Researchers at The Mauritshuis Gallery in The Hague on Tuesday revealed the results of in-depth investigations into his featured painting, The Girl with the Earring by Johannes Vermeer, which dates to around 1665.
Dutch researchers were amazed to discover, for the first time, delicate eyelashes on the girl’s face and traces of a green curtain behind her head. They also acquired new information on the way Vermeer painted the work, on the modifications he made and on the pigments he used, in particular by discovering that the white of the earring came from Peak District in England.
But the biggest mystery remains and it’s a good thing, said Abbie Vandivere, head of the research project The Girl in the Spotlight.
“We have been able to learn so much about Vermeer’s materials and techniques, but we still don’t know exactly who the girl is,” she said. “It is good that certain mysteries remain and that everyone can speculate on it. It allows people their own personal interpretation of the girl; everyone feels their own connection to the way they meet your eyes.
“The fact that it is still a mystery keeps people coming back and keeps it exciting and fresh.”
Vandivere said the two biggest discoveries were finding the girl’s eyelashes and evidence that Vermeer had painted a green curtain, which gradually faded, rather than an empty dark background.
Scholars have previously hypothesized that the girl’s lack of eyelashes could be due to the fact that Vermeer was painting an idealized or abstract face. A similar argument was made for the formless expanse behind it.
The two discoveries “put the girl in a defined space and bring us a lot closer to her,” said Vandivere. They suggest that Vermeer faithfully observed and painted a real person in real space.
Speculating on who the girl was, with her enigmatic expression, her wide eyes, her unusual