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‘Faces painted full of life’: The tronies of Johannes Vermeer

Posted on 10 Feb 2023

Between 1664 and 1667, Vermeer created a set of paintings whose subjects ‘look us straight in the eye’. In this extract from ‘Vermeer’, accompanying the Rijksmuseum exhibition, Pieter Roelofs explores the striking effect of Girl With a Pearl Earring, Girl With a Red Hat, and more.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1664–67, oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, The Hague. Bequest of Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, The Hague.

Around 1660, Johannes Vermeer began to explore new territory in his painting, moving on from the intimate private interiors with scenes of modern everyday life that he had developed as a twenty-five-year-old painter. The turning point in this evolution seems to have taken place in the process of painting his Girl Interrupted at her Music, around 1659−1661, in which the seated young woman gazes at us with interest. Recent research at the Rijksmuseum has shown that the girl’s gaze was initially more inwardly directed, but Vermeer then altered the position of her eyes and opted to have her make contact with the viewer. He took this transgression of the painting’s boundary further in around 1659–1661 in the Girl with a Wine Glass, in which the protagonist, looking at the viewer with an uninhibited gaze and a broad smile, pulls us into the scene.

Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Johannes Vermeer,. 1659–61, oil on canvas. The Frick Collection. New York. Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

There is a remarkable contrast between Vermeer’s extrovert depictions of figures making explicit contact with the viewer on the one hand and his extremely introvert works in which he depicts his female protagonists unaware of the onlooker on the other. These two paths (zooming in as well as the outward gaze of connection) led to the creation of a small set of paintings, between 1664 and 1667, of close-up images of girls who look us straight in the eye: Girl with a Flute, Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Girl with a Veil. Although these informal bust-length paintings were not intended as portraits, they would undoubtedly have been based on studies of live models. In this Vermeer joined the trend of the tronie, a popular painting type in his time: character faces painted full of life and fantasy portraits of figures in fictional costumes, in which painters not only studied the human face and its expressions but also explored the effects of light and shadow.


Vermeer exhibition. Photo Rijksmuseum/ Henk Wildschut.

Innovation and Experiment

The four tronies by Vermeer known to this day depict a close-up scene of a seated young woman in a more or less fantasy costume, fully aware of our presence. The depictions are remarkably informal in character and allow the girls to make contact with us, each in her own but very direct way. With their slightly opened mouths and glistening lips, Girl with a Flute, Girl with a Red Hat and Girl with a Pearl Earring share a somewhat similar facial expression. Their features are idealized, while Girl with a Veil shows clearly individual characteristics. Dutch art historian Bob de Vries indeed described her in 1966 as ‘the most portrait-like painting of Vermeer’s to have come down to us’.

The four girls thus share similarities in their expression and poses, but each shows an distinctive quality of her own as well. Vermeer painted Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Girl with a Veil in profile, with the face turned over the shoulder towards us. With this Vermeer elaborated on the innovation he had first applied around 1659−1661 in Girl Interrupted at her Music, which draws the viewer directly into the painted scene. He had the forearm of the girl with a red hat resting on the back of a chair and those of the girl with a veil on the picture’s edge, following a classical Renaissance pose tried and tested by countless artists in imitation of the Italian painter Titian since the early sixteenth century. We get a frontal view of the girl with a flute. Innovatively, the painter here depicts her body at a slight angle, her weight leaning slightly on her left arm on the edge of a table, leaving her right hand free.

Whereas Vermeer depicted the girl with a pearl earring and the girl with a veil as bust-length paintings showing their torso in full, in the other two paintings he played with refinement with the position of the girls in relation to the image plane. In Girl with a Red Hat he resolutely cropped the curve of her back on the left and partially concealed her right hand behind the lion’s-head finial of the chair, which he cleverly shoved towards us with the seat under the picture’s edge.

Installation exhibition Vermeer. Photo Rijksmuseum/Kelly Schenk.

In Girl with a Flute the slight cropping of her left sleeve, the side of her hat and the fingertips of her right hand are even more inventively conceived and executed. In front of her we can still just glimpse the edge of a table top, oriented forwards from the painting in a way comparable to the chair in the other panel and as a result making a connection with the viewer’s space. A blue cloth is now draped over the table, as found in several of his paintings.

