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Girl in the Spotlight: new research into Vermeer’s "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

On Monday 26 February 2018, the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague, The Netherlands, launches the "Girl in the Spotlight": an in-depth non-invasive technical examination of the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer. The research will take two weeks until Sunday 11 March 2018, and will be conducted 24 hours a day in a climate-controlled glass room in public.

The Mauritshuis collection

The Mauritshuis museum is home to the best of Dutch Golden Age painting. The compact yet world-renowned collection is located in the heart of The Hague featuring the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer as its core masterpiece.

The museum is about to take this small painting (44,5×39 cm) from the wall of its Room 15 and place it down on a laboratory table inside a transparent glass room where art historians, computer engineers and chemists will work as pathologists to unveil the mystery of the enigmatic "Mona Lisa of the north" that has been enchanting the viewers for more than 350 years.

1994 conservation treatment

The old oil painting executed by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer around 1665 was last examined in 1994 during a conservation treatment at the Mauritshuis museum by Dr. Jorgen Wadum, the chief conservator at the time. It was the professor’s thorough three-month journey of examining, cleaning, and repairing every square inch-one at a time in a see-through glass room in public as well.

The entire process was transparent. An international committee of experts ensured that everything was going on according to a plan, and was explained openly in a constant dialogue with the public.

Back in 1994, Dr. Jorgen Wadum safely removed all the aged yellow varnish from previous restorations and repaired damages to the point of coming as close as possible to the artist’s intent. His herculean efforts contributed much to revealing the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" in all her splendor for the whole world to see.
  • Professor Dr. Jorgen Wadum restoring the “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” when he was the chief conservator at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, in 1994. (Courtesy of Jorgen Wadum via The Epoch Times)
  • Detail of the painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” showing the cleaning process during its restoration at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, in 1994. (Courtesy of Jorgen Wadum via The Epoch Times)

2018 the Girl in the Spotlight research project

Now that almost a quarter of century has passed since its last restoration, researchers took a new approach to the technical examination of the painting. The Mauritshuis experts are still fascinated by the portrait and hope to learn more about how Vermeer painted this iconic work of art and which materials he used. Although further restoration is not yet required, the museum wants to use major advances in non-invasive technical analysis that have been made over the last 25 years to investigate the canvas, pigments, oil and other materials that Vermeer used to create his renowned art work.

As a Mauritshuis initiative, the "Girl in the Spotlight" research project aims to use the latest technology and involve a team of internationally recognised specialists associated with the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NICAS). The NICAS partners are Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, TU Delft, and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). Other institutions involved in the project are Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam (STCA), Maastricht University, University of Antwerp, the National Gallery of Art Washington and Hirox Europe.

This year, the technical examination is planned as a multimedia presentation for the public. A paintings conservator at the Mauritshuis, and the head researcher of the "Girl in the Spotlight" project, Abbie Vandivere, will explain what is taking place inside the workshop using videos and daily updates.

For visitors, the "Girl in the Spotlight project" will be a unique opportunity to witness the scientific examination of a world-famous painting. To ease the difficulties in viewing the painting during the two weeks of the research, the team will provide a high-tech 3D reproduction by Océ-technologies on display so that visitors can take photos. Public lectures about the project will take place in English and in Dutch towards the end of the project, on Saturday, March 10.

Left: Abbie Vandivere studying the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer.
Photographer: Ivo Hoekstra, Credits: Mauritshuis, The Hague

Head researcher Abbie Vandivere said in her statement: ‘It's an honour to collaborate with such a team of experts, and to have access to the state-of-the-art equipment that they will bring to the Mauritshuis. For two weeks, the museum will house one of the most advanced research centres in the world.'
Harnessing MA-XRF scanning, optical coherence tomography (used to study retina usually) and digital microscopy, the researchers can deal with mineral pigments, oil, drafts, if any, and materials used by Vermeer. After the portrait takes back its usual location on display on Monday, March 12, the team will continue its work to analyze the data obtained. Final results will only be available after processing the information.

"After the two-week research period, the Girl with a Pearl Earring will be one of the best documented works of art in the world," the Mauritshuis claims.

Online, head researcher of the "Girl in the Spotlight" project Abbie Vandivere will keep visitors updated with her daily blog here. She will be blogging and posting photos daily to update anyone interested on the technical examination of the Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Left: Abbie Vandivere as the Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Photo: courtesy of Mauritshuis, The Hague

What do researchers expect to find out? They are looking for more details concerning pigments Vermeer used, his manner of laying paints on canvas, oil and materials he used. Maybe they would finally answer the question whether the girl actually wears a pearl earring or some kind of a fake jewelry made of metal or coated in metallic paint. For details, read our article "Let's figure it out: could it be that the earring in the famous 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' was not really a pearl?"

Interesting facts about the "Girl with a Pearl Earring"

It’s hard to believe now but the much-loved masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring was not known before 1881 when it appeared at an auction in The Hague. It was neglected for more than two hundred years before the art collector A.A. des Tombe bought it for just two guilders and thirty cents. And after his death in 1902, the portrait, bequeathed, moved to the Mauritshuis.

It was called the "Girl in a turban" up until 1995. The name the 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' appeared due to the need to list the painting in the catalogue for the Vermeer exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington DC.

Its growing popularity since 1999 is due to the release of the historical novel by the American-British writer Tracy Chevalier ("Girl with a Pearl Earring") that has built the story of a servant and love never blossomed around the earring. In 2003, the Hollywood film by Peter Webber starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson created a real myth around the painting.

However, art historians claim that the painting is not even a portrait of a real girl, but is a "tronie" (a 16th century Dutch term for a character study). You would surely not have been able to easily see a Dutch girl wearing such an out-of-the-ordinary turban or an enormous pearl in the Netherlands in the 17th century. This painting is just a representation of a fictional character. And art critics now believe that Vermeer drew his inspiration from art rather than life.

With the "Girl in the Spotlight" research project, we’re looking forward on new discoveries in a velvet face in garish clothes that after centuries old oblìo is still an icon of sensuality and beauty.
Written on materials of The Mauritshuis, The Epoch Times,,, Title illustration: "The Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer under technical examination at the Mauritshuis. Photographer: Ivo Hoekstra. Credits: Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Artists mentioned in the article
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