Closer to Vermeer and the Girl

New discoveries and insights from the international scientific examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring

28 Apr 2020

Meisje Onderzoek Video

The scientific examination of Johannes Vermeer’s world-famous painting, known as Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), has yielded new discoveries and insights. By employing multidisciplinary research, an international team of scientists has brought us closer to the artwork than ever before. The team made discoveries about Vermeer’s brushwork, his use of pigments, and the way that he ‘built up’ this painting using different layers. The results of the Girl in the Spotlight research project – which used non-invasive imaging and scanning techniques, digital microscopy and paint sample analysis – offers a glimpse of a much more ‘personal’ painting than previously thought (figs. 01, 02).

Discoveries

One of the most surprising findings was that the background is not simply an empty dark space; Vermeer painted the Girl in front of a green curtain. Imaging techniques visualised diagonal lines and colour variations that suggest folded fabric in the upper right-hand corner of the painting (figs. 03, 04). The curtain has disappeared over the course of the centuries as a result of physical and chemical changes in the translucent green paint.
While to the naked eye the Girl has always appeared to have had no eyelashes, macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning and microscopic examination also revealed that Vermeer painted tiny hairs around both eyes (fig. 05). These discoveries make the Girl more ‘personal’ than previously thought, but the question of who exactly the Girl was still remains a mystery.

Composition

The recent study also brought us closer to Vermeer and his subtle painting techniques. Vermeer began composing the painting in various shades of brown and black. Infrared imaging visualised broad vigorous brushstrokes in these underlayers, which now lie beneath the visible paint (fig. 06). He painted the contours of the Girl with thin black lines. The new research revealed that Vermeer made changes to the composition during the painting process: the position of the ear, the top of the headscarf and the back of the neck were shifted. The painter worked systematically from the background to the foreground: after painting the greenish background and the skin of the Girl’s face, he then successively applied her yellow jacket, white collar, headscarf and ‘pearl’. The pearl is an illusion – translucent and opaque touches of white paint – and the hook to hang the ‘pearl’ from her ear is missing (fig. 07). Lastly, Vermeer signed his artwork in the upper left-hand corner with IVMeer (fig. 08). Here and there, fine hairs from Vermeer’s brush have been left behind.

Colour Palette

The research identified and accurately mapped Vermeer’s colour palette in this painting for the first time: red (vermilion, and red lake made from cochineal), various shades of yellow and brown (earth pigments, lead-tin yellow and yellow lake), blue (ultramarine and indigo), shades of black (charcoal and bone black) and white (two kinds of lead white) (fig. 09). Vermeer carefully selected two lead white pigments with different optical and handling properties in order to achieve a subtle transparency and seamless transition from light to shadow in the Girl’s skin.

More precious than gold

The raw materials for the colours came from all over the world: regions that today belong to Mexico and Central America, England and possibly Asia or the West Indies. Vermeer’s liberal use of high-quality ultramarine in the headscarf and the jacket is striking (fig. 10). Made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli that came from what is now Afghanistan, the preparation of natural ultramarine was time-consuming and laborious. In the 17th century, the pigment was more precious than gold. One discovery from the recent project is that the stone may have first been heated at a high temperature, which made it easier to grind and produced a more intense blue colour.

The Girl in the Spotlight

In February and March 2018, an international team of scientists and conservators undertook a technical examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring using state-of-the-art methods and techniques. For a period of two weeks, the public could follow the ‘Girl in the Spotlight’ research being carried out in a glass studio in the Mauritshuis (figs. 11, 12, 13). The overarching research question was: how did Vermeer paint this iconic artwork, and which materials did he use to do so?
For this research: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/discover/exhibitions/the-girl-in-the-spotlight/

Abbie Vandivere, head of The Girl in the Spotlight project: ‘Our scientific examination has brought us closer to Vermeer and the Girl than ever before. Combining and comparing different scientific technologies has provided so much more information than a single technology would have done on its own. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a more personal image than was previously thought. This examination has also documented the current condition of the painting, meaning we can optimally monitor any changes that may occur in the future.’ (fig. 14)

For more information: www.mauritshuis.nl/en/girlinthespotlight

Research Team

The research team was led by Mauritshuis paintings conservator Abbie Vandivere. The Girl in the Spotlight was a Mauritshuis initiative and involved a team of internationally recognised specialists associated with the Netherlands Institute for Conservation+Art+Science+ (NICAS: Rijksmuseum, TU Delft, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and the University of Amsterdam), together with the University of Antwerp, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam, Hirox Europe, the National Gallery of Art, Washington and many other partners.

For more information:
- Collection of 10 scientific articles in Heritage Science (free and open access): https://www.springeropen.com/collections/gits

- Online zoomable image of Girl with a Pearl Earring: www.micro-pano.com/pearl/
Images made using the Hirox 3D digital microscope at 35x magnification (4.4 µm/pixel), and details at 140x magnification (1.1 µm/pixel)

- Blog written by Abbie Vandivere, Head Researcher of the Girl in the Spotlight project: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/restoration-and-research/girl-with-a-blog/