Girl: an open letter

Tuesday 21st June, 2011

I’m sitting in Room 15 of Mauritshuis Museum in Den Haag, Holland. I couldn’t scuttle up the stairs fast enough to get here.

Before me on a green brocade wall hangs Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ in a thick gilded frame behind a glass casing.

People enter the room, scuffing on the wooden floor as they mill and gasp, inspecting Girl from different angles. She is known as the Dutch Mona Lisa – but she feels so more much to me. More than I felt as I saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre when I camped by the Seine in Paris, 2009.

Maybe it’s because, unlike my experience of the Mona Lisa, I have the opportunity to sit and stay a while with Girl, here. I sit in her gaze and take in the exquisite blues and yellow of her Turkish turban, the paleness of her skin, the hazel of her eyes and the two, just two, luminous brush strokes that illuminate her pearl earring.

Girl’s small. Her canvas seems no bigger than a sheet of paper. Though she’s little, she’s unquestionably affecting in an unassuming way. She looks vulnerable, which magnifies how completely unaware she seems of the effect she has, possibly over the artist, and hundreds of years later over me as I sit here now and look upon her face.

Behind her the background is brownish midnight. But the light on her face, falling from the left, has the clear brightness of early morning, of a new day, a new start. A moment to begin again unearthed from all other surrounding moments.


When I meet her eye the sheer force of the intimacy in her gaze hits me square in my chest. There is no other light than this. I have travelled on a plane and train to be here. The colour of the blue trim on her turban, the watery blue of it alone makes my trip worthwhile.

I’m profoundly surprised by how much this painting affects me to see it in person; my nose prickles with tears as I run my eyes along the brushstrokes Vermeer’s wrists made. I think of Tracy Chevalier’s book, and the subsequent film. I think of how many imaginations this painting has captured, mine included.

Looking at Girl, at Vermeer’s creation, I can’t help but wonder about his female contemporaries. Who were they, what did they love, who did they paint if they ever had the chance to paint anything.

Her mouth is parted in an eternal intake of breath; a gasp, maybe? How I wish I knew her story. I wonder what colour her hair is under that turban. Vermeer’s famous use of light makes me itch to see her move in living colour. She is so heavily robed. It’s too hot today for that. I imagine her in a cotton sun dress similar to the one I’m wearing, her shoulders bare and no doubt the same alabaster as her face, as the one luminous pearl she wears from her ear like it is her heart on a sleeve.

I have Room 15 to myself now. I stand up and walk close up to Girl. There are forms and shapes in her midnight background, but only she garners the light. Nothing but Girl. Meisje.

And so I sit. And, I stare.

The letter I wrote to my father while I sat in Room 15 of Mauristhuis Museum.

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