Pearls through centuries of art

Written by Evdokia Samara

Pearls are arguably one of the most commonly appeared jewellery in paintings beginning as early as the Middle Ages. Being very rare and undeniably beautiful they were symbols of power and status but also purity and divinity. Ancient Greeks even believed that pearls were the tears of gods falling on earth. 

So, let’s make a deep dive through the centuries and discover some paintings that depict our precious pearl in all their glory. 

Sandro Botticelli, the renowned Early Renaissance painter created in his lifetime master pieces that today are considered some of the most famous paintings in history. His most well-known work is no other than the ‘Birth of Venus’.  

(Sandro Botticelli - La nascita di Venere)

In this painting the goddess Venus is depicted being born, coming out of the sea foams on a huge scallop shell. Venus is bare naked and does not wear any jewellery, so you might think what is the point of mentioning this work of art?

However, what if Botticelli wants to show us that she is the actual jewel coming out of the seashell like a pearl; Pure, beautiful, and precious. 

Another famous portrait of Botticelli can also attest to the love of aristocracy but also painters towards our precious gemstone. It is the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici.

(Sandro Botticelli - Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph)

The young woman in the portrait is adorned by a river of pearls coming down her long hair. As we can see by the title, Botticelli has painted her as a Nymph, which is a type of deity. So once more pearls are present on the body of a person considered something divine. 

Coming towards the 16th century another exceptional artist will use a pearl as one of the only trinkets on a goddess’s body. The Venetian painter Titian will create the scandalous painting of the ‘Venus of Urbino’.

(Tiziano - Venus de Urbino)

This erotic painting depicts again the famous theme of Venus. Only this time the goddess is seen as a sensual symbol and not a symbol of purity like in Botticelli’s painting. However, once more the jewelry elected to accompany her beauty and sensuality is the modest but full of passion pearl. 

During the 16th century many painters, like Titian, used to paint gods or aristocracy in pearls. Queen Elizabeth I, has been portrayed many times wearing pearls. Many say she even did it on purpose, wanting to associate herself with the symbolism of a pearl which are as we mentioned purity, light, and divinity. 

(Queen Elizabeth I 'The Ditchley portrait' by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

And as we reach the 17th century, it is time to mention the painting that everyone associates with a pearl as soon as they hear its name. It is after all part of the painting’s title. 

You have probably already guessed I am referring to the Dutch painter Vermeer’s most famous work of art, ‘Girl with a pearl earring’. 

(Johannes Vermeer – Girl with a pearl earring)

Vermeer is arguably the most famous painter of pearls. Pearls appear in 18 out of 36 Vermeer’s known paintings. In this one what is scandalous and probably one of the reasons that made it such a famous painting is the fact the girl is not a princess or even an aristocrat but a simple maid. Vermeer depicts a commoner wearing something as precious as a large baroque pearl and creates an ambiguous contrast. This famous work of art is one of the few to show ‘a nobody’ wearing the emblem of gods and royalty, the pearl. 

The 18th century met quite a few different art movements. The one that frequently depicts pearls again is the Rococo. François Boucher’s painting ‘The toilet of Venus’ brings back once more the ethereal figure of the goddess surrounded in pearls.

(François Boucher – The toilet of Venus)

Passing through the 19th and 20th century the depiction of pearls in paintings starts to decline. You can still find portraits of rich ladies wearing them, but artists have started focusing their skills towards depicting the subconscious of a person, their souls and not their appearances. 

However, such a gem could never go out of fashion. Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn have supported their crucial existence so how could they ever not be relevant. 

In the 21st century we can still admire pearls in some paintings or on exquisite jewelry but also in different forms of art like fashion clothes. After all the big question in today’s artistic world is who defines what art is? And maybe the simplest answer would be everyone and no one at the same time. So next time you see a beautiful pearl out there, either on a necklace or a painting give it a thought… is it just another accessory or a symbol of eons of history; and would you maybe want a pearl as part of your world after that?

Evdokia Samara, content creator SALOME