Two Earrings Are Better Than One

She had agreed to it not because, as most other women in the buurt, she was attracted to him. But because the promise of wearing real pearl earrings–actual fine jewelry–for the first time in her life was too great to pass up. She didn’t care what it might entail in addition to merely “posing.” For she was certain there was expected to be another trade-off as well. But, to her, it would be worth it to be immortalized not as someone peasant-like, so much as someone regal. Had she known that the final outcome would make her look like a pauper playing at being a lady, she would never have done it. In fact, she hated everything about the painting’s appearance, and how it made her appear.

Yet almost more upsetting than that was the process of sitting for it, turning her head in that uncomfortable position while Vermeer insisted that she only needed one earring instead of putting on the full set. He would prefer to mitigate the potential for loss, he explained, as though she were some incompetent who couldn’t properly wear a set of earrings. He was insufferable and incorrigible–she wished their paths had never crossed. Instead of focusing on giving her the experience she had wanted–communing in silence with the rare trappings of luxury–he would prattle on and on, about his work, about women, about the state of Dutch society. It was enough to make her keel over from boredom and dissatisfaction. She also had to wonder where he might have even “purchased” these earrings considering that he himself wasn’t that wealthy. Not wealthy at all, as she quickly corroborated by the looks of his “studio.” And how would his wife feel about her earrings–nay, earring–being lent out like this? It was likely her most and only valuable possession, and Vermeer saw fit to pluck it from her just like that without even giving Jasmijn–that was her real name, before it became stamped out by the moniker “Girl With A Pearl Earring”–an adequate and fulfilling trial at wearing them as a set.

He was stingy and awful in every way. What kind of man dies only to leave his wife burdened by all of his debts (and children)? His slow, painstaking brushstrokes made the plight of remaining in a room with him as his subject last for interminable hours as he scrape, scrape, scraped at the canvas. And for what? To make her look so incongruous. And why glorify the Ottoman wars by making her wear a turban? It felt almost anti-European to her as she endured uncontrollable shivers brought on by her cringing every time she was forced to don the turban anew. She should have been featured without it, facing frontward to showcase two shining beacons of affluence. Furthermore, to prove her point that two earrings are better than one, most people referred to the painting as “Girl With A Turban” at the outset of its “release.” Had she 1) not been wearing a turban and 2) at least had been shown the decency of being allowed to put on both earrings, then maybe the spotlight would have been put on the pearl(s) from the get-go.

With each passing day spent in the unbearable clutches of being his “muse”–even if a poor-looking one at that–she was assured that she would absolutely love the final product in spite of her present protestations, which Vermeer would often have to quell by using physical force. It was the sacrifice for working with a genius, the other girls in the buurt told her. What did they know? She’d like to see how incomplete they felt wearing one pearl. It proves the point that it really is better to have all or nothing, for an in-between iteration is practically always more unsatisfying than opting for naught. But what would Vermeer know about that? His entire gambit was showcasing that which was middle class. And to be middle class was to be middling, it was right there built into the name, the distinction of being part of neither extreme, therefore among the most forgettable. At least the poor were pitied, and the rich revered. What were the middle classes? The type of people that sported one earring because they couldn’t quite afford two.

The injustice she felt done to her aesthetic–her very character–was made all the worse when, shortly after, Vermeer painted Mila writing a letter, looking directly at him and, wouldn’t you know it, sporting two pearl earrings for all to see rather than assume. She even got to put a pearl necklace on in another iconic image (though she reckoned Mila probably had to take on a different kind of pearl necklace in order to swing that; except Jasmijn failed to take into account that Mila was moneyed, and didn’t need to bottom feed off of an artist’s wife’s jewelry). She rued the day she had ever consented to lending him her countenance. It was not what she had expected to gain–a hideous presentation when all she wanted was a brief flirtation with how it would feel to be a “grand” lady. Someone truly part of the Baroque period as opposed to on the outside looking in, which is precisely what it seems she’s doing in the final pose Vermeer chose to go with. This out of all the possible gazes she had given him, even one where she was actually smiling. But Vermeer said it was crass to smile. Without adding, “When you’re not rich.”

There had been several times when she tried to sneak into his home to destroy the painting, but every instance was met with some unforeseen obstacle–a barking dog, the oil lamp she was carrying toppling over and setting fire to the building next door to Vermeer’s, etc. Her destiny had been written and she couldn’t erase it. She would always be the Girl With A Pearl Earring.  As though she wasn’t good enough to warrant two like any other woman. Maybe that’s why something in her expression unmistakably suggests a violation. A breach of trust.

She had heard that Vermeer hocked the earrings for an expensive pigment a couple years later. She decided she would find them and buy them, no matter the cost. Except that it was three guilders and she most assuredly did not have that amount, nor would she ever at any one moment in her lifetime. But she had to have them, they were her just and due payment for enduring the Sphinx of Delft. So she went to the man in town she knew surely must have some money to spare:  Pieter van Ruijven. After all, he was funneling it to Vermeer without seeing anything returned on his investment. So she crept into his canal house (one of the few in Delft–especially in comparison to Amsterdam, where Jasmijn had long yearned to flee) in the dead of night–no dogs, no oil lamps to get in her way–and riffled through everything until she found a gold necklace that would be of worthwhile value to trade for the earrings.

She returned to the pawnbroker the following day to make her proposal for an exchange. Though he seemed suspicious of where someone such as Jasmijn might have come into possession of a piece of jewelry of this caliber, he asked no questions, and greedily took the necklace from her in exchange for the less valuable pearl earrings. In a frenzy of excitement, she immediately put them on upon exiting the shop, only to be spotted by none other than Vermeer himself, walking down the street with his wife. She could feel catastrophe was imminent as Catharina zeroed in on Jasmijn’s ears, the pearls catching the glint of the sunlight as a means to taunt Catharina with what once was safely tucked away in her drawer.

“Darling, isn’t that the little peasant you were painting for a while? It looks as though she’s wearing my earrings. The ones I haven’t been able to find since she stopped coming around.”

Vermeer, fearing he would be caught red-handed for pawning his wife’s prized possession for the sake of his non-lucrative career, instantly sided with her, returning, “You’re right, my dear. Those are unquestionably your earrings. The desperate wretch must have stolen them.”

“Well don’t just stand there, get them back from her before she flees!”

Obedient to his wife’s requests, for she was of some use to him when he wasn’t having his affairs (with paintings and the women in them), he seized upon Jasmijn–or, more specifically, her ears. He ripped the gems with such ferocity that both lobes came off with them. Jasmijn couldn’t believe what she was seeing, the earrings, and parts of her ears attached, back in the hands of that diabolical Vermeer. He grimaced at the sight of her blood dripping against the pristine whiteness of the pearls. Getting subjects to pose for one was a dirty business, he decided. He would have to start paying people. Or simply move on to only portraying the upper class, whose eyes didn’t go wide at the sight of some jewelry. What’s more, they had their own to pose with. That’s why Mila was the more cooperative, therefore superior subject in “Woman With A Pearl Necklace” and “A Lady Writing A Letter.” That’s precisely why he bestowed her with more reverent nouns than merely “girl.”

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