Originally called The Girl with a Turban, this painting is probably a tronie: a character portrait created as a reference for other paintings—although not all tronies were then used in other works, as seems to have been the case here. The model may have been Vermeer’s daughter Maria (ca. 1654–after 1713) or the daughter of his patron, Magdalena van Ruijven (1655–82), but her identity is almost irrelevant as the painting is generally seen as a study in facial expression and exotic costume rather than a portrait. The plain dark background helps to visually project the girl’s head forward, and concentrate the focus on her blue and gold turban, the huge pearl earring and the gold jacket with stark white collar. Unlike many of Vermeer’s subjects, she is not busy, but seemingly caught in a fleeting moment, turning her head to look over her shoulder at viewers. Her eyes are wide open and her lips slightly parted, as if she is about to speak.
Like many artists of the Dutch Golden Age, Vermeer was fascinated by the depiction of light, and this work demonstrates his technical proficiency in capturing the radiant effects of light on various fabrics, the girl’s face and the large pearl earring that reflects light on to her cheek. He creates highlights with touches of opaque white paint on the collar, in her eyes and on her lips, while half-tones and deep shadows are progressively translucent. Vermeer usually painted images of fashionable figures in interiors, using a meticulous, precise style, and he was greatly admired locally, although he worked so slowly and carefully that, as far as is known, he produced only thirty-six paintings. To create this work, he used dexterous brush marks, alternate warm and cool flesh colours, and a broad range of tonal contrasts and expensive pigments. For instance, the blue turban was made from costly ultramarine, which was extracted from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.