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In The Girl with the Pearl, one of Vermeer's most compelling images, a young girl dressed in an exotic turban turns and stares at the viewer. Her liquid eyes and half-open mouth give her an immediacy of presence, but her purity and evocative costume give her an enduring quality, unconstrained by time or place.
The relatively large scale of this figure reveals how Vermeer enhanced the sense of realism through his expressive painting techniques. See more
For example, he animated the girl's half-smile with two small white dots on either side of her mouth, echoing the reflections in her eyes. He also ingeniously used his paintings to capture the effect of light falling on her features, turban and ochre-colored jacket. He indicated the light reflected from the white color in the pearl earring, but also, and more subtly, in the shadows on her left cheek.
The background of The Girl with the Pearl does not appear as it did when it left Vermeer's easel. Recent analysis shows that the artist painted a transparent "glaze" of green paint over the dark underpainting. Originally, the background would have appeared as a smooth, bright, hard, deep translucent green. This opposite tone to the warm tone of the flesh probably produced a more vivid optical effect than we see today.
Dark backgrounds were widely used in portraiture to enhance the three-dimensional effect of the figure. The girl's enigmatic expression, coupled with the mystery of her identity, has led some to compare her to the equivocal subject of Leonardo's Mona Lisa.
Despite the sense of immediacy thus created by Vermeer, the idealized image of the girl conveys a sense of timeless beauty. Vermeer worked as a classicist, purifying his images to express the enduring rather than transient qualities of life.