Known as “the Mona Lisa of the North”, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring over the years has become one of the most iconic artworks in history. Very little is known about the artist’s life, so we can’t even know if his model even existed. What it’s known is that he was a famous artist in his small town of Delft in the Netherlands, but since most of his paintings were actually bought by his main patron to decorate his house, he didn’t really have an international acknowledgment.
Another crucial factor to understand the mystery behind the model’s identity can be traced to the last years of Vermeer’s life. Wealthy people stopped buying his work due to the economic crisis caused by the Franco-Dutch War of 1672. As a result, he was highly in debt and, according to his wife, all those pressures sickened him and caused his death. She had to renounce to basically all their properties and will, so his work ended up in hands of his creditors.
Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring fictionalized the circumstances of the painting’s creation. There, Vermeer becomes close to a servant whom he uses as an assistant and has sit for him as a model while wearing his wife’s earrings. The novel later inspired the 2003 film and 2008 play of the same name. The painting also appeared in the 2007 film St Trinian’s, when a group of unruly schoolgirls steal it to raise funds to save their school.
Fellow artists went on to put Vermeer’s painting to iconic use in the 21st century. Ethiopian American Awol Erizku recreated the painting as a print in 2009, centering a young black woman and replacing the pearl earring with bamboo earrings as a commentary on the lack of black figures in museums and galleries. His piece is titled Girl with a Bamboo Earring. And in 2014, the English street artist Banksy reproduced the painting as a mural in Bristol, incorporating an alarm box in place of the pearl earring and calling the artwork Girl with a Pierced Eardrum — then covered with a mask, on the occasion of the Coronavirus pandemic of the 2020.