For two years, art scholars studied the world-famous painting Girl with a Pearl Earring. They scanned and scrutinized. High-tech tests performed by The Girl in the Spotlight Project gave some answers about the artist’s process and materials. But one key question remained: Who was the painter’s subject?
Johannes Vermeer is considered one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Many people appreciate the sheer beauty of his 1665 Girl with a Pearl Earring. They enjoy details like the shining face, striking costume, and, of course, the lustrous earring.
There has never been an artist like the Creator. Trees, clouds, animals, and especially people—all of His creation is fascinating and beautiful. The ability to appreciate beauty is part of being human, and it’s one of God’s good gifts.
In early 2018, the project researchers placed Girl with a Pearl Earring in a glass room. Visitors to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands, could watch machines and researchers scan and study the painting.
The project’s findings revealed interesting details. Microscopic paint samples pinpoint the source of Vermeer’s pigments. The white lead of the earring comes from northern England. The red is cochineal, made from bugs that live on cactus plants in Mexico and South America. The ultramarine blue is ground lapis lazuli stone found in present-day Afghanistan.
“It’s surprising how much high-quality ultramarine Vermeer used in the girl’s headscarf,” says conservator and project leader Abbie Vandivere. “This blue pigment was more valuable than gold in the 17th century.”
Research also revealed the order in which Vermeer painted. Infrared imaging showed that he began drawing with shades of brown and black. He then outlined the girl in black before working from the green background to the foreground. Final touches included her face, her yellow jacket, white collar, blue headscarf, and lastly, the quick dabs of white that create the pearl. Upon completion, he signed the canvas at the top left.
Microscopic scans show tiny fragments from Vermeer’s paintbrushes embedded in the girl’s skin. Scans also indicate that Vermeer originally included eyelashes on the girl, but they’ve faded over the years.
One of the most amazing findings revealed that the background is not just dark, empty space. Imaging shows diagonal lines and color changes representing folded fabric in the upper right-hand corner. The girl is sitting in front of a green curtain! The curtain has mostly disappeared, says Vandivere, because of light damage and chemical changes in the green paint.
Some mysteries remain. “The girl has, sadly, not revealed her identity,” says Martine Gosselink, director at the Mauritshuis. “But we have [gotten] to know her better.”