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Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

An in-depth look into the materials and methods of Johannes Vermeer and the studio practices of 17th-c. Dutch painters


From approximately the mid 1660s when it was presumably painted, nothing was known of the Girl with a Pearl Earring until it was sold in 1882.

The Larson Inventory: 1664

The Girl with a Pearl Earring has been associated with an estate sale (August 4, 1664) of  the London/The Hague sculptor Johan, or John Larson. Larson was an acquaintance of Constantijn Huygens (one of the most renowned Dutch men of culture of the time) who seems to have been aware of Vermeer's presence in Delft. Larson may have bought the picture directly from Vermeer on a business trip to Delft in 1660. The Hague is only an hour walk from Delft and the two cities were connected by a ferry which ran back and forth many times each day. Moreover, it was quite common In Vermeer's time for artists to frequent each other at local taverns or in their studios. If the painting purchased by Larson was indeed the Girl with a Pearl Earring, it ought not to be  too difficult to image why the Girl with a Pearl Earring would have appealed to a sculptor.

Larson's picture, described as a tronie, (a character head, the term tronie is explained in detail on the page Portrait or Tronie?) was sold for at 10 guilders, a little more than 10 days pay of a Delft clothe worker.1 However, Vermeer scholar John Montias finds it "hard to believe that the very beautiful Girl with a Pearl Earring which is generally dated around 1664-1665, was the painting in the Larson estate. Of fairly large dimensions for a single head, it surely would have been held in esteem by contemporaries to be valued more than ten guilders at the time the Larson inventory was taken in August 1664, precisely one year after the French art connoisseur and diarist Balthasr de Monconys had been told about the sale of a single-figured for six hundred guilders." 2

The commercial value of a painting in seventeenth-century Netherlands is not always easy to determine. Even though the Dutch had begun to appreciate and collect still-life, landscape and portraiture for their own specific beauty, religious and mythological subjects still were considered  more adapted to express the higher goals of art: the elevation of the human spirit. In the 1696 Dissius sale in which 21 Vermeer's were sold, a tronie by Rembrandt was sold for only 7 guilders and 5 stuivers and two tronies by Vermeer himself were sold at 17 guilders while most of his other paintings were sold for considerably higher prices.

Vermeer's Death Inventory: 1676

Both the Girl with a Pearl Earring and Girl with a Red Hat have been associated with reference to tronies in Vermeer's death inventory of February 29, 1676 : "2 Tronies painted in Turkish fashion."  However, the paintings, which were found in the kitchen were among other works of art, were not specified as being by Vermeer's hand.

The Dissius Collection: 1696

More than one scholar to associate the painting with one of three descriptions in the 1696 Dissius sale in Amsterdam where 21 paintings by the master were sold. Item no. 38, "a tronie in antique dress, uncommonly artful, 36 guilders -  0 stuivers" conceivably fits the Girl with a Pearl Earring but the term tronie is so general as to be of scarce value unless we take into consideration description item no. 39, "Another ditto Vermeer 17 guilders - 0 stuivers" and 40, "A pendant of the same, 17 guilders  - 0 stuivers."

"Almost any costume with a bolt of material thrown over the shoulder could explain the reference to a figure as in "antique" dress." 3  Vermeer's Girl in a Red Hat, Study of a Young Woman and  Girl with a Flute could all be considered tronies in antique dress.

Had one of the tronies been theGirl with a Pearl Earring, the low price of 17 guilders paid for the each seems entirely disproportionate to other paintings in the same auction and similar size such as The Milkmaid (no. 2 ) which sold for 175 guilders and Woman with a Balance (no. 1) which sold for 155. How could it be that in 1696 the Girl with a Pearl Earring, which now universally held to be one of Vermeer's absolute masterpieces, could have been estimated to be worth only a fraction of the two paintings mentioned above? The answer may lie not such much in the diverse perception of the painting's purely esthetic contents,  but rather in subject matter and compositional complexity. For further discussion of the commercial evaluation of tronies, see Portrait or Tronies?

