Arts & Life
4:39 am
Sun February 3, 2013

Making Up A History For The 'Dutch Mona Lisa'

Originally published on Sun February 3, 2013 5:24 am

Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of his most famous paintings, but very little is actually known about it. The girl herself is a mystery who has inspired both a novel and a movie speculating on her true story.

The painting is back in the United States for the first time since 1995, at San Francisco's de Young museum. In honor of the painting's return visit, The Guardian newspaper asked its readers to supply their own stories about the girl, her earring, and the painting that immortalized them.

Ruth Spencer, community coordinator for The Guardian, tells NPR's Rachel Martin that stories came in from all over the world. "Some people wrote from the perspective of the girl, others wrote from Vermeer's perspective. We asked readers to really go wild in their imaginations."

One story imagines that Vermeer's wife, left alone while her husband works in isolation, begins to fear he is having an affair and sends the young girl to be both his muse and his downfall. But the girl is herself a painter, using Vermeer as a false front to avoid attention — making the famous image a self-portrait.

Another, more comic take, posits that the painting is a failed marketing gambit by a pearl earring manufacturer, who went out of business before being able to add its logo to the finished work.

"The mystery is part of the allure," Spencer says. "You look at her, you read the novel, you can even watch the movie and you might think that you know the story of the girl, but you never really do. That's really what continues to feed our desire to see this portrait."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The mysterious identity of the subject of Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring has inspired many interpretations as to who she was, including a bestselling novel by Tracy Chevalier that was adapted into a film. "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" - the painting - is back in the United States for the first time since l995. It's now at San Francisco's De Young museum. And in honor of the painting's return visit, The Guardian newspaper asked readers to supply their own story of the painting. The paper has just posted its 25 favorite stories online. And the Guardian's Ruth Spencer joins us to talk about what kind of response they got. Welcome to the program, Ruth.

RUTH SPENCER: Thank you, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, did you get a lot of submissions and were there any kind of common threads from readers?

SPENCER: We did get a lot of submissions from all over the world. Some people wrote from the perspective of the girl. Others wrote from Vermeer's perspective. We asked readers to really go wild in their imaginations.

MARTIN: So, what were some of your personal favorites?

SPENCER: Well, I brought a couple of excerpts today here actually that I could read from. And this one is from Simon Fox: (Reading) Vermeer is lauded as a great painter in his region and enjoys the fruits of his labor. However, he always insists on working in isolation, sometimes for months at a time. His wealthy wife believes he is having an affair and dispatches a young woman to become his muse in the hope of trapping him. But the young woman is also a painter and, not wanting to become famous, is using Vermeer as her stooge. The girl with the pearl earring is in fact a self-portrait.

MARTIN: Ooh. Twist ending. I like that one. Any of these particularly comical, funny interpretations?

SPENCER: Yep, definitely. This one from Steven Taylor: (Reading) As the man responsible for the marketing strategy at the Pearl Earring Company, it was my responsibility to come up with something more alluring than the poem by Carol Ann Duffy we'd been hoping to use. Vermeer's painting seemed the perfect fit. It's just a pity that the company went bust before our logo could be added to the top right of the painting. It makes a mockery of commerce. We got the girl through the Nathaniel Hawthorne Scarlet Letter Agency. No mystery there, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Very clever. What do you think is the root of this fascination?

SPENCER: Well, I think, you know, the mystery is part of the allure. You look at her, you read the novel, you can even watch the movie and you might think that you know the story of the girl. But you never really do. You know, that's really what continues to seed our desire to see this portrait.

MARTIN: Ruth Spencer is the community coordinator for the Guardian's U.S. digital newsroom. Ruth, thanks so much for talking with us.

SPENCER: Thank you. Thanks so much.

MARTIN: For more on the Guardian's Vermeer contest, go to our website at npr.org.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.