Thousands of Artists Reimagine Vermeer’s ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’

A Dutch museum selected winning works by five artists—and one A.I. image generator

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis museum Lex van Lieshout / ANP via Getty Images

The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum loaned out its crown jewel, Girl With a Pearl Earring, for a blockbuster Johannes Vermeer exhibition currently on view at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. But in the meantime, it hasn’t stopped celebrating the famous painting.

Last month, the museum launched “My Girl With a Pearl,” asking any interested artists to reimagine the 1665 piece. Out of nearly 3,500 submissions, the contest’s judges narrowed the field to 170 finalists, and then 5 winners. The finalists can be seen on a loop in a digital frame, while the winners hang on the museum’s walls.

Of the five winners, one stands out: The piece, called A Girl With Glowing Earrings, was created with the A.I. program Midjourney. Submitted by German A.I. artist Julian van Dieken, the portrait forgoes the soft lines of the original artwork, opting instead for a sharp, photorealistic look.

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“One of the most famous paintings in history is literally being replaced by one of my A.I. images,” van Dieken wrote on Instagram. He says the experience is “crazy” and “completely surreal.”

But the Mauritshuis’ decision to select it has been controversial, to say the least: Some artists and commenters on the museum’s social media posts announcing the winners have been less than thrilled. Critiques have run the gamut, with some decrying the use of any A.I.-generated art, while others condemn the choice to elevate machine-created images over the handiwork of real human artists.

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“Such a shameful decision for a museum of all things to feature A.I.-generated images,” writes one user, per Artnet’s Taylor Dafoe. “Are you unfamiliar with the legal and ethical issues with the technology as well, or is it a case of pure disregard for actual artists all around? You have shown you can’t be trusted with taking care of and upholding human cultural heritage.”

Since the technology became widely available, the practice of using A.I. image generators to make art has been controversial, and debates over the tools’ role in creativity have proliferated. 

As Hyperallergic’s Taylor Michael writes, one common concern is whether these tools violate copyright laws.  

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“Some artists have heavily condemned [Midjourney] and other similar tools like Stable Diffusion for scraping potentially copyrighted works to create datasets, allegedly without seeking artists’ permission,” she writes.

In response to the criticism, Mauritshuis officials noted that the judges were impressed by van Dieken’s piece, and that how it was made didn’t affect their decision. 

“Basically the only criterium was that a creative process had been at the basis of the work that was sent to the Mauritshuis,” a museum spokesperson tells Hyperallergic. “It was definitely not a contest … The youngest ‘artist’ was 3, the oldest 94. Drawings, paintings, creations with textile, wood, paper, photoshop—anything was possible.”

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“We purely looked at what we liked,” says a museum spokesperson to the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, per Google Translate. “Is this creative? That’s a tough question.” 

Eva Toorenent is an artist and the Netherlands adviser for the European Guild for Artificial Intelligence Regulation, which has issued guidance on using and regulating A.I. She tells Hyperallergic that the museum “did not understand the technology.”

“The museum’s uninformed response to the criticism was the most disheartening,” says Toorenent. “I explained in a detailed email why A.I.-generated art in its current form is highly unethical and has no place to be highlighted and celebrated in a museum. They sent me a copy-paste response, doubling down on their decision.”

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For his part, van Dieken notes that he was upfront about his work being A.I.-generated: “The method was transparent, because in my submission … I reflect on how these new A.I. tools might change creative processes,” he says in an Instagram post.

Over in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition, “Vermeer,” brings together far-flung works by the celebrated Dutch artist that are on loan from museums around the world, including the Mauritshuis. Vermeer only made about 35 works, and the exhibition—the largest Vermeer show ever staged—has about 28 on display. 

For those who can’t make it to the Netherlands, a virtual version of the Rijksmuseum’s show can be found on the museum’s website. Similarly, the Mauritshuis is posting artists’ reimaginings of Girl With a Pearl Earring on Instagram. Both exhibitions will be on view through June 4.

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