Cuteness is a category of visual seductiveness. Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring (1630) is the principal archetype of that category. Applied to women cuteness means peasant beauty - a homemade, unconscious allure lacking all pretence. Unpremeditated charm. The look of honest self-acceptance. The visual impression of innocence. Vermeer’s Girl is the example of a woman who will carry into adulthood a miniaturization of the features, an effect like that of very young animals, like puppies. Dogs, as they age, lose their cuteness, so do humans. But some don’t. Some retain that early-stage quality. Vermeer tells the story of those exceptions in his Girl With a Pearl Earring. There is an immaturity in the girl’s face, form not fully realized, noticeable especially in the nose, which is nasally pinched, overly narrow, and rodently up-turned extending down un-indented like a peninsular extension of her infant forehead -- still in the formation stage. Noticeable also in the eyebrows. Where are they? Plucked out? No. Never there. She has not yet developed them. Cheekbones are high but undefined, all lines rounded off. Her abbreviated top lip leaves the mouth seemingly permanently open. Can her mouth even close? The pronounced eye whites are pure white, no indicative red marks of age or experience or health history. The neck is tiny, thinned by shadow, miniaturized by Vermeer.

People have certain looks they give that can render people powerless. They know how to use their eyes. They know how to look at someone. They know how to defeat resistance. This Girl has that. She knows what she is doing to us with that look. We under her spell don’t want to think so, but she does. Cuteness is more show, more salesmanship than we want to believe.

The problem is how to describe the difference between cuteness and beauty. My angle will be maturity - a difference in maturity. I would state: cuteness always looks younger. Cuteness is picturesque immaturity, often deliberately staged to pull us in by the emotions. Emotion-targeting. In contrast beauty allures through its formal perfection, and thus carries the implication of maturity, age, and the knowledge of time.

If cuteness means peasant beauty, I could now define beauty circularly as mature cuteness, picturesque maturity. But what is this visual peasantry? And what would be visual aristocracy? What is picturesque immaturity? In the following paragraphs I offer ideas for answers to these questions.

Peasant beauty seems to be partly an unashamed appeal to the emotions, argumentum ad misercordiam. Vermeer’s Girl’s lidded eyes are sincerity itself. She’s a benign mouth-breather with a good heart and a good outlook. A natural self-seller. Vermeer critic Edward Snow points out, by creating such a real relationship with the observer, she breaks through the boundaries of art. She’s too real to be art. Snow goes on: “to step backward into aesthetic appreciation [of her] would seem…an act of betrayal and bad faith.” Don’t try to treat her like art. She is not art. She is reality. Understandably Snow gets caught up in the literal possibility of such a girl, and as a result his analysis ends: she is beyond art. For myself, I don’t see her as a person; I see her as a type.   

Cuteness requires incongruous fashion elements to achieve its full visual power, as artists and advertisers know, dogs in Santa suits, babies in truck tires. In Vermeer, the earring and lipstick suggest a mature womanhood that is not there. What is this little Dutch girl doing dressed like an Arab on the streets of India? A Dutch girl in a turban? This cultural confusion, this incongruity, hides her and therefore heightens her allure. There’s more to know. I go back to my first impression, just as Spencer would have me, and clearly recall I felt instantly she was in motion. She is no studio sitter. It looks like she’s walking away. There is a whole scene behind and around her stricken from view by Vermeer. He goes out, takes a snapshot of this girl, then strikes the background black. That’s the technique in today’s terms.

In motion means we see the girl not separated from, but involved in her life. Not comfortably posed, but captured mid-stride. Vermeer as fashion photography pioneer.

The girl’s thick wool cloak of army green or yellow seems far too big for her. The disproportionality of shoulder to head is not initially noticeable, but is undeniable once recognized. The white collar on down almost seems superimposed, the head part of a separate background. But look how Vermeer’s subtle spatial wrenching brings the tail of the headdress forward, in defiance of gravity, to rest on the shoulder. This is a brilliant move by Vermeer, simply and effectively joining the body to the head, erasing any disconnect. No, Vermeer says, the artist has not superimposed a disproportionate torso (that of a large man) onto the head of the girl, whose actual shoulder would be barely half the size of the shoulder shown. You are seeing seamless, proportional reality.

Whether costume or mannerism, the effect is the same. The incongruity of the too big cloak says she’s small, outsized by the mature, adult world. She’s the outnumbered, outspent yet charmed underdog we have to love. Her charming face is innocent of any knowledge of herself, or of sizes at all, or where she stands. The costume, by unconvincingly implying a maturity and wide experience on her part, only acts as further proof of her total innocence. The more artificially she is presented, the more authentic she becomes. And innocence is the key. The eye identifies innocence first, before knowledge. Innocence is a visual impression before it is a state of being. Cuteness, peasant beauty, is an innate mastery of creating the visual impression of innocence. Vermeer’s Girl is an unannounced seductress. Her innocent eyes are her dance drawing us in. Cuteness can equal or surpass beauty’s power, because beauty is only an abstract hierarchy, and is always subjective in two dimensions. But Vermeer’s Girl, as Snow points out, involves us in her life. She steps out into three dimensions. In three dimensions there is a whole person to observe. In three dimensions, this Girl can climb the ladder of beauty, because innocence (as a visual impression) will propel her to the top.

In my early thinking on this painting I made much of the plain black background, which I saw as a statement of the artist’s passionate appointment of this type of girl as worth seeing more than anything else. Vermeer’s cuteness manifesto. All else can remain shrouded in black, but let me see her and everything her appearance stands for, and my eye will be satisfied. She alone can emerge from the abyss of death and nothingness. Those were my original thoughts. Now I see it differently. I see it as probably another cover-up, an act of utter artistic frustration, an impulsive cutting out of what could not be made to meet the demands of the artist’s picky eye. This theory could be verified. My money says one of Vermeer’s warm interiors lies hidden beneath all that black. Get out your knives, curators.

2005 by Christopher Duckett
Vermeer's Cuteness Manifesto