Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1663-1665)

Vermeer, Jan (1632-1675)

Woman with a Pearl Necklace (Vrouw met parelsnoer)
Oil on canvas, 56.1 x 47.4 cm

SIGNATURE / INSCRIPTION: Inscription on the table top: IVMeer (IVM in ligature)

A young woman stands at a table and looks intently into a mirror hanging on the wall opposite her. She is in the process of putting on a pearl necklace, which she holds by yellowish ribbons. Cool light enters through a leaded-glass window. On the table is a still-life arrangement of a lidded vase, drapery, powder puff, jewelry box and comb. Through the differentiated tonal gradations, Vermeer created a masterfully finely nuanced colouring, which is further enhanced by juxtapositions such as the yellow of the curtain and the fur-trimmed jacket with the dark, blue-black foreground. By placing the vanishing point of the picture slightly above the tabletop, he achieves a monumentalization of figure and objects. The chair, which overlapped from the edge of the picture in the front right, created a sense of depth and at the same time increased the impression of intimacy.

At first glance, Vermeer, like many of his fellow painters, seems to have implemented the theme of the morning toilet, which was very popular in the 1650s and 1660s. In fact, painters such as Gerard ter Borch or Frans Mieris have found comparably intimate solutions, which may also have served as inspiration for Vermeer‘s painting. Vermeer‘s depiction, however, does not include the simple beauty and attractiveness of a young woman in the toilet, as has long been assumed. Nor is the hidden meaning of moral instruction revealed here in the first instance as a warning against indulging in earthly luxuries (vanitas) or too much arrogance (superbia). Rather, Vermeer achieves a shift in content through the reduction of action, subject matter and colour. The depiction loses its unambiguity. In contrast to the thematically related works of his contemporaries, Vermeer does not present the viewer with instructive wisdom, but rather the sensual complexity of visual processes of perception.

In this context, the corrections that Vermeer made during the painting process, which are visible in technical photographs, are very revealing. For example, on the chair in the foreground on the right, there was originally a lute-like stringed instrument. On the wall, behind the female figure, hung a map already laid out in rough brushstrokes, as it can also be seen in various other paintings by Vermeer. However, both motifs were removed from the painting by the painter for aesthetic and compositional reasons by painting over them. Whereas previously the pictorial layout was densely packed and restless due to the many objects depicted, the viewer’s interest is now directed directly to the female figure, whose gaze bridges the wall shaded in the finest values and directs the viewer’s attention to the mirror on the left. All attention is focused on the interplay between the figure of the young woman and her reflection, which is not visible to the viewer. The viewer’s gaze follows hers to the mirror opposite and is guided back to her face in a kind of circular movement over the drapery on the table to her bent fingers of her left hand. A narrative temporality is banished here, the concentration on the sensuality of the process of seeing dominates. This artistically ingenious move required an empty wall that did not distract the eye, which now stands in the center of the picture. It is not without reason that the objects that can be seen in the foreground are only reduced and heavily shadowed. (Gemäldegalerie)