The Tombe Sale: 1881

The first certain reference to the work did not occur until 1881, when the collector Arnoldus Andries des Tombes (1818-1902) bought it (the Girl with a Pearl Earring) in The Hague for next to nothing.

"The history of the acquisition of the Vermeer has by now become legendary. Des Tombe purchased Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1881 at a sale at the Venduhuis der Notarissen in the Nobelstraat in The Hague for 2 guilders with a 30 cent premium. Unfortunately, the invoice, which was given to the Mauritshuis in 1944, has disappeared without a trace. Thanks to a notice in the former daily Het Vaderland of 3 March 1903, in which the bequest was made public (pasted in the Mauritshuis’ cuttings album), we know that Victor de Stuers had recognised the painting as a work by Vermeer. De Stuers was Des Tombe’s neighbour – his collection in his residence at 24 Parkstraat was also open to all interested parties – and the two gentlemen had gone together to the auction preview. Des Tombe and De Stuers agreed not to bid against each other. After its acquisition, the badly neglected canvas was sent to Antwerp, where it was ‘restored’ by the painter Van der Haeghen. In the Des Tombe family, however, the story was that Des Tombe and his friend De Stuers had seen a painting that ‘seemed rather beautiful but was too dirty to evaluate properly’. In this version, it was only after the picture had been cleaned that the signature became visible, making clear the identity of the painter.

After Des Tombe’s death on 16 December 1902 (his wife had died the year before and their marriage had remained childless) it turned out that he had secretly bequeathed 12 paintings to the Mauritshuis, including Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring."4

in the Mauritshuis Bulletin , volume 17, no. 1, March 2004)

"Abraham Bredius was the first to sing the praises of the girl's head: "VERMEER lays them all; the head of a girl, which would almost have one forget that one was looking at a canvas, and that unique glow of light, takes sole hold of your attention." In 1890 Des Tombe lent the picture to an exhibition at the Pulchri, the artists' society in The Hague, and in 1900 it was for some time on view in the Mauritshuis, together with the Allegory of Faith. Des Tombe died on 16 December 1902. He bequeathed twelve paintings, including Girl with a Pearl Earring to the Mauritshuis. The media recalled how the work had been acquired for only a couple of guilders, reporting that its current value had been assessed at forty thousand guilders. The public quickly to the "Dutch Mona Lisa" to its bosom. In 1908 Jan Veth articulated a widespread sentiment: "More than with any other VERMEER one could say that it looks as if it were blended from the dust of crushed pearls." 5

  1. A Delft clothe worker in 1642 got 18 stuivers a day, there were 20 stuivers to 1 guilder and a 6-pound loaf of rye bread cost about 4 1/2 stuivers).
  2. Some scholars have doubted that the baker Van Buyten who had shown the painting to De Monconys had actually paid the sum for his painting. He may either wished rather to impress the French connoisseur favourably or dissuade him from offering a low price for his Vermeer. As is obvious from De Moncony's' diary, he, along with many other buyers as well, esteemed paintings not only for the aesthetic value but for the subject and compositional complexity. It might be remembered that the highest documented price paid for a Vermeer in his times was 400 guilders for the Allegory of Faith in a 1699 estate auction of Herman van Swollin 27 years after Vermeer's death. The Allegory of Faith is one of Vermeer's largest and most elaborate compositions..
  3. Vermeer and the School of Delft, Walter Liedtke New York, 2001, p. 389
  4. Quentin Buvelot, "COLLECTING HISTORY: ON DES TOMBE, DONOR OF VERMEER'S GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING" in the Mauritshuis Bulletin , volume 17, no. 1, March 2004
  5. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. with contributions by Albert Blankert , Ben Broos, and Jorgen Wadum, Johannes Vermeer, 1995, p. 168