Girl with a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer, the Netherlands, 1665.
Oil on canvas.
Mauritshuis, inv. no. 670

One of the most captivating paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earringis a troniefeaturing a beautiful young woman wearing foreign dress, a blue and yellow turban, and an impossibly large pearl earring. As a tronie, the painting depicts an imaginary figure. She appears to be either turning away from or facing the viewer, at once foreign and intimate. Her luminescent pearl earring lends the painting an otherworldly quality and signals the broader Dutch obsession with pearls in the 17th century.

Vermeer was a technical master of light and reflections. His other paintings depict figures in enclosed spaces with singular sources of light. He included multiple layers of oil paint to produce a luminous sfumatoeffect, a hazy contour. Girl with a Pearl Earringembodies Vermeer’s artistic prowess. The massive pearl earring catches the light and refracts it across the woman’s beautiful face. Her slightly parted lips contain a sheen in the upper left corner, demonstrating how the pearl illuminates her sensuous face. The interplay of light and darkness creates an intimate atmosphere between the viewer and the painting’s enigmatic figure.

A famed painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer produced art at the peak of the Dutch maritime empire. The Dutch ended war with Spain in the 1648 Treaty of Münster, enabling the Dutch to operate freely in Eastern markets. Throughout the 17thcentury, the Dutch expanded trade through the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and gained a monopoly on the pearl trade in the East. Pearls became popular status symbols in the Netherlands, embodying the exotic beauty of the East. Just as the tulipmaniacraze saw Dutch elites paying exorbitant prices for tulips, the Dutch Golden Age saw elite similarly pining for pearls. Pearls contained a foreign mystique and were thus desirable objects. Vermeer often painted pearls in conjunction with women, drawing a parallel between the pearls’ milky beauty with the ideal woman’s moral purity.

Girl with a Pearl Earringis notable not only for its superb painting technique, but also for its reflection of European self-image. The woman’s turban, dress, and pearl earring are all symbols of foreignness to the European viewer, yet the woman’s beautiful European face is familiar. The figure in Girl with a Pearl Earringembodies Europe— specifically the Dutch— on the precipice of a new, globalist age. Conflating European standards of beauty with Eastern “exoticism,” the Europeans came to embrace foreign influences. Girl with a Pearl Earring’s tension between Eastern and Western beauty is what captivates viewers.


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Vermeer, Johannes. Girl with a Pearl Earring. 1665. Oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, the Hague. November, 13, 2018.

Klapmuts with Flowering Plants and Auspicious Objects



Anonymous, China, c. 1680-1720.
porcelain, glaze, cobalt.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. no. AK-RBK-15808-B

The klapmuts soup bowl was named after the broad-rimmed felt hats Dutch peasants traditionally wore during the Dutch Golden Age (c. 1600-1700). Artisans in the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties produced klapmuts for Dutch markets. While the Chinese consumed their broth-like soup directly from the bowl, the Dutch were forbidden to lift their bowls during meals. The klapmuts’ shallow body and broad rim allowed European eaters to use a spoon. The Chinese imbued their carefully-crafted porcelain exports with Chinese symbolism, leading the Dutch to consider klapmuts objects of good fortune. Klapmuts were prized in the Netherlands as signs of cosmopolitan wealth.

Chinese artisans aspiring after shengong— divine worksmanship— produced klapmuts bowls. These delicate blue-and-white porcelain bowls had an ivory glaze and bore no trace of the potter’s hand. When blue-and-white pottery gained popularity in Europe, Chinese kilns became centers of unprecedented production. Chinese artisanship remained more than mere production; it was a way to honor the dynasty through artistic prowess. It was a significant source of dynastic pride to produce high-quality pottery on a large scale.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) acquired klapmuts bowls through trade with China, marketing them in the Netherlands as “exotic” and “auspicious.” Chinese-produced klapmuts pervaded Dutch culture as status symbols, becoming staple pieces in still life paintings and aristocratic homes. The popularity of klapmuts bowls spurred Dutch reproductions of Chinese pottery. However, Delft-style klapmuts were not of the same caliber as Chinses klapmuts.

This particular bowl bears the “auspicious” image of a vase containing peacock feathers. Peacocks were the symbol of the Ming Dynasty, representing elegance and divine beauty. Peacock feathers served as status markers, as Chinese military and government officials wore peacock plumes in their hats. Members of the Chinese elite owned vases with small gaps to showcase the feathers’ fine quills.  The “auspicious” image of peacock feathers was thus conflated with Chinese imperial power.

Furthermore, the image of a vase containing peacock feathers allowed artisans to demonstrate their superb technique. Klapmuts were fine pottery, and painting a vase with peacock feathers was an ambitious undertaking. The vase with peacock feathers enabled artisans to express their technical skills and honor their dynasty.

The klapmuts bowl is a remarkable emblem of an emerging global mindset in the early modern period. The Chinese tailored their products for a global market, accommodating Dutch cultural needs through the bowl’s design. Simultaneously, the Chinese asserted their imperial might by including “auspicious” images of peacock feathers. The production and artisanship behind the klapmuts bowls demonstrate a marked awareness of Dutch-Chinese interdependence on the global stage.


Bowl (klapmuts) with flowering plants and auspicious objects. 1680-1720. Porcelain. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. October 12, 2018.,53.

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Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2008.