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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

Who Was She? Maria Vermeer, Magdalena van Ruijven or Griet?

Even though the young girl who has looked over her shoulder at viewers for more that 300 years cannot be objectively identified, scholars and laymen alike have often speculated who she may have been. "Set against a dark, undefined background, and dressed in an exotic costume, this striking young woman cannot be placed in any specific context. She holds no attributes that might, for example, identify her as an allegorical figure, perhaps a muse or a sibyl."1 Even her age is not entirely clear. Almost certainly, it is this very lack of a historic or iconographic framework that conveys such immediacy to all who view her.2

Of Vermeer's 40 or so representations of women, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is the most broadly rendered. Scarce attention is given to the biographical incidents of physiognomy,  primary requisites of formal portraiture of the time. One modern critic went so far as to state that Vermeer seems to have lost his patience while painting faces and treated them as if they were still-lives.

Owing to the intimacy of Vermeer's pictures, it has been  often supposed that the artist represented members of his own family, even though scholarship maintains that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was not conceived as a portrait in the seventeenth-century Dutch sense of the term. Gerard ter Borch, a fellow Dutch artist whose subjects and refined technique are believed to have influenced the younger Vermeer, frequently employed members of his own family as models, in particular his step-sister Gesina. The economic advantage of having ones relative pose for long hours would be obvious.

Maria Vermeer?

In any case, the most frequently mentioned candidate for the model for the Girl with a Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s eldest daughter Maria, who was probably born in 1654. Maria would have  been about twelve by 1665-1667, the dating scholars have assigned to the painting, although dating Vermeer's work has proved particularly vexing. One critic remarked that "only a father can paint such portraits." 

As attractive as the idea may be that Vermeer's daughter posed for the picture, it lacks even a minimum of foundation. With no evidence other than the apparent but unproven compatibility of age, critics have hinged their suppositions on interpretation of the girl's expression, which is, perhaps, no less perhaps enigmatic than that of Leonardo's Mona Lisa.

Magdalena van Ruijven?

Magdalena, the only daughter of Vermeer's patron, Pieter Van Ruijven, has also been proposed as a possible candidate. This supposition may be indirectly reinforced by the documented presence of a pair of tronies (the Girl with a Pearl Earring is now almost universally believe to belong to this Northern category of painting)  by Vermeer’s hand sold in the 1696 Dissius auction in Amsterdam in which 21 paintings by Vermeer were sold. Jacob Dissius had inherited these paintings through his marriage to Van Ruijven's daughter. Van Ruijven acquired these painting directly from Vermeer himself.

Magdalena was approximately the same age as Vermeer’s youngest daughter Maria, and the Van Ruijven and the Vermeer families were near neighbors in Delft. It is tempting to imagine that the work’s striking emotional character is a testimony of a more than formal client/artist relationship that Vermeer and rich, self-styled maecenas of Delft appears to have entertained.5 However, "no category in pictorial art is so conservative as portraiture. A portrait is not just a likeness of an individual to be preserved for posterity; it was also an image of pride, a projection of social position." 6 It is easy to appreciate this difference when we compare Rembrandt’s formal portraits with those of family members. 7 Would Van Ruijven, who had invested part of his economic resources in acquiring Vermeer’s bourgeois interiors of absolute formal perfection, have wished to portray his own daughter unconventionally clothed and gazing open-mouthed, without even a hint of her elevated social position? Delft connoisseurs had largely conservative tastes and there is no evidence that would suggest that Van Ruijven was an exception to this rule.

Even if the Girl with a Pearl Earring was once owned by Van Ruijven, he may have simply acquired it for his own enjoyment, regardless of who had posed for the painting. In the seventeenth century there was an avid market for tronies, which were considered a separate genre although for an artist they also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings.


