A Reflection on Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring

Two people in a room, looking at each other. One of them is seemingly the more empowered, his paints and canvas, and his artistry, enabling him to shape an image of the sitter – a girl dressed in opulent clothes, not her own, which are an art work in themselves. But Johannes Vermeer is a man attuned also to spiritual resplendence, and beholden to the mystery of human presence and personality. So the girl looks back at him, and at each viewer – among them the poet who writes of the painting – with the power of her own gaze. It is a gaze which may express uncertainty, and the vulnerability of youth, yet its candour and strength convey a sense of truth in self. Her attire and posture are as arranged by Vermeer, and her image is now being composed by him on canvas; for her part, the girl answers to this situation with an achieved self-composure, however poignant. This self-composure speaks from the painting, which has a revelatory quality, even while the angle of her vision – looking back, her body turned side-on – underscores a sense of unreadability. That unreadability is not a chosen mask; rather, it resides in the fact that the sitter is – as are we all, always – partly unknown to herself, as well as, for many reasons, beyond the full knowing of others. I believe she is seen as such by the painter, that her otherness is acknowledged by him, and perhaps guarded. The viewer now does not know the identity of this girl (see http://www.essentialvermeer.com) as Vermeer did, but his portrait of her expresses an enigmatic quality, co-existing with a sense of transparency, of artlessness. Perhaps, imagining them in their formal distance from each other, one might speak of a compact between painter and sitter – of contemplative calm and, of course, on both sides, work. Each is changed by the painting of the portrait which is, on one level, despite the outer imbalance of power, a collaborative undertaking.