10 Unsolved Mysteries That Confound The Art World

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The more we learn about great art and its creators, the more mysteries we uncover. Sometimes, these mysteries are more convoluted and salacious than any soap opera on TV. Even so, we keep trying to solve them, especially if they involve theft. Often, the only people who know the truth have taken their secrets to the grave.

10. The Girl With The Pearl Earring

Despite all the theories and speculation, no one seems to know the identity of Johannes Vermeer’s girl in the famous 1665 painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. She is turned toward us with soft light glinting off her young face and a large pearl dangling from her ear. She looks as though she’s about to say something, but we have no idea what her story is. Was she Vermeer’s daughter? His lover? It’s possible she never existed in real life, but she still draws huge crowds everywhere her picture is exhibited.

In the 17th century, this kind of painting was called a “tronie,” which referred to a study of the face and shoulders adorned with a striking or unusual costume. In this picture, the girl’s turban gives the portrait an Eastern feel with the overly large pearl earring apparently meant to fire the imagination and enhance the aura of mystery.

Even Vermeer himself is an enigma. We know he always lived in the town of Delft and had 15 children. Only about 36 paintings are attributed to him. But those few paintings are masterpieces of the interplay of light and shadow on female faces posed against spartan interiors. It’s the mystery created by his paintings, the unanswered questions, that enthrall the viewer. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a timeless example of that.

“The image works because it is unresolved,” says Tracy Chevalier, who wrote a popular novel about the painting. “You can’t ever answer the question of what she’s thinking or how she’s feeling. If it were resolved, then you’d move onto the next painting. But it isn’t, so you turn back to it again and again, trying to unlock that mystery. That’s what all masterpieces do: We long to understand them, but we never will.”

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