Nicknamed the “Mona Lisa of the North,” Girl With a Pearl Earring is probably Johannes Vermeer's most celebrated work. It’s been used on the cover of many art books, it adorns a range of merchandise, it has appeared in a range of humorous alterations online, Banksy turned it into a graffiti on a Bristol wall and it has inspired the 1999 novel of the same name by American author Tracy Chevalier and subsequently the movie based on it.
The painting has captivated so many people throughout history, drawing unprecedented crowds to The Mauritshuis, the art museum in The Hague, Netherlands where it is now housed. It became iconic for the distinct position of the girl, her enigmatic gaze, the colors and the delicate quality of the light. Although it appears to be a portrait, the work is actually a "tronie" – a painting of an imaginary figure that depicts a certain type or character.
The recent scientific investigation of the world-famous portrait has revealed elements that make the subject more "personal", even if her identity remains a mystery. Conducted by an international team of scientists from February 2018, the investigation, the first of its kind, sheds new light on the famous painting.
Johannes Vermeer was the greatest of the Dutch genre painters, who took his subject matter from everyday life. However, Vermeer did not simply record the world around him, but he carefully crafted poetic constructions based on what he observed.
Estimated to have been painted around 1665, Girl with a Pearl Earring is the Dutch artist's most famous painting. Not a portrait but a tronie - the head of an ideal type, it depicts a young beautiful woman in an exotic dress, wearing an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in her ear. Even though a girl possibly sat and posed for this painting, it displays too few distinctive features - there are no moles, scars or freckles to be seen.
Set against a black background, the young woman features the striking blue and yellow turban and a glistening pearl. Vermeer's mastery of light and shade can be seen on her luminous skin, while subtle glimmers of white on her parted red lips make them appear moist. Although we don't know the identity of the girl, she looks familiar, mostly due to the intimacy of her gaze. However, by leaving the corners of her eyes undefined, the artist offers no clue of her emotional state. Her expression is pleasingly ambiguous, contributing to the work being an iconic masterpiece.
Vermeer himself is as enigmatic as his most famous painting since only about 34 paintings survive from his oeuvre. He began his career as a history painter, depicting scenes from ancient Greek and Catholic lore, but from the outset, he trained his eye on women. He soon shifted to the genre scenes of domestic life that made him famous. As the art critic Edward Rothstein wrote, his lifetime project was “an almost metaphysical quest for the precariously poised instant, an ideal we would now consider photographic.”
Girl With a Pearl Earring was not always as popular as it is now. It ended up in Vermeer's patron collection, before it was sold on by his son-in-law. The work was lost for 200 years until a collector bought it for 2 guilders and discovered it was a Vermeer once it had been cleaned. After his death in 1902, it was donated to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where it is hung ever since. Since the Mauritshuis would never sell it, it is a priceless work. Yet, the last Vermeer to be publicly sold in 2004, a painting nowhere near as good as this masterpiece, went for $30 million.
Working together with different partners and specialists, The Mauritshuis conducted an in-depth scientific examination of its most famous painting, in hopes of learning more about how Vermeer painted the work, as well as the materials that he used. The research began two years ago, in 2018, using non-invasive imaging and scanning techniques, digital microscopy and paint sample analysis, and now, the team unveiled their new discoveries.
One of the most surprising findings was that the background is not simply an empty dark space, but it features a green curtain that has disappeared over the course of the centuries as a result of physical and chemical changes in the translucent green paint.
The research also revealed that the artist made changes to the position of the ear, the top of the turban and the back of the neck during the painting process, systematically working from the background to the foreground. The girl's distinct pearl is in fact an illusion, made of translucent and opaque touches of white paint, and the hook to hang it from her ear is missing.
The results also accurately map Vermeer’s color palette for the first time, using raw materials for the colors that came from all over the world. The high-quality ultramarine used in the headscarf and the jacket was made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli that came from what is now Afghanistan during a time-consuming and laborious process. Due to these findings, the artist's liberal use of the color is striking.
Although the research didn't find out the identity of the young lady and if she ever really existed, the researches did manage to get a little closer to her, making her more personal. To the naked eye, the Girl has always appeared to have had no eyelashes. However, macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning and microscopic examination did reveal that Vermeer painted tiny hairs around both eyes.
All these findings are extremely valuable, but as Martine Gosselink, director of the Mauritshuis, explains, this is not "the end point of our research."
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. Of course, we will keep you informed!
Editors’ Tip: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis
Housed in a splendid 17th-century palace in The Hague, the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis is home to some of the world’s most beloved paintings―including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring―and has become a destination for art enthusiasts from around the world. This engaging, accessible companion volume to a long-awaited museum exhibition guides readers through the highlights of the collection as if they were wandering the historic rooms themselves. A lavish plate section features 35 paintings, each accompanied by texts that explore its historical provenance and individual significance. Curatorial essays describe the building’s founder, Count Johan Maurits, and his experience as a Dutch colonist in the New World; the formation of the collection; and also recent discoveries about the materials and techniques employed by these great artists. Fans of Vermeer’s iconic masterpiece will delight in discovering that it is one of many beautiful artworks in the Mauritshuis’s elegant rooms.
Featured image: Johannes Vermeer - Girl With a Pearl Earring (detail), c. 1665. All images Creative Commons.