Gatekeeping Beauty: Vermeer’s Mystery

The oil painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is considered one of Baroque art’s greatest masterpiece. It was pivotal to the Dutch Golden Age, dating back to around 1665. Still, it is largely a mystery. What, about her, captivated a painter like Vermeer? What lurks behind her shoulder that needed to remain obscure? Who is she? It seems to be that these questions will remain unanswered — asecret Vermeer has taken to the grave. 

This painting undeniably captures a sign of the times. Portraiture during the Early Modern Period was restricted to monarchical or elite figures. It’s not hard to believe that a woman remains erased by history, yet celebrated because of her beauty. It’s not hard to believe that a Western European person is depicted wearing a makeshift turban as a fashion statement while The Great Turkish War was happening in Europe.

The evolution of Western fine art and its relationship with minority groups and people of color has changed over time, but to what extent? The label “fine art” is given to artwork of the highest quality, but it seems as if the leading pioneers of this label are predominantly European white men such as DaVinci, Van Gogh and Vermeer. Their paintings reflect their Eurocentric worldview adopted in their state of privilege. Their legacy should be celebrated, but also acknowledged for gatekeeping contemporary notions of beauty.

The fact is that, even in contemporary times, Latin American art such as embroidered patterns are being exploited by wealthy, white people and marketed as “indigenous” in the same way Turkish carpets or turbans in much of Vermeer’s paintings were seen as “exotic.” It suddenly isn’t just art, it’s their art. It’s not like people of color weren’t producing art at the time, it was just seen as indigenous, tribal, exotic, foreign — but not fine art.

Recently, The Carter’s took a stance on this issue in their Apeshit video, which took place inside the Louvre, an elite French museum. Beyoncé and Jay Z, along with an all black woman dance team, were the focal point of the video, reducing world-renowned Classical European art like The Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samothrace (you know, the headless body with no arms) to props in the background. Meanwhile, the Great Sphinx of Tanis and Portrait of a Black Woman, which center on African history, were emphasized in the video. In a space where artists of color have been ignored or excluded, Apeshit is a loud war cry claiming what’s rightfully theirs. Art is a reflection of the world around us. Much like Beyoncé and Jay Z, it is our responsibility to make art that looks like all us. 


Originally published in Spark Magazine

Written by Divina Ceniceros Dominguez

Photography by Casey Tang

HMUA by  Mariam Ali,  Jane Lee

Styling by Shannon Homan 

Models are Haoqing Geng, Urvi Joshi, Betsy Welborn & Nikita Kalyana

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