The idea that Vermeer employed a maid as the sitter has been aired in recent fictional literature. There exists absolutely no historical evidence that supports this idea. Even though the novel and movie which followed make no pretence to historical truth, the portrayal of the Vermeer family has drawn criticism by Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque Art of the National Gallery in Washington, organizer of the historic 1995/1996 Vermeer exhibition as well as author of important publications on the Delft master. In Wheelock's words: "the film was quite beautiful, but I had a hard time with the characterization of Mrs. Vermeer. She was portrayed as a very unpleasant individual. And there's nothing at all remotely to suggest that in what we know about her. She was a model for a lot of his work. I don't think the picture is fair to her memory."

Writer and London Times columnist Simon Jenkins has penned a critical article entitled "Vermeer, youv'e been framed!" in which the author attempts to picked apart the premise of the novel and film. Jenkins is extremely unsatisfied with both the portrayal of Vermeer and his wife as well as with the idea that Griet, the author's fictitious young maid, posed for Vermeer's masterwork Girl with a Pearl Earring. He argues that the negative images of Catharina and Johannes Vermeer "are doomed to be forever fixed in the public imagination as the 'true' Vermeer." According to Jenkins that is wholly at odds with all that scholars have gleaned of Vermeer’s home life..." and that "there is not a shred of evidence that Johannes and Catharina were unhappily married." Jenkins is convinced that Vermeer's youngest daughter, Maria, posed for the Mauritshuis masterpiece.

Foremost experts in Vermeer's life and art have been prone to believe that Vermeer's marriage was a good one. Walter Liedtke, Curator of Northern European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organizer of the Vermeer and the Delft School exhibition and author of the exhibition catalogue writes: "Vermeer evidently loved his slightly older wife, enough to give up his family religion (which was asking for troubles from some quarters of Delft." 8 John Michael Montias, author of the seminal study of Vermeer's extended family Vermeer and His Milieu, when questioning himself on the singularity of Vermeer's marriage to his wife Catharina, suggests that it was love which attracted the two and goes on to note that "'romantic love'  was not unknown in mid-seventeenth-century Holland. Indeed, it was thought to be a source of artistic aspiration." 9 Although we cannot objectively identify any of Vermeer's sitters,  critics have always believed that Vermeer's wife had posed for various paintings and it would seem logical that the artist painted the light, objects, themes and the people he most loved.

The Vermeer family: Posterity

In effect, even though there is no historical evidence that speak directly of the nature of Vermeer’s relationship with his wife, surviving archival documents suggest that Johannes and Catharina had been a reasonably good, if not finely matched couple. They had 15 children (4 of them did not survive infancy) a rare occurrence in seventeenth-century Netherlands where most couples had only two or three children. While the burden of so many children may have certainly made itself felt, their choice to have an unusually large family must have been reached together since Dutch couples who desired so evidently managed to keep their families within limits. Simon Schama has shown family planning was avidly practiced by the seventeenth-century Dutchmen, Catholics included.

If the general public were to believe Catharina was an antagonist to her husband's life and work, a historical injustice will have been dealt to both. Unfortunately, archival documents indicate quite clearly that Catharina had suffered a great deal before her marriage and after the death of Johannes. Moreover, her childhood memories was full of violence, fits of temper and tears. "Catharina came from a family traumatized by domestic abuse. Her father, Reynier Bolnes, once attacked his wife, Maria Thins, who was then pregnant, with a 'Stick.' Reynier Bolnes verbally assaulted Maria Thins and forced her to eat her meals alone. She in turn sent several petitions to the magistrates, at Gouda in an effort to secure a judicial separation. The sparring between husband and wife divided the Bolnes family into partisan camps: Maria received the support of her sister and brother (who was himself stabbed in a fight with one of Reynier Bolne's brothers), while Reynier enlisted the assistance not only of his son, Willem, who consistently sided with his father. Willem also attacked his sister Catharina, threatening on a number of occasions to beat her with a stick, although she was in the last stages of pregnancy."10

After Catharina's childhood, her tragedy did not end. Johannes died leaving her an enormous debt and numerous children to care for with no one to help except for her mother Maria Thins. Notary documents offer us another glimpse into her hardships as she later struggled  to keep her husband's masterpiece, The Art of Painting, from the hands of her creditors. One would at least suspect that she had acted so because of her love of her husband and for her pride in his work.

