Is she turning towards youor away from you? No one can agree.
She's the mysterious subjectof Dutch master Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with the Pearl Earring," a painting often referred toas the 'Mona Lisa of the North.
' Belonging to a Dutch style of idealized, sometimes overly expressive paintings known as tronies, the "Girl with the Pearl Earring"has the allure and subtlety characteristic of Vermeer's work.
But this painting stands apart fromthe quiet narrative scenes that we observe from afar in manyof Vermeer's paintings.
A girl reading a letter.
A piano lesson.
A portrait artist at work.
These paintings give us a sense ofintimacy while retaining their distance, a drawn curtain often emphasizesthe separation.
We can witness a milkmaidserenely pouring a bowl of milk, but that milk isn't for us.
We're only onlookers.
The studied compositionin Vermeer's paintings invokes a balanced harmony.
With the checkered floor in manyof his works, Vermeer demonstrates his commandof perspective and foreshortening.
That's a technique that uses distortion to give the illusionof an object receding into the distance.
Other elements, like sight lines,mirrors, and light sources describe the moment through spaceand position.
The woman reading a letter by an open window is precisely placed so the windowcan reflect her image back to the viewer.
Vermeer would even hide the legof an easel for the sake of composition.
The absence of these very elements bringsthe "Girl with the Pearl Earring" to life.
Vermeer's treatment of light and shadow,or chiaroscuro, uses a dark, flat background to furtherspotlight her three-dimensionality.
Instead of being like a set piecein a theatrical narrative scene, she becomes a psychological subject.
Her eye contact and slightly parted lips,as if she is about to say something, draw us into her gaze.
Traditional subjects of portraiturewere often nobility or religious figures.
So why was Vermeer painting an anonymous girl? In the 17th century, the city of Delft,like the Netherlands in general, had turned against ruling aristocracyand the Catholic church.
After eight decades of rebellionagainst Spanish power, the Dutch came to favor the ideaof self-rule and a political republic.
Cities like Delft were unsupervisedby kings or bishops, so many artists like Vermeerwere left without traditional patrons.
Fortunately, business innovation spearheaded by the Dutch East India Company transformed the economic landscapein the Netherlands.
It created a merchant classand new type of patron.
Wishing to be representedin the paintings they financed, these merchants preferred middle class subjects depicted in spaces that lookedlike their own homes surrounded by familiar objects.
The maps that appear in Vermeer'spaintings, for example, were considered fashionable and worldly by the merchant class of what is knownas the Dutch Golden Age.
The oriental turban worn by the "Girlwith the Pearl Earring" also emphasizes the worldlinessof the merchant class, and the pearl itself, a symbol of wealth,is actually an exaggeration.
Vermeer couldn't have affordeda real pearl of its size.
It was likely just a glass or tin dropvarnished to look like a pearl.
This mirage of wealth is mirroredin the painting itself.
In greater context, the pearl appearsround and heavy, but a detailed view shows that it'sjust a floating smudge of paint.
Upon close inspection, we are remindedof Vermeer's power as an illusion maker.
While we may never know the real identityof the "Girl with the Pearl Earring," we can engage with her portraitin a way that is unforgettable.
As she hangs in her permanent homein the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, her presence is simultaneously penetratingand subtle.
In her enigmatic way, she representsthe birth of a modern perspective on economics, politics, and love.