Vermeer’s Pearl

Lloyd Schwartz

I used to boast that I never lived in a city without a Vermeer.—You do now, a friend pointed out, when the one Vermeer in my city
was stolen.It’s still missing.The museum displays its empty frame.But there are eight Vermeers in New York, more than any other city—
and not so far away.Sometimes even more.Once, the visiting Vermeer was one of his most beloved paintings.It was even more beautiful than I remembered.A young girl, wearing a turban of blue and yellow silk, is just turning
her face to watch you entering the room.She seems slightly distracted by someone a little off to your right, maybe
someone she knows better than you.Her mouth is slightly open, as if she’s just taken a breath and is about
to speak.The light falling on her is reflected not only on her large pearl earring
but also in her large shining eyes (“Those are pearls,” sings Ariel of a
man drowned in a tempest at sea,“that were his eyes”).And on her moist lips.There’s even a little spot of moisture in a corner of her mouth.Some art historians think this was not intended to be a portrait, just a
study of a figure in an exotic costume.Yet her presence is so palpable, she seems right there in the room with
you, radiating unique and individual life.Already in the museum is another Vermeer in which a woman writing
a letter has a similar pearl earring.She’s interrupted by her maid handing her a letter—is it from the person
she’s just been writing to?And in a nearby museum there’s a painting of a young woman with
piercing eyes and another enormous pearl dangling from her ear (a
“teardrop pearl”).She’s staring out a window and tuning a lute.Scholars tell us that these pearls aren’t really pearls—no pearl so large
has ever come to light.No oyster could be big enough.So the famous pearl is probably just glass painted to look like a pearl.Pearl of no price.Yet as you look, the illusion of the pearl—the painted pearl, glistening,
radiant, fragile, but made real by the light it radiates—becomes before
your eyes a metaphor for the girl wearing it.Or if not the girl, then Vermeer’s painting of her.

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Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA Program at UMass Boston. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, an Elizabeth Bishop scholar, and a poet whose latest collection, Little Kisses, has recently been published by the University of Chicago Press.

Harvard Review

Number 52

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Editor: Christina Thompson
Poetry Editor: Major Jackson
Fiction Editor: Suzanne Berne
Managing Editor: Chloe Garcia Roberts

In the more than two decades since it was launched, Harvard Review has emerged as a major American literary journal. Contributors to the journal include such well-known figures as Arthur Miller, John Updike, Jhumpa Lahiri, J. M. Coetzee, Seamus Heaney, Gore Vidal, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, Andrea Barrett, and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as those making their literary debut. Recent selections have been anthologized in: Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best New Poets, Best Canadian Short Stories, and Pushcart Prize Anthology.

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