Vermeer'sGirl with a Pearl Earring is one of the most well known paintings of the modern age. The mysterious girl has been the subject of novels, acted on screen by Scarlett Johansson, and recreated as a Banksy mural — but we know nothing about the girl herself, and with good reason.
Johannes Vermeer was not painting a portrait. The quiet, casual figure in her striking headwrap is what’s known as a Tronie, an idealized portrait designed to evoke an emotion rather than depict a specific person. The tronie was a common trope in Dutch Golden Age painting, typically showcasing a stereotype or caricature — like an angel, beggar, or someone ugly of old. The tronie is not a politically-correct trope, usually vulgar or demeaning — so Vermeer's sensitivity and care stand out, and make it even harder to resist asking, "who was that girl?"