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Why Was The Girl With The Pearl Earring Considered Obscene?

Few painters in history are revered quite as universally as Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Renowned for his uncanny mastery of natural light and his reported use of a camera obscura, the artist is often mentioned these days in the company of Rembrandt and other 17th Century stalwarts of the Dutch Golden Age. But during his life, he was but a moderately successful, if well-respected, painter who produced a relatively small body of work. Today, only about 36 of Vermeer's works are accounted for in the entire world. And yes, one of them is indeed the iconic painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

The stunning oil on canvas is believed to have been commissioned sometime around 1665, and depicts an anonymous woman wearing an opulent headdress as well as a single pearl earring in her left ear. Though there's little to be found offensive in the painting by modern standards, the work — compared by some in the art world to Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" — was apparently once deemed obscene by art patrons, in part because the woman is depicted with a longing sort of gaze and her mouth partially agape.

That last fact might've been seen as legitimately scandalous in a more buttoned-up 17th century cultural landscape and was likely even viewed by certain onlookers as sexually explicit. It also pit Vermeer's masterpiece in direct opposition to the devilishly tight-lipped "Mona Lisa." Even as times have obviously changed, the element of historical shock value continues to deepen the overall mystique surrounding "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

The painting's complex legacy is explored in the star-studded film depicting its creation

Not surprisingly, that mystique has fueled the narrative fires of both a celebrated book and a feature film, the latter of which involves some of Hollywood's biggest stars. Based on a best-selling work of historical fiction penned by Tracey Chevalier, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" hit theaters in the early days of 2004, with the likes of Scarlett Johannson, Colin Firth, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Wilkinson fronting the cast. And, like its celebrated source material, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" delivers a compelling, if almost entirely fictional, look at the creation of Johannes Vermeer's masterwork.

Johannson portrays Griet in the film, a quiet young woman who's initially sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer household, though she eventually serves as the subject of the painter's (Firth) most famous work. While the muted drama was hardly a blockbuster upon its debut, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" fared relatively well with critics and audiences and even received a trio of Academy Award nominations, including a well-earned nod for esteemed cinematographer Eduardo Serra ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2").

Perhaps in a winking nod to the complicated 17th century reception of "Girl with a Pearl Earring," when the painting is first revealed in the film, it is actually deemed obscene by none other than Vermeer's wife Catharina (Essie Davis). That character is, of course, bringing a lot of baggage to her own emotionally wounded reaction to the work. But it seems her visceral take on the subject may have been far more indicative of how some in the general public also felt.