Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) has captivated audiences for centuries. It has become one of the most well-known and loved works of art and has inspired people of all walks of life. However, much like the life of Vermeer himself, relatively little is known about the painting, particularly when it comes to the woman depicted by the Dutch Old Master. A recent research project conducted by the Mauritshuis sought out to gain a better understanding of the painting and while the mysterious Girl held onto the secret of who she really is, the project uncovered more about the beloved work.
Begun in 2018, The Girl in the Spotlight project was led by Abbie Vandivere, a conservator at the Mauritshuis (where Girl with a Pearl Earring resides) who headed an international team of researchers. The research took place at the Mauritshuis where a special glass room was constructed for the research process. This two-year undertaking marked the first time that the artwork had been scientifically analyzed since 1994 and thanks to technological advances made in the last 25 years, researchers now have a deeper understanding of Vermeer’s painting.
Using non-invasive imaging and scanning techniques, paint sample analysis, and digital microscopy, among other techniques, researchers made two significant discoveries. First, it was discovered that the background, long thought to be simply a dark space, was in fact originally a green curtain. Over the course of the painting’s lifetime, the green pigments depicting the folds of the fabric had faded leaving the relatively flat, dark surface we see today. Secondly, using macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning and microscopic examination, researchers found that the Girl once had eyelashes. For years, it was speculated that Vermeer omitted the lashes, thus creating a more idealized female figure. These findings suggest a more “personal” approach, although there were no more hints as to who the woman was, or if she even existed at all.
Through The Girl in the Spotlight, researchers also learned about Vermeer’s process and the materials he used. Starting with shades of brown and black, Vermeer’s brushstrokes, viewed through infrared imaging, revealed how he built up the painting. Working from the background to the foreground, Vermeer used thin black lines to begin the contours of the woman. He laid in each component of the painting individually, starting with the green curtain then moving forward, with the headscarf and famous pearl – which is actually an optical illusion with no hook to hang from and no hard edges – being the last additions.
Materials used in the pigments found in Girl with a Pearl Earring revealed more depth to the painting as well. He used two lead white pigments to achieve “subtle transparency and seamless transition from light to shadow in the Girl’s skin.” Additionally, Vermeer worked with pigments that contained raw materials originating in England, Mexico and Central America, and potentially Asia or the West Indies. The particular ultramarine blue found in the Girl’s jacket and headscarf was created using lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, found in what is today Afghanistan. At the time that Vermeer was working, this blue pigment would’ve have been more valuable than gold.
“I think the Girl would be proud of [the researchers’] work, and of the house where she hangs.” said Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis, of the recent Vermeer study. “This is not the end point of our research,” she continued, “but an intermediate station. We want to go even further with the research. The technical possibilities continue to develop. The collaborations are growing and so is the desire to find out more.”