Girl with a Pearl Earring and a macro-XRF scan

Johannes Vermeer’s 1665 masterpiece Girl with a Pearl Earring will be introduced to the latest and greatest technologies in a new study that will take place in the glorious Golden Room of the Mauritshuis in full view of the public. The Girl in the Spotlight project will examine Vermeer’s iconic bejeweled maiden using state-of-the-art scientific tools and methodologies. It’s the first time the painting has been examined since it was last conserved in 1994, and while no new conservation needs have developed in the 25 years since then, researchers want to take advantage of the great leaps forward in technology to learn more about how Vermeer painted the work and the materials he used.

The project began on February 26th and runs through March 11th. The research team includes experts from the Rijksmuseum, the Delft University of Technology, the University of Antwerp and Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) as well other international institutions and the Mauritshuis’ own researchers. The first step is an intensively detailed scan over the course of several days with a macro-X-ray fluorescence scanner. The MA-XRF machine scans the painting one millimeter at a time creating a detailed map beyond anything that could have been conceived in 1994.

Because Girl will not be in her usual place in the gallery during the two weeks of the study, the Mauritshuis created a glass-walled studio within its Golden Room so that visitors could still catch a glimpse of her. She will be difficult to see at times, depending on what analysis she’s being subjected to, so museum staff put a 3D reproduction of the painting up in her regular spot to give visitors something interesting to view up close and capture in pictures even as they enjoy the unique opportunity to see the real Girl with a Pearl Earring undergoing examination with all kinds of bells and whistles. The company that created the repro, Océ, used a proprietary system they call “elevated printing” which layers ink on the surface to create a dead-on accurate impression of the impasto, texture and brushstrokes, not just a flattened image of the original.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring will go back on display in Room 15 on March 12th. Two days before then, on March 10th, the museum will offer public lectures by conservator and head researcher Abbie Vandivere and curator Lea van der Vinde that will explain everything we know about the painting and the study taking place in the Golden Room.

The information they’ll be able to convey is limited because it’s going to take a while to analyze all the data. The final results will be published when the analysis is complete. Meanwhile, you can follow along with the research, which will be taking place 24 hours a day, not just during museum hours, on Abbie Vandivere’s outstanding blog. She posts daily updates on the work they’re doing, the tech they’re using, sharing her conservator’s eye view with fascinating photos of what she sees in the microscope, the painting’s history at the museum from acquisition through multiple restorations and tons more. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the job of painting conservator at one of the greatest museums in the world entails, then this blog will kick raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens right off the list and be your new favorite thing.

2 thoughts on “Girl with a Pearl Earring and a macro-XRF scan

  1. It so sad to see the painting washed out like this. Couldn’t you see the dark values on the her back and side of he face were not all dirt. Now it is ruined ! I have seen these happen over and over again. I have never spoken up before, but seen a Vermeer ruined is not something I can be saying nothing about. I am a classically trained painter and I know what I am looking at.

  2. Without actually standing in front of the picture it is hard to tell how it looks. I am a digital artist, and a photo of unknown provenance is no way of understanding what exists in physical reality.

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