While it is only human to question oneself who the young girl of the Girl with a Pearl Earring may have been, perhaps nothing is to be gained by imposing modern stereotypes, especially if negative, on historical figures that lived 300 years ago and even more so if that figure has given to the world some of the most complex and moving depictions of human feeling. Obviously, is now difficult to understand why one would desire a family of a dozen or more children or how an artist might be able to withstand and even prosper creatively under such a burden. But it is well known that artists have produced their masterworks in an extremely wide variety of circumstances.

The Girl in The Art of Painting?

Perhaps the only reasonable tie that we can make with the sitter of the Girl with a Pearl Earring is, oddly enough, with another unidentified sitter (she most likely represents Clio)  in one of Vermeer’s masterworks, The Art of Painting. Credible comparisons between the female faces found in Vermeer's oeuvre have proved to be somewhat problematic, since the woman are portrayed in different lighting conditions, poses and presumably, ages. Vermeer seems never  to have never pursued at length neither the individual likeness nor their psychology. His pictures are always pervaded by a discreet classicism and his pondered rendering tends to generalize both animate and inanimate objects and purge them of excess individual personality.

The above image of the young woman who poses in The Art of Painting
has been slightly altered to permit a more accurate comparison of
likeness. The background to the left side of her face has
been darkened and the head has been tilted a few
degrees to the right.


The simple oval of the head, the flatness of the face, the cut of the lower jaw, and the interval between the upper lip and lower part of the nose are all similar as are the rather lengthy noses flattened at the bridge. Eyebrows are hardly perceptible above the oval eyes set wide apart. Even the poses are not as different as one might expect. But other than the facial likeness, the two girls are bonded by other elements as well. The band of white collar which peers out from under the dress of each sitter is almost identical in shape and function. The pure white impasto diagonal stroke of paint does not describe the garment so much as to accent the break between the girl's head and the strongly colored garment below.  Even the lowest curl of Clio's hair falls in the same place as the other's pearl. The scarf which falls from the blue knotted turban is  very similar to the one which hangs from the still-life in the Vienna canvas. The chromatic harmony of the yellow of Clio's book  and the blue of her wrap seem to have been inverted in dress and head-dress of the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Vermeer may have wished to rework the detail of Clio which he found particularly suggestive into an independent work. Or perhaps the Girl with a Pearl Earring was intended as a study for the Art of Painting.


The identity of the young girl remains an open and in the end and to some degree, an irrelevant question. Had the Vermeer deemed important the communication of girl's identity, it would a simple chore to leave some evidence in regards. Even her widely accepted identity with the pearl was not always so obvious as it appears today. In fact, the word "pearl" appears in the picture's title only after the first half of the twentieth-century. Until then. the painting had called "Girl with a Turban," or "Young Girl." (See Title for a list of modern titles given to the painting).

  1. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Johannes Vermeer, with contributions by Albert Blankert, Ben Broos, and Jorgen Wadum, Washington, 1995, p. 168
  2. ibid.
  3. Alejandro Vergara, catalogue of  Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003. p. 237
  4. Andres Malraux and Anthony Bailey have both indicated Maria as the possible sitter.
  5. Van Ruijven's wife, Maria Knuijt,  left Vermeer a conditional bequest of five hundred guilders in her will. Such a testament was extremely unusual at the time.
  6. R. H. Fuchs, Dutch Painting, London, 1978, p. 83
  7. The difference between Frans Hals’ formal portraits and his impromptu tronies is notably less that those of Rembrandts’, but Hals’ lively style of portraiture had largely gone out of favor and were superseded by Rembrandt’s own more formalized portraits. This tendency towards formalization continued into  the 1660s when Vermeer was at the height of his artistic powers.
  8. Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, New Haven and London, 2001, p. 149
  9. John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History
  10. Brian Jay Wolf, Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing, 2001