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Up close and personal

So far, we’ve looked closely at the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the materials that went into painting her. Now we’ll look even closer, by zooming into the surface and magnifying it up to 700 times. This is only possible now that the Girl is out of her frame.

The images in today’s blog were captured using the Hirox 3D digital microscope. First, Emilien Leonhardt and Vincent Sabatier set up the microscope in front of the painting to photograph and examine interesting details: her eyes, lips, pearl, and dots in her costume. 


Examining the Girl’s clothing with Emilien Leonhardt, using the Hirox 3d digital microscope. Photo: Ivo Hoekstra.

Then for a couple of days, the Girl got to relax and lie flat on her back. Overnight, the painting was placed horizontally on a table while the microscope scanned the whole surface from a motorized stand above her. This created a 20 billion pixel panorama image at 35x magnification. Then they took some close-ups at 140x, giving us amazing scans of these details in 3D.

Pearl earring 

Our eye is drawn to the pearl – not only because it is the painting’s namesake, but because Vermeer placed it at the centre of the composition. Did you know that it might not be a pearl at all? Costume and jewellery specialists believe that it’s too big to be real. Perhaps Vermeer exaggerated it a little to make it more of a focal point of the painting. Perhaps it was an imitation pearl made out of glass (like those made in Venice), silver, lacquered tin, or mother of pearl. There is no ‘hanger’ attaching the pearl to her ear.

At high magnification, you can see that Vermeer painted the pearl with only a few brushstrokes of lead white. On top of the shadow of the Girl’s neck, he applied a thin grey scumble to lay in the shape of the pearl. He applied lead white more thickly to make the crisp droplet-shaped highlight towards the top. 

The thick highlight was affected by later restorations. It might have been ‘flattened’ during the lining treatments. Also, remember the story about the ‘second highlight’ that was actually an upside-down paint fragment?


The pearl: 140x

Eyes

The Girl’s right eye (the one we see on the left) is next to the black background. A translucent red layer peeks out from underneath the pink paint at the left corner of her eyelid. Under the grey-blue colour of iris sits a black circle. Vermeer applied small touches of paint at a final stage: a pink blob at the corner of her eye, and a thick white highlight next to her pupil. The right eye (her left) was described in an earlier blog.


Left eye: 140x



Zooming into the small white dot in her eye. Bottom left: 3D height measurements.

Dots

The tiny dots in different areas of the clothing are typical for paintings by Vermeer, and appear at the same time crisp and ‘out of focus’. Sometimes he applied two yellow dots next to each other.


Dots in the yellow jacket



“Double dot” in the yellow jacket, 140x. The yellow colour of her jacket was applied over a dark underlayer.

The Hirox digital microscope gives us a detailed view of the Girl, down to individual brushstrokes and pigment particles. It creates a 3-dimensional scan of the surface, using fast image focus stacking that capturing a series of images at different heights, and at very high magnification.

Acknowledgements

  • Emilien Leonhardt and Vincent Sabatier, Hirox Europe: Jyfel

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