This may be the loveliest picture in the world. Not the greatest, for which Count Orgaz is my current candidate, and Vermeer has a greater portrait with the Red Hat, but this tender girl is surely the loveliest.
When people talk about this painting, they immediately use the word "luminescent," mention how perfectly the pearl is painted, and go on to how the girl herself looks like a pearl. But that is how Vermeer painted. He is incapable of painting without luminescence and all his women look like pearls. The luminescent quality of his paintings is simply what you see when the Dutch air holds the sun in its fine mist.
We know the gold jacket and the earrings. They or others very like have served Vermeer well in other paintings. Here, the jacket calls attention to the slightness of the girl's body. It is a woman's jacket and this girl's breasts have barely begun to develop.
Unlike Vermeer's usual meticulous reportage of linen coifs and hair ribbons and braids and hats, this headdress is a fantasy--the blue wrap, the blue and gold scarf, that signal that this is not the world you think you know.
Unlike nearly every other face from the centuries before and after, and unlike every other Vermeer, this one has no background to give a sense of that world. The girl is backed by a dark panel, so dark as to be almost black, cut off from any recognizeable world, blocked from retreat, and from that she turns into this present world, almost shocking in her vulnerability.
You need to see the painting itself to understand it, that is, if you can find a place to stand in the midst of the tour groups and all the people who have to wear earphones to hear the portable lectures. The clue to this painting is in the mouth. Reproductions give an impression of a pink smudge. What you see in the original is that this girl has just been kissed, kissed long and firmly, so that her mouth is slightly swollen and blurred in definition. Vermeer has painted her in the instant after the kiss before she has had time to move her lips or blink her eyes.
The girl with her luminous skin and her pearl earring is on the verge of discovering desire. She is beginning to soften and open, and she has not quite assimilated what is happening in her body and her imagination. Look again at the nearly absent breasts--she is very young, she is in the thrall of the kiss, and there is no going back from the previous moment.
The viewer is in the position of the person who has just lifted his head and stepped back. The viewer stands in the same relationship to her as with Antonello da Messina's Virgin, and there the viewer is supposed to say "Fear not!" Perhaps the person who has just moved back is about to tell her the same thing. Perhaps this luminescent girl should be afraid. It is difficult to think about the picture independently if you have read the novel or seen the movie, but the story they relate is plausible, and even so, any girl of 1665 could only look into her future with reasonable fears.
The viewer is at risk of falling in love with the tenderness of her face. But then the girl with uncombed hair and brown anorak sitting in the row ahead on the Amsterdam train turns around for a moment and you see that the girl with the pearl earring does not have such an unusual face after all. This painting is not about a face: it is not a portrait. It is about a young girl overwhelmed by feeling, a young girl in the fraction of an instant before her future happens.
[For another young woman in a painting, go here.]