To Study Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring,’ Experts Are Peeling Away Every Layer of Paint—Without Ever Touching It

An international team of experts gets beneath the surface of Vermeer’s most famous portrait with the help of modern science.

Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Photo by Ivo Hoekstra, courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Over the next two weeks, a team of international experts will study Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in a specially constructed studio in The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum. The institution has conserved Girl with a Pearl Earring in public before, but never have the canvas, pigments, oil, and other materials that Vermeer used to create his most famous portrait been studied using such a battery of scientific techniques—and with so little physical intrusion.

The project, called “Girl in the Spotlight,” will be a kind of exhibition unto itself. Visitors wishing to take selfies can still do so in front of a new 3-D-reproduction of the painting now hanging in the Golden Room where the “operation” is taking place. (The reproduction is the result of another research project at the gallery, this time in partnership with Océ-technologies and a researcher from Delft University of Technology.)

Research into Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring starts with macro-XRF scan, photograph by Martijn Beekman, courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Emilie Gordenker, the US-born director of the Mauritshuis, compares the project to “a really serious medical research team.” Like the best medical TV series, “Girl in the Spotlight” is being played out in episodes, broadcast via daily blogs written by the project’s team leader, Abbie Vandivere, the painting’s conservator at the Mauritshuis.

In Vandivere’s latest post, she explains that in 1994 conservators restored the painting, but this time all techniques will be non-invasive. Testing began this week when a macro-X-ray fluorescence scanner was switched on. “It allows us to ‘peel away’ each layer of paint,” Gordenker says. “This is the first time we will be able to see how Vermeer built up his paint. We don’t know if he did much underpainting,” she adds. Further tests will hopefully reveal where the artist got his pigments from. “He could have got them from across the world or more locally,” she says.

In 1994, conservators discovered that a second highlight on her famous pearl earring was not by the artist’s hand but rather a flake of paint that had become detached, flipped over and reattached on the jewel. “We are not expecting anything as dramatic,” Gordenker says.

Abbie Vandivere, Girl with a Pearl Earring‘s conservator at the Mauritshuis, is blogging about the research project. Photograph by Ivo Hoekstra, courtesy of the Mauritshuis, The Hague.

A group portrait posted on the museum’s website shows the team ready to begin their intensive work in the Golden Room, an operation that will continue until March  11. The following Monday, the Girl with a Pearl Earring is due to be back on display in its usual location in Room 15 looking as if nothing had happened. But the research team’s work will have only just begun; after the painting is returned, they will need to analyze all the new data gathered.  

The Mauritshuis’s partners in the “Girl in the Spotlight” project include the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science, the Rijksmuseum, TU Delft, and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. Other institutions involved include Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam, Maastricht University, the University of Antwerp, the National Gallery of Art Washington and Hirox Europe.

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