Reception Theory

Lindsay Koso

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1655. Oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

Figure 1. Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1655. Oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

Reception theory studies the relationships constructed between an artwork and its many viewers. It is the study of how a viewer comes to receive, and thereby interpret, an artwork at a specific historical moment. However, this “reception” is a two-way street. Just as a viewer has certain conditions that makes him or her interpret an artwork in a certain way, so, too, does an artwork present itself in a manner that produces a certain reaction. Wolfgang Kemp addresses this communion between the artwork and viewer:

One could argue, then, that the work of art and the beholder come together under mutually imbricated spatial and temporal conditions. Apart, these conditions are not clinically pure and isolatable units. Although their coming together may be ill-starred, a mutual recognition of each other is assured. In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception.1

Although this may seem counterintuitive, that an artwork can present itself, it is this principle that is essential to reception theory; the presence of the viewer, and therefore the viewer’s gaze, is an intrinsic property of the artwork itself. An artwork does not create interpretation without an audience, but neither does a viewer spontaneously generate interpretation without an artwork to catalyze its creation.

To study the reception of artworks throughout history, reception studies often rely on the union of literary and visual sources. Much of reception theory (as it is applied in the form of reception history) relies on written interpretations, accounting books detailing art sales and purchases, and records of art collecting to produce a historical catalogue of artistic reception. Some scholars refer to reception history as “the authentic history of taste,” although this is only part of the larger picture created by studying reception.2 Much of reception theory, like its practical application, has to do with context. Hans Robert Jauss defends that reception is a historical process in and of itself; not only is a viewer placing an artwork within the history of his or her own experience, but also within the greater history of artworks and their relationships with viewers.3 In this way reception is not only informed by the exact moment and circumstance of its first experience, but it is also a product of an environment created by every artwork that precedes it.

Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Pearl Earring (Meisje met de parel) in 1655, and its travel throughout history can illustrate how reception evolves [Figure 1]. The work is a tronie (Dutch for “face”), a type of painting of a head that is not intended to be a portrait. Tronies belong to a genre that focuses on technique rather than content, using costume and stock characters to demonstrate skill. It is highly improbable that this painting was made as part of a specific commission for a patron, but rather was made as an exercise in depicting light and the subtlety of human expression. Although the Dutch appreciated landscapes, still-lifes, and some portraits in the seventeenth century, paintings with mythological and biblical themes still trumped their more colloquial counterparts in both commissions and sales. Records of what are thought to be the Girl’s sales were remarkably low in the seventeenth and even the eighteenth century; Girl with a Pearl Earring was purchased for the Mauritshuis in the nineteenth century for a fraction of its estimated worth today. However, its popularity has done nothing but skyrocket since its acquisition, and its reception has extended beyond the limits of artistic and art historical fields.

Scholars of Orientalism have called upon the Girl to examine her turban-like head covering, physicists to study her enigmatic earring (which is now believed may have been tin,) and authors to produce works of fiction surrounding her mystery.4 The reception of this painting was monumental enough to be adapted into a book, Girl with a Pearl Earing (1999) that then inspired a feature film by the same name in 2003.5 We must consider how the context of the Girl has changed to truly understand the evolution of its reception. No longer is she a simple tronie, but rather an acknowledged part of the artistic canon and a massively reproduced artwork. Critics go so far as to call her the “Dutch Mona Lisa,” placing her firmly within the canon and legitimizing her omnipresence as a thing of mastery.

It is important when studying reception history to note that today’s art historical canon is very different from what the canon would have been in the seventeenth century (with mythological and biblical paintings being placed at the forefront.) Therefore the reception of Girl with a Pearl Earring must be understood as an evolving concept, not a fixed appraisal of the painting’s worth. Each interaction that a viewer has with the painting is highly personal and unique, and it is this interaction that harkens back to the fundamental concept of reception theory. The reception of Girl with a Pearl Earring by physicists is different from the reception of seventeenth-century art collectors, yet neither reception takes historical priority. In this way, by gathering and compiling the interpretation of various historical and contemporary viewers, we may come closer to understanding the evolution of artistic production and to establishing the “history of taste.”


  1. Wolfgang Kemp, “The Work of Art and Its Beholder: The Methodology of Aesthetic Reception,” in The Subjects of Art History: Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspective, ed. Mark A. Cheetham et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 181.
  2. Ibid., 182.
  3. Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 20.
  4. For more information, see Joris Janssen’s article, “Curieuze Ontdekking: Meisje Met de Parel Heeft Geen Parel,” New Scientist, November 28, 2014, [Dutch]
  5. The book in question is Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, (Plume, 2005). The film was directed by Peter Webber and produced by Lions Gate Films (2004).