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Scientists Study ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ in Hopes of Finding How Vermeer Painted His Masterpiece

The enigmatic work was last examined—and restored—in 1994

Johannes Vermeer, 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' c. 1665 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
smithsonian.com

It is one of the most iconic paintings of all time: a young woman looking over her shoulder, her mouth ever-so-slightly agape, with a large pearl dangling from her ear. Since 1881, Johannes Vermeer’s masterpiece has been on display at The Hague’s Mauritshuis museum. A star attraction,  "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is rarely removed from public view. But as Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times, the work​ has been taken down for a period of brief but intensive study, in the hopes of learning more about how Vermeer painted his masterpiece.

A team of experts from both Europe and the United States have converged at the Mauritshuis to examine "Girl with a Pearl Earring"​ using an array of non-invasive technologies, among them “fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy, macro X-ray powder diffraction and optical coherence tomography,” according to Siegal. The project, titled “The Girl in the Spotlight,” began on February 26 and ends March 11. Abbie Vandivere, head researcher and paintings conservator at the Mauritshuis, tells Siegal that the team will be working day and night to study the painting as much as possible during the tight time frame.

During the two week period, visitors will not be able to view "Girl with a Pearl Earring"​ in its regular display space. But during the interim period, the Canon company Océ has created a 3D reproduction of the painting as a temporary stand-in. The Mauritshuis is also inviting visitors to watch the researchers at work. “The Girl in the Spotlight” project is being carried out in the museum’s Golden Room, a chamber decked out with 18th-century décor, and the entire process will be on view behind glass partitions.

Vandivere has also been providing further information about the project on a Mauritshuis blog. In one of these blog posts, she explains that experts have many unanswered questions about "Girl with a Pearl Earring"​: What materials did Vermeer use to create the paintings? What techniques did he employ? What can we learn about the layers beneath the surface of the work? None of Vermeer’s drawings survive to the present day, and very little is known about his education and his workshop. With the help of advanced technologies, researchers are hoping to unpack the mysteries that continue to surround the artist’s famed 17th-century painting.

"Girl with a Pearl Earring"​ was last examined—and restored—in 1994, when researchers took small samples from the painting. Imaging techniques have advanced considerably since then, allowing experts to gain a wealth of knowledge about "Girl with a Pearl Earring" without scraping away a single sample of paint.

“We won’t be touching the painting itself but we will be giving it a full bodyscan, going over texture, gloss, color and transparency millimeter by millimeter,” archaeological materials expert Joris Dik tells the Dutch publication Volksrant, according to Dutch News.

Once "Girl with a Pearl Earring"​ is back on display on March 12, the research team will analyze the data and, they hope, uncover some of the enigmatic painting’s enduring secrets.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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