Vermeer’sGirl with a Pearl Earring is one of the most recognizable paintings of the modern age. The mysterious girl has been the subject of novels, acted on-screen by Scarlett Johansson, and recreated as a Banksy mural—but we know nothing about the girl herself, and with good reason.
Johannes Vermeer was not painting a portrait. The quiet, casual figure in her striking headwrap is a tronie, an idealized portrait designed to evoke an emotion rather than depict a specific person. The tronie was a popular trope in Dutch Golden Age painting, showcasing stereotypes and caricatures like angels, beggar, stumbling drunks, or someone ugly or old. The tronie was not a politically-correct trope, usually vulgar or demeaning. So Vermeer’s sensitivity and care stands out, and makes it even harder to resist asking, “who was that girl?”
Reed Enger, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," in Obelisk Art History, Published April 10, 2016; last modified October 27, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/johannes-vermeer/girl-with-a-pearl-earring/.