Meet the Girl with a Pearl Earring in The Hague

Toronto Star July 23, 2014, The Hague, Netherlands–She watches you everywhere you go.

From posters in store windows, shopping bags swinging on arms and umbrellas held by guards outside the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery where she lives, Girl with a Pearl Earring is looking at you over her shoulder.

There are almost as many images of her as there are people riding bicycles here in The Hague, 40 minutes southeast of Amsterdam.


Vermeer painted the unknown model in 1665, and, while she and the rest of his paintings were forgotten for centuries, they’ve had a good run of late. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is also a novel. This, in turn, was turned into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson. There’s another film, with less lip-licking and more science, Tim’s Vermeer, that explores whether the artist used mechanics and mirrors when he was painting.

Whether you know your Vermeer from a Van Gogh, it’s easy to be intrigued by the Girl and its artist.

“One thing you have to know about Vermeer is that we don’t know anything about him,” says Herman Weyers, the director of the Vermeer Centre in Delft, a 20-minute tram ride from The Hague.

No one is sure who taught Vermeer to paint, how many paintings he finished (there are 37 known works) or how “the master of light” managed to capture such detail without sketching on the canvas first.

The Vermeer Centre, on the site of the guild where the artist was dean of painters, explores the mystery with a model studio and replicas of Vermeer’s paintings displayed in the order they were painted. This shows how the same room, models and yellow jacket show up repeatedly in his work.

A quick tour gives you a great primer, or refresher, on the artist, the period and the paintings. The star of the show, with her glistening lip, big pearl earring and unusual blue and yellow head gear is about half way along.

“I don’t like her at all,” admits Weyers. “I like the little one with the red hat,” he says, gesturing to the Girl with the Red Hat a few paintings down. Many of Vermeer’s works are of solitary figures in ordinary indoor circumstances, but he did venture outside for inspiration a few times. The Little Street captures Delft as it looked in 1657 and when tourists ask where to get a picture of the site lost to history, Weyers jokes: “I send them next door, to the bike shop.”

You can see where Vermeer painted another outdoor scene, View of Delft, in 1661. There’s a monument marking the spot along the canal, and the boat tour stops so you can compare the view with a laminated version of the painting. Only the church tower is the same.

Bicycles are the king of traffic here; there are bike lanes everywhere. Signage, rules and helmets are largely absent, but cyclists manage to manoeuvre around each other while pedestrians, cars, and even big trucks yield to the almighty bike.

Rent a bike, stick to the right and enjoy people cycling along in their daily routine: a man carrying a step ladder, another carrying a case of Heineken, a woman pedalling in expensive red pumps, parents with kids in a giant bucket out front, a military man in full regalia.

You half expect to see a girl ride pass you on the left with her gold-and-blue turban flying.

The real Girl with a Pearl Earring is safe and sound in the beautifully renovated Mauritshuis, in the centre of The Hague, right next door to the Dutch parliament.

The museum was closed for extensive restorations and renovations, which included the creation of a lower level atrium that links the 17th-Century Mauritshuis with an adjacent 1930s building, and doubles the size of the Royal Picture Gallery.

As you walk up from the bright atrium, the white walls and stone steps give way to dark, carved, wooden railings and deep red walls filled with Dutch masterpieces. As I take in the paintings of Rembrandt, Rubens and other masters, a guide leading a quick tour says: “We’re looking at flowers from a galloping horse!”

I slow down to a trot and check out 200 works including the View from Delft before finally going to meet the girl I’ve seen everywhere around town.

Art critics say Vermeer has left it to us to fill in what the Girl with a Pearl Earring is thinking about, and, when I walk into the room and finally see her face to face, as dozens of people take her picture, I get the feeling that while she’s enjoying the attention, she’s also just a little amused by all the fuss.

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