The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is one of the world’s most famous paintings. It is so famous that you can probably picture it in your mind as you read this but if you would like a reminder of just how lovely it is click here. It was painted in 1665, three hundred and fifty years ago, and it captures a moment in a young woman’s life as she glances sideways towards the observer. She seems to be caught unawares, about to speak, unsure and vulnerable. Everything about her will be lost, even her name. Only this image remains. Time has turned it into more than a portrait. It is also a memento mori, a lament for a young woman’s fleeting beauty and the brevity of all human life. As always with Vermeer’s work there is a story there behind the still calm beauty of the image- it is a moment of captured drama. We want to know who she is and where she is going. No wonder someone wrote a novel based around this image. It has become an icon of feminine grace and beauty.
The artist Anne-Marie Kolthammer has used Vermeer’s painting as a starting point for an intense and arresting self portrait, painted in 2012, which I saw in Huddersfield art gallery. It is small and unassuming but her fierce gaze demands that you stop and look. It says I am here. This is me, my physicality, my reality. It is not an image celebrating feminine beauty, rather it celebrates strength and tenacity. She has been looking in a small hand held mirror and now, like the girl in the Vermeer portrait, she glances towards us, asking a question of anyone standing in front of the image. The bloom of her early youth is past, is this all that mattered? What is left? Where does she go from here? Unlike Vermeer’s young girl the woman in the self portrait is in control- she knows exactly what she is doing. She is not agonising over lost youth- not wondering if she needs plastic surgery or looking back with regret- she is simply asking, bravely, almost defiantly, what a persons looks are worth. Who am I now? These questions are ones which many women have to face as they age, particularly if they have been beautiful in their youth. Something else must take the place of their first flush of physical charm, however good they may still look. To survive middle age all of us need to find a sense of dignity, wisdom and strength of character- what the French call being happy in your own skin. It is that quality which the portrait asks us to think about. The beauty of the young girl is that which she was born with, and it soon fades into the distance. Vermeer celebrates that moment. Beauty in later life is harder won and runs much deeper. As the saying goes, when we are young we have the face that we are born with but later in life we have the face that we deserve. That is what I think Anne-Marie Kolthammer has been exploring.