Still, today women are expected to draw out witty conversation from male suitors but remain chastely aloof themselves. The quiet and modest behavior expected of women may have been framed to protect the virtue of women. This did not prevent them from engaging in quiet pastimes, discreet courtships, and solitary chores as a mark of refinement. In that age, as is still the case in some European countries today, access to private spaces was restricted by etiquette.

Often the woman is shown in poses that are non-confrontational, suggesting withdrawal. The effect is somewhat ambiguous: present – absent, within-without, to be or not to be.

This understated message confers a sense of subtlety and open-endedness. The anonymity of the figures within them encourages the beholder to identify with the depicted, even as the viewer’s imagination to read the painting is set free. They are guardians of their spaces and secrets, or at least their inner life is often alluded to elicit an empathetic response. It is a subject-made object, which is new in European painting  ( Marjorie E. Wieseman Vermeer’s Women, 2011). The representation of the young women is made as it appears to the eye from the artist’s vantage point. But does the young woman’s eyes radiate excitement? Or is there a tension between the opaqueness and indeterminacy of the European painting and the tinge of sadness of the young sitter’s prospects and the form she is depicted in?

In any event,  Vermeer did not idealize this absorption and contemplative nature of female existence in observable domestic settings. On the contrary, he combined naturalist depiction with a realist immediacy of those activities with a rare sense of simple and balanced compositions harmonized by the rendering of light and atmospherics using a painterly technique in terms of small paste dots and dabs of paint, a precursor of pointillism.

In the portrait of a Girl with an Earring (1667), a young girl is depicted in a manner that diverges somewhat from Vermeer’s interior paintings. Her look is sensual. The pose is half-torso. She is looking over her shoulder. She wears a headscarf, a fashionable gold jacket, and a pearl earring.

Vermeer uses several thin, flesh-colored glaze layers over a transparently modeled base to attain softly merging flesh tones. Light is reflected on the eyes, lips, slightly opened mouth and teeth, and earrings to augment the impression of a melting softness. She is quite a character. Unlike a portrait, it is intended to remain anonymous ( Karl Schütz Vermeer the Complete Works, 2017).

The use of shadow light creates a sense of three-dimensionality and an illusion of depth. This interplay is most evident in the girl’s face with shadings on her high cheekbones, a sign of beauty. Her neck is also shaded. Her eyelashes are barely visible.  It is set against a black background, a suitable choice for the allusion to a woman’s command of eroticism and guardian of men’s access to sex. Initially, the knowledge contained a green drapery: Men act, women grow. The young girl’s identity is unknown ( Theresa Machemer Researchers reveal hidden details in Vermeer’s Girl with an Earring, 2020).

Van Gogh later stated about Vermeer: “This strange painter’s palette is blue, lemon, yellow, pearl grey, black, white….the arrangement…is as characteristic of his as the black, white, grey pink is of Velazquez.” The Palette in a Girl with an Earring is Vermeer’s useful one. He executed smooth gradations and blends of tones to achieve softly modeled forms and delicate color variations. Investigations into the painting have revealed that the ultramarine is derived from precious Lapis Lazuli sourced. A red pigment from an insect from Latin-American is used for the lips. The white in the earring and the eyes are made of the same British lead.

Suppose the dialectic between ruptures and revolutions of European painting became the way European painting progressed. In that case, Vermeer’s Girl with an Earring reminds us that a certain vagueness and uncertainty, neither here nor there, isn’t always a disadvantage to moving forward in a sagacious way. Or at least to deeply reflect on the relationship between art and the ideas or theories that lie at its roots. And that is all I have to say about why Girl with an Earring is a compelling portrait.