The Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665 by Johannes Vermeer

Here, in one of Vermeer's most engaging images, a young girl dressed in an exotic turban turns and gazes at the viewer. Her liquid eyes and half-opened mouth impart the immediacy of her presence, yet her purity and her evocative costume give her a lasting quality, unconstrained by time or place.

The relatively large scale of this figure reveals how Vermeer enhanced the sense of realism through his expressive paint techniques. For example, he enlivened the young girl's half smile with two small white dots on either side of her mouth, echoing the highlights in her eyes. He also ingeniously used his paints to capture the effect of light falling across her features, turban, and ocher-colored jacket. He evoked the delicacy of her skin with a soft contour for her check, which he created by extending a thin glaze slightly over the edge of the thick impasto defining the flesh color. He indicated reflected light from the white color in the pearl earring, but also, and more subtly, in the shadows on her left cheek. Finally, he painted the shaded portion of the blue turban by covering a black under-pamt with freely applied glazes of natural ultramarine.

The background of the Girl with a Pearl Earring does not appear as it does when it came off the Vermeer's easel some 360 years ago. Recent analysis demonstrates that the artist had painted a transparent "glaze" of green paint over the dark underpainting. Originally, the background must have appeared as a smooth, glossy, hard and deep translucent green. This tone set against the warm flesh tone probably produced a more vibrant optical effect than the one which can be observed today.

Dark backgrounds were widely used in portraiture to enhance the three-dimensional effect of the figure. In fragment 232 of his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci had noted that a dark background makes an object appear lighter and vice versa. The girl's enigmatic expression coupled with the mystery of her identity has led some to compare her to the equivocal subject in Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Unlike the Mona Lisa, however, Girl with a Pearl Earring is not a portrait but a tronie, a Dutch term for a character or type of person.

Despite the feeling of immediacy Vermeer thus creates, the young girl's idealized image conveys a sense of timeless beauty. Vermeer worked as a classicist, purifying his images to express lasting rather than transient qualities of life.