We also see Vermeer’s inventiveness in the use of colour in these two small panels in particular. The most evident is the application of green earth in the skin colour and shadows over the flesh tones of the faces, a pigment that was used extensively in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy but not yet found in this application in the work of any other contemporary Dutch painter. Following its use in his experimental tronies Vermeer applied this green earth in several of his later paintings in the flesh tones of his figures. Each in its own way, Vermeer’s tronies demonstrates a sense of composition and an eye for experiment that fit in perfectly with the experience, evolution and inventiveness of Vermeer as a painter around the mid-1660s.


Vermeer exhibition. Photo Rijksmuseum/ Henk Wildschut.

Fashion-Conscious Daughters or Vain Young Women?

Belgian writer Gustave Vanzype was the first to suggest, in 1908, that both the girl with a pearl earring and the girl with a veil were one of Vermeer’s daughters. The inclination to see his family members in his paintings continues to this day. While it is conceivable that the painter had one or more of his daughters pose for him on occasion, this cannot be proven. The Vermeer girls were born starting in 1654−1655 and were therefore at most ten to thirteen years old between 1664 and 1667, when their father painted his tronies. In discussions of Girl with a Red Hat in the Vermeer literature, the supposedly androgynous appearance of the figure is repeatedly mentioned.

In keeping with the fashion of their time, the three young women in Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Girl with a Veil have their shaved eyebrows in common, while this facial hair is visible above the eyes of Girl with a Flute. Does this suggest that this painting preceded the other works? While the forehead of the girl with a pearl earring is covered by her headscarf, the fashionably receding hairline of the girl with a veil is pronouncedly depicted by Vermeer. Here the Delft painter was reflecting a phenomenon critically described in 1682 by Utrecht schoolmaster Simon de Vries in relation to vanity: ‘Discomfort also goes with pride. This can be attested to by those who pull out the hair at the top of their forehead with little tongs or pincers in order to give this a broader appearance, or out of their eyebrows to make them thinner.’

Vermeer exhibition. Photo Rijksmuseum/ Henk Wildschut.

Girls with Pearls

One of the most evocative similarities among the four girls in the tronies are their earrings set with pearls. Girl with a Pearl Earring even owes its modern title to this costly ornament. As Dutch painter and art critic Jan Veth described the pearl in the painting in 1908: ‘More than in any other VERMEER, one could say that it seems forged from the dust of crushed pearls.’ Vermeer often suggested his pearls with just a few brushstrokes, as in this latter painting, in which he placed a single bright touch of reflected light on the top left of the pearl, while showing the soft reflection of her undergarment’s white collar on its right underside.

In general the women in Vermeer’s paintings are not bedecked with a wide array of jewels. We see no rings, brooches or bracelets on them, merely a few ribbons in their hair on occasion. This makes it all the more remarkable that in about half of his paintings Vermeer depicted pearl earrings and necklaces, following a fashion trend of the third quarter of the seventeenth century that was also pictured in the paintings of Gerard ter Borch, Gabriël Metsu and Frans van Mieris. In Vermeer’s time pearls were mainly imported from Asia, and the Gulf of Mannar, situated between the south-east of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka, was considered a prime location for pearl fishing. Pearls from this region were generally white in colour and weighed no more than 1 gram, which amounts to a diameter of 8 or 9 millimetres. The impressive size of the drop pearl that Vermeer depicted in his Mistress and Maid and Girl with a Pearl Earring would have been astronomically expensive and far beyond the painter’s means.

Several years ago, Dutch art historian Monique Rakhorst called attention to a sketchbook from the third quarter of the seventeenth century belonging to Thomas Cletcher, a jeweller in The Hague, which provides an illustrative picture of the pearl trade and its exorbitant prices. For example, Cletcher reports that he purchased two large pearls in London for a thousand pounds in 1632, from which he made a pair of drop-pearl earrings for Princess Amalia of Solms. Three years later he sold her husband, Frederik Hendrik, a string of twenty pearls, for which the prince paid 30,000 guilders. He noted the characteristics of the various pearls and jewels he fashioned, as well as their value, which could reach 40,000 guilders. This glimpse into the world of a seventeenth-century Dutch jeweller makes it probable that in Vermeer’s work we are looking at imitation glass pearls, which in his time were mainly sold by Venetian glassblowers.


To read more, discover Vermeer: The Rijksmuseum’s major exhibition catalogue, the first major study on Vermeer’s life and work for many years.

Discover the book

Vermeer - The Rijksmuseum's major exhibition catalogue

Pieter Roelofs, Gregor J. M. Weber Out of stock