New discoveries and insights through international multidisciplinary research of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Kate reports for ArtsTalk Magazine.

Today, I was supposed to have attended a press meeting at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. COVID19 intervened: Dutch museums are still closed. The meeting was canceled but: the museum published results, discoveries, revelations of its research into Vermeer’s famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring” online today!

In case you have forgotten all about this public and extremely popular research project: it took place in the museum two years ago. Vermeer’s painting was moved to the period home’s “golden room”. Here, television crews and museum visitors were able to watch experts at work for a few weeks.

Computers, scanners, X-ray and other techniques: visitors were able to follow each and every step. The team of art historians and scientists, led by the museum’s expert Abbie Vandivere collected a mass of data.

Then … the Girl returned to her usual spot. Scientists and experts and art historians disappeared to their offices to study all that data. This painting had already been studied before, but in 25 years knowledge increased, older techniques improved and new techniques have become available.

One of the many discoveries: this girl is turning towards us while standing in front of a rather dark background? Vermeer painted her against a green curtain. But his oil-paint lost its colour and turned into the dark background we see now.

Like other artists, Vermeer also changed the composition while working on this painting. The girl’s ear changed position and her neck changed slightly as well. Her head-dress was also altered. Even more astonishing: everybody now notices this girl has no lashes? Macro-X-ray fluorescent scanning and microscopical research revealed, Vermeer did paint lashes.

Research also revealed how Vermeer painted his Girl. He started by using different shades of brown and black, using broad and powerful strokes. These no longer show, but are revealed using infrared light. Once this layer had dried, Vermeer painted the portrait’s contours in thin black paint.

Vermeer worked systematically, from painting the background to the final layers. He painted the now vanished greenish curtain, then started on the face using skin-tones, followed by the yellow dress, white collar, the cloth around her head and finally: that famous pearl.

Mind: everybody got it wrong when talking about “pearl earring”. Vermeer only hinted at an earring using translucent and opaque smudges of white paint. There is no hook: Vermeer’s pearl is dangling in space, but our eyes and brain decide: this is an earring!

Studying a painting this close not only reveals how it was created. Scientists even detected hairs in the paint, left behind by Vermeer’s brushes. As for the oil paints Vermeer used: his colours were studied and accurately determined for the first time.

Ingredients Vermeer used, came from all over the world including from Central America, Asia, the West Indies, the UK and other places. The ultramarine he used to paint the head-dress and coat? Specially treated and grounded lapis lazuli, which in the 17th century was more precious than gold.

As for the girl, Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis warned for a “Spoiler alert: no, we didn’t find out who this young lady was and whether she ever really existed.” Like Rembrandt and all the other Dutch Golden Age masters, Vermeer painted “tronies”. These are not actual portraits, but studies of emotions,

Abbie Vandivere and Martine Goeeselink stress, the state of the painting is now recorded which help monitor and care for it even better. Moreover, this international project with members from museums as well as companies participating, will lead to more such joint projects. Several scientific papers resulting from this research project have already been published and are available on-line, while more will follow.

Interested in reading more: visit the museum’s website which also offers short videos and links to scientific articles. Not that into science? You may want to (re)read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, or watch Peter Webber’s film again, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson.   Kate  28th April 2020

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