered in 1882, she was dirty and neglected.

Johannes Vermeer's 1665 "Girl With the Pearl Earring" is now universally acclaimed as a masterpiece, inspiring artists, writers and moviemakers. Her full red lips, sparkling eyes and arresting over-the-shoulder glance -- as if you had suddenly called to her as she was walking away -- makes you wonder who she could have been.

But art historians aren't even sure Vermeer used a model. If she existed at all, the young woman may have looked much different from the face that is so familiar today.

"It's not a girl. It's an idealized picture," says Frederik J. Duparc, director of the Mauritshuis, the painting's home since 1903. "Vermeer was not interested in making a photograph."

The book and movie about the 17th-century masterpiece, an imaginative account of an impoverished housemaid who posed for Vermeer wearing his wife's earrings, has boosted the gallery's visitors by some 40 percent.

Before shooting, director Peter Webber made several visits to the museum behind the Dutch Parliament in The Hague. Stars Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth studied the painting, measuring just 171/2 inches by 153/8 inches, and listened to Duparc's explanation of Vermeer's genius with light and mood.

Solitary artist

The premiere last December also brought attention to Delft, Vermeer's city, eight miles from The Hague. To the Dutch, the city is more known as the seat of the 16th-century founder of the House of Orange and as the burial place ever since of the royal family.

Although The Hague was just a one-hour carriage ride from Delft in Vermeer's day -- today some people commute by bicycle -- he never visited. In fact, he apparently never left Delft.

Tourists clutching crumpled maps walk through the medieval lanes, where Vermeer struggled to make a living by trading art and by painting a few pictures of his own. Most of his work was sold to a single patron.

Historians say 80 percent of the then-prosperous town of Vermeer's time still exists, its Gothic cathedrals and gabled houses set among narrow canals traversed by stone bridges. But nothing remains of his life, of which little is known. The houses in which he lived have been destroyed or lost to history.

Visitors often seek out the canal-side spot where Vermeer sketched his "View of Delft," a tranquil study of sun-and-shadow skyline, broken clouds and reflecting water. It is the second Vermeer now at Mauritshuis.

The skyline is still recognizable, but the two gates and the city wall prominently portrayed in the painting have disappeared. The canal has since been broadened. Today, massive barges churn past bearing garbage from The Hague to a seaside incinerator in Rotterdam.

Discovered late

Vermeer died poor in 1675. His grave site is unknown, although his death was registered in the Old Church. In the 20th century, a small marker was set in the church's cold floor, dwarfed by the massive headstones of clergymen and privateers who earned their living raiding Spanish ships.

While contemporaries such as Rembrandt gained fame in their lifetime, Vermeer was undiscovered until the 19th century, when the first of his paintings emerged from private collections.

The fate of the painting of "Girl With the Pearl Earring" was equally unremarkable at first.

The first record of its existence is in 1882, when collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombes bought it for 2.30 guilders, then a few days wages for an average laborer. Twenty years later when Des Tombes bequeathed it to Mauritshuis, it was valued at 40,000 guilders.

Now, it has no price. The museum refuses to disclose its insured value for those rare occasions when it travels on exhibition.

A recently verified Vermeer -- the 36th -- will soon become the first of his works to go on sale in 80 years. Sotheby's said it expects "Young Woman Seated at the Virginals" to bring more than $5.4 million. The city of Delft was considering bidding for the painting, since it has none, said Jeroen Beelen, director of Delft Marketing.

Duparc, who was on the eight-member experts committee that verified the authenticity of the "The Virginals," said at least two more lost Vermeers are mentioned in the records: a street scene and a self portrait. But the chances that either will be found are "extremely small -- more like a dream."

So, who was the girl with the earring? Was she the artist's daughter? The daughter of his wealthy patron? Or, indeed, a housemaid?

"The nice thing is that we don't know," Duparc said. "We all like mysteries. This way, it invites you to fantasize. It would be a disappointment if we found out."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.