Johannes Vermeer lived from 1632 to 1675. He was relatively well known during his lifetime within the city of delft, but he faded into obscurity after his death. His reputation was only revitalized in the 19th century. He is today considered one of history's greatest painters, although only 34 paintings survive that are virtually certain to have been painted by him.
Vermeer painted during a period in art history known as the Dutch Golden Age, which spans most of the 17th century. This period overlaps with and extends beyond the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), which resulted in an independent Dutch republic. This new republic was very prosperous, and this meant that a relatively high percentage of the population had at least some disposable income, leading to a thriving culture of producing and buying artwork. While previous European art had largely been dominated by religious scenes, the art of the Dutch Golden Age showed a newly expanded range of subjects, including various categories of landscapes, still lifes, and scenes of domestic interiors. This shift was in part linked to the rise of the Protestant faith, a shift that is addressed in Chevalier's novel when Vermeer points out that the Protestant faith sees God in all aspects of life.
Portraits formed an important part of the artistic output during this time period, since well-to-do individuals would often commission portraits of themselves and their family members. Most of Vermeer's paintings, including “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” belong to a specific category of painting know as the tronie. Unlike a standard portrait, which aims to faithfully represent a specific individual who could be readily identified, tronies usually featured an unidentified or unknown subject, posed in an unusual way to achieve some striking visual effect. They usually show only a painted head or bust (unlike the relatively frequent full-length portrait) and would allow for many more liberties to be taken. In Vermeer's paintings of individuals, he is more interested in creating a visual effect and evoking a mood than he is in documenting the appearance of a specific individual. In fact, none of the sitters for his paintings has ever been definitively identified, although art historians have made guesses.
Vermeer's painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has a number of noteworthy features. The turban-style headdress would never have been worn in public, especially not by a young girl, and it does not appear in any of Vermeer's other paintings. There is also the heavy use of ultramarine pigment to create the brilliant shade of blue; this pigment was extremely expensive, and Vermeer was notable for using it heavily in his painting. The presence of the pearl aligns this painting with Vermeer's other works: eleven of his paintings show some kind of pearl jewelry. At this time period, pearls were a symbol of wealth and reflected the status of the Dutch Republic as a major trading and merchant power.
The history of the painting is unclear; after remaining in the van Ruijven family for several decades, it seems to have been sold in 1696 for only a modest price. The buyer was unknown, and the painting's whereabouts cannot be traced until 1881, when it reappeared in the Netherlands, and was sold for a tiny sum of money to a collector who had it restored and authenticated. After his death, the painting was bequeathed to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, where it remains to this day.