The Mona Lisa of the North

Courtney Gatus 11-16871

         The Mona Lisa, which is, no doubt, the best known, most parodied painting on the planet, reached its overwhelming stature because of the mysterious subject (traditionally believed to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo) portrayed ambiguously with an enigmatic smile, believed by doctors to be a sign of asthma, congenial palsy, or even a side-effect of mercury treatment for syphilis, which turned teeth an unsightly black. It has led the world in such baffling fascination. Any art critic would find this statement cliché, but to explain in layman’s term why it grew extremely popular: it was a highly innovative work of art at that time. It used oil rather than tempera, which was a trendy medium back then; and employed a new line softening technique called sfumato, flaunting Da Vinci’s genius in fusing its parts into a fluid, mysterious whole.


Salvador Dali's Self Portrait as Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa parody

         But we’re not here to discuss everything that has already been discussed about Mona Lisa. It has been the most visited, most written about, and most sung about work of art in the world, even the avant-garde art world has made note of the undeniable fact of its fame (try googling: Mona Lisa parody). This article will provide you information on its counterpart in the Netherlands, although very little is known about it – one of Johannes Vermeer’s masterpieces, The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

            As the name implies, the focal point of the painting is the pearl earring, which critics suggest that its type was unlikely to exist at that time. It has been speculated that Vermeer painted the earring from imagination. If this was the case, then it just shows his immense talent and capacity as an artist. Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter who specializes in domestic interior scenes portraying middle class life. He never seemed to be particularly wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt after his death in Delft. Perhaps it was because he produced very few paintings. Vermeer worked slowly and with great care. He is renowned among the art world for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work.

 Who is the Girl with a Pearl Earring?

         Like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the identity of the girl is the most debated aspect of the painting. Some suggest she was Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, who would have been about the same age of the girl depicted in the painting, while others believe it was the daughter of Vermeer’s principle commissioner, Pieter Van Ruijven. But the most popular, romanticized theory, one most people would like to believe as it was turned into a movie starring Scarlet Johansson, was that she was Griet, the servant girl – although there was no historical evidence to support the idea. It has only been developed in Tracy Chevalier’s novel, adapted into a film by Peter Webber, with Colin Firth to root for with his taciturn moodiness as Vermeer. 

Visually this film couldn't have been more stunning (ear piercing scene)


   In the story, a young, illiterate peasant girl named Griet came to live and work in the home of the promising, yet financially struggling Dutch master. Obsessed by her beauty, Vermeer insisted on using her as the subject for one of his works, much to the chagrin of his jealous wife. Despite the domestic havoc it caused, the collaboration between artist and subject resulted in one of the genuine masterpieces of the art world. Promising, yes. It was a ‘brainy novel whose passion is ideas’, but to this date, the true purpose or subject of the painting still remains a mystery.


 To me it would always be about the painter who poured all his love into a gloriously alluring work of art, and the girl who is warmly pleased with the presence of the one who peers at her.