Think you see a pearl dangling lustrously in Vermeer’s famous portrait of a girl endlessly turning towards or away from us? Think again. The swollen bauble around which the painting’s mystery spins is just a pigment of your imagination. With a flick of the wrist and two deft dabs of white paint, the artist has tricked the primary visual cortices of our brains’ occipital lobes into magicking a pearl from the thinnest of air. Squint as tight as you wish and there is no loop that links the ornament to her ear. Its very sphericity is a hoax. We’ve willed the earring into weightless suspension from the puniest of white apostrophes. Vermeer’s precious gem is an opulent optical illusion, one that reflects back on our own illusory presence in the world.
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665)