Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” Radiates from Within the Perfect Frame

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer   Louis XIII frame: Diego Salazar Antique Frames 

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer   Louis XIII frame: Diego Salazar Antique Frames 

Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a Dutch painter who is renown for stunningly beautiful and amazingly accurate depictions of light. His work infused everyday scenes of domestic life with a sense of the mysterious and a feeling of timelessness. The luminous qualities of his canvasses have inspired novelists, filmmakers and art historians to create narratives about this painter’s life and his techniques, about which there is relatively little knowledge. The most fun and famous of these perhaps being Peter Webber’s 2003 feature film “Girl With A Pearl Earring” (based on a novel of the same name by Tracy Chevalier) starring Scarlett Johansson as the fictional model for Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring,” and Colin Firth as the master painter himself.  

There is so much speculation on the techniques Vermeer used to create his works – it is not known with whom he studied, there are no preliminary drawings for his works, and the canvasses bear no traces of sketches to guide the painter – that his masterpiece “Girl With A Pearl Earring” is back in the news again with the launch of a two-week noninvasive study of the work at the Mauritshuis in the Netherlands. Entitled “The Girl In The Spotlight,” the study will employ state of the art scanners to analyze the layers of paint (NYTimes “Uncovering the Secrets of the Girl With A Pearl Earring,” by Nina Siegal, Feb 26, 2018). 

While this amazing study of the canvass of “Girl With A Pearl Earring” is going on, we thought it might be the appropriate time to analyze the frame. As any framer of fine art will explain, the quality of light in a painting is key to choosing the right surround. And a good framer will always stress that each painting needs to be considered as an individual work of art unto itself and be fitted with a frame that suits its own unique attributes, rather than conceding to framing trends which can be changeable as scholarship develops, and aesthetically limiting.   

“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is surrounded by an exquisite French Louis XIII frame that is carved and gilded. Both the painting, which is commonly attributed to 1665, and the frame date from the 17th century. The idea that all Dutch old master paintings should be surrounded by black lacquer frames in order to be historically appropriate is a false notion that has been circulating in the art world for years. While 17th century Dutch black lacquer frames often surround Dutch old master paintings to great effect, gilded frames were also widely used in the 17th century throughout Europe, including Netherlands. 

In the case of the frame around “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” the delicately carved ornamentation serves to reflect ambient light in a very subtle and understated way, as if the frame’s decoration were a piece of fabric, like a tablecloth or a hanging tapestry, in the same room where the charming young woman is standing. The frame’s design functions as an extension of the painting, and thereby draws the eye further into the painting itself. The rows of carved foliage on the frame are interrupted by a slender and flat textured section next to the frame’s inner-most lip; this section serves to subliminally remind the eye that the abundance of leaves and twigs are there to ultimately “frame” or set off the painting itself.

In conclusion, we could say that this frame around “Girl With A Pearl Earring” serves the purpose of all frames, which is to set the painting apart from the wall on which it hangs, in an ideal way. It sets the painting apart at the same time that it gracefully extends the painting beyond its perimeter. It compliments the painting with how its decoration reflects light without distracting from the quality of light in the painting. It was hand-crafted in the same century that the painting was rendered. And ultimately, when looking at this combination of painting and frame, the extraordinary beauty of the “Girl With A Pearl Earring” radiates from within the frame. 

Pictured above is a 17th century Louis XIII frame from the collection of Diego Salazar Antique Frames. It is almost identical to the frame that surrounds “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” One cannot help but wonder what masterpiece this frame once surrounded and how did this frame part from that painting. If frames could talk, its tale might inspire a novel or movie about its adventures. There doesn’t exist a scanner, however, that can conjure for us a particular frame’s history, but we can enjoy the beauty of these centuries old frames, that like the works of Vermeer retain their elusive radiance. 


Written by: Michelle Brangwen 

rebecca vicars