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Secrets of Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring revealed

The scientific examination of Johannes Vermeer’s world-famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), has yielded new discoveries and insights. By employing multi-disciplinary research, an international team of scientists has discovered new information regarding Vermeer's brushwork, use of pigments and a glimpse of a more personal painting than previously thought.

Above: Abbie Vandivere (Mauritshuis) and Annelies van Loon (Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum) set up the macroscopic X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) scanner to scan the Girl. [Ivo Hoekstra: Mauritshuis]

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. The overarching research question was: how did Vermeer paint this iconic artwork, and which materials did he use to do so?

Abbie Vandivere, head of The Girl in the Spotlight project said: ‘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.’


One of the most surprising findings is that the background to the painting was 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. The curtain has disappeared over the course of the centuries as a result of physical and chemical changes in the translucent green paint.

Above: Composite image of Girl with a Pearl Earring from images made during the Girl in the Spotlight project using the following imaging techniques: a: Macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning, b: Computer-assisted thread-level canvas analysis, c: Optical coherence tomography, d: Ultraviolet photography, e: Reflectance imaging spectroscopy, f: Polarised light photography, g: X-radiography, h: Raking light photography, i: 3D scanning based on fringe-encoded stereo imaging, j: Multispectral infrared reflectography

Another discovery concerned eyelashes. Whilst 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. These discoveries make the Girl more ‘personal’ than previously thought, but the question of who exactly the Girl was still remains a mystery.

Above, left: 3D digital microphotograph of the Girl’s right eye: 140x magnification (1.1 μm/pixel) [Hirox Europe, Jyfel]. Above, right: The macro-X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF) map for iron (Fe) shows that Vermeer painted eyelashes using a brown paint. The tip of the eyelash is barely visible against the discoloured dark background. [Annelies van Loon: Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum]


The recent study also brought more information about Vermeer's 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. 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 (below).

Above: A 3D digital microphotograph shows the pearl at 140x magnification (1.1 μm/pixel) [Hirox Europe, Jyfel]

Vermeer also signed his artwork in the upper left-hand corner with IVMeer. Here and there, fine hairs from Vermeer’s brush have been left behind.

Above: a: Vermeer’s signature in the top left of Girl with a Pearl Earring is barely visible because the colour of the background has changed over time. [Polarised light photograph: René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography]. Macroscopic X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (MA-XRF) helped to reveal the signature. [Annelies van Loon: Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum] b: MA-XRF map for lead (Pb-M) c: MA-XRF map for calcium (Pb-M) d: Tracing of the signature [Julianna Ly: Mauritshuis]

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). 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.

Above: Vermeer used different pigments and paint mixtures to paint the Girl’s face.

Left: Visible light photograph [René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography]

Middle: Earth pigments containing iron (Fe) were detected using macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF). [Annelies van Loon: Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum]

Right: Reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS) mapped the pigment mixtures: red is mainly vermilion, green is yellow ochre mixed with vermilion, and blue is mainly yellow ochre. [John Delaney and Kate Dooley: National Gallery of Art, Washington.]

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. 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 lead white pigment used to create the world-famous earring was mined from the UK’s Peak District. Lead white was also used in other significant areas of the painting including her face and collar.

Research Team

The research team was led by Mauritshuis paintings conservator Abbie Vandivere (left).

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.

Read further about the research project The Girl in the Spotlight

Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring is on display at the Mauritshuis, The Hague