Art does not exist for the mere purpose of decorating shelf-tops and wall-fronts of palaces, neither does it exist for sitting ideally behind glass cases, hunting for the highest bidders. Coloured canvases have stories to tell that escape the yellow pages of historian’s journals—social histories, personal anecdotes, political upheavals—that could have been lost otherwise.
A painting might sit there, right above your head, without ever being looked at, unless it has something about it that has the power to trouble you and throw you out of your chair into a trail of questions leading up to those stories that escape the yellow pages of a historian’s journal. Even if you can’t dig up any social histories and personal anecdotes, it might just become your muse!
In that respect, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring must have thrown a lot of people out of their chairs. For there is no end to the questions she raises, and there are no answers are to be found.
The Girl is recognizably European. She has a loose garment over her bust. As per today’s fashion, it might qualify as a camel-jacket thrown over a white pull-over, but people have trouble guessing what it might signify for a 17th-century Dutch costume. The turban she wears is often identified as oriental, and is certainly odd for a European face. The earring itself is abnormally large and too finely polished for a pearl. Who is she? What is she wearing? Is that really a pearl earring? Is she wearing only one? Is it even her own?
Vermeer probably wasn’t convinced that these questions were troubling enough to throw you out of your chair, so he didn’t stop there. The girl looks back with her head turned as if having suddenly remembered something she had to do but did not do. Her lips are parted as if she was going to say something, but decided otherwise. The strong, expectant, unexplained gaze is hard to resist. What is it that had slipped her mind? What is it she wanted to say? Why does she gaze so?
Another question that must come to your mind is whether Vermeer intended to throw you out of your chair with this painting…for there isn’t just one reason why an artist might create something. Wondering about the artist’s intention is inevitable once you become aware of the effect it actually has on you. And it was one such trail of thought that left me wondering what effect the Girl had on me.
What she is wearing is far from familiar—more so for the times that I live in than any other. Her attire is very unrecognizable, and so is she. I say this for the only tag of recognition I can give her is that of a stranger; the attire that she has been portrayed with would make me believe that it was so for the artist, as it is for me.
Yet, there is something about her face that does not let her be a stranger—it haunts! The soft strokes of her face make it hazy, as if it were slowly fading away. At the same time, it is highlighted by the colour and shadow scheme which focuses the visitor’s gaze on it, making it all the more captivating. It all leads me to believe that she must have been either a stranger, someone refusing to be effaced from memory even when there remains no reason to remember them. Or a loved one, long gone and kept alive in memory, whom the passing days do efface much against our will. For she exists in this rather extraordinary amalgam of the strange and the familiar, the forgotten and the oft- evoked. I believe she personifies memory. Retained and renewed as memories are—through souvenirs — it is important that she is The Girl with the Pearl Earring, something which becomes indispensible to her very being.
Witness, memorise, record, send posterity on a quest and make it witness too—things both historians and artists do. Yet the whys behind the creation of art and whats of the artists’ intentions are always fascinating because all is never revealed, and what is revealed is never conclusive. This fascination is what throws people out of their chairs into a trail of questions that lead to discovery and creative expeditions. And as you might observe in this column throughout, this is what has thrown me out of my chair too, into a space where there are no constraints to my imagination.
It must have been such whys and whats of this painting as well, for they are innumerable and interminable, that would have led to the origin of the varied literature that surrounds it. The artist’s life history is lost to us. The painting itself remained undiscovered for more than two centuries after his death. This girl’s story is one of those which escaped the yellow pages of a historian’s journal, but the literature it went on to inspire ranges from Tracy Chevalier’s fiction, its movie adaptation, and play performances to scholarship that includes clinical studies as well as Edward Snow’s rather emotional account of his encounter with the stare. The painting, despite a lost history, did not get lost and managed to trouble us enough to bring forward a story—a story about the lack of a story.
Some stories will always get lost beneath unwritten pages of histories, simply because we don’t know them yet. But if you look around, there’s always one odd girl, one odd earring and one odd stare, looking back and asking, “Do you wonder why I exist?”
Written by Eshna Gupta
Painting by Johannes Vermeer
Image Edited by Chetanya Godara