Girl with a glass earring: Vermeer catalogue sheds new light on artist's masterpiece

Earlier this month, the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands’ national museum of art and history, Vermeer exhibition opened. The first retrospective exhibition of Johannes Vermeer in the history of the Rijksmuseum, it has some 28 paintings – from seven countries around the world – making it the most complete overview of his work ever mounted.

In addition to the logistical feat of pulling together three-quarters of Vermeer’s output into one show, the curators Gregor J.M. Weber and Pieter Roelofs have also undertaken extensive research into the artist and his works.

The results of this research are published in the  exhibition catalogue accompanying the show. One the most surprising findings from this research  relates to Vermeer’s best known painting - Girl with a Pearl Earring. In his essay on Tronies, Roelofs argues that the model in this famous painting is most likely sporting an imitation glass pearl not a real pearl. 

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1664-67) (image courtesy Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1664-67) (image courtesy Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Roelofs writes:

'In Vermeer’s time pearls were mainly imported from Asia, and the Gulf of Mannar, situated between the south-east of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka, was considered a prime location for pearl fishing. Pearls from this region were generally white in colour and weighed no more than 1 gram, which amounts to a diameter of 8 or 9 millimetres. The impressive size of the drop pearl that Vermeer depicted in his Mistress and Maid and Girl with a Pearl Earring would have been astronomically expensive and far beyond the painter’s means'  

The exhibition catalogue is due out 2 March. You can read more about the book and pre-order a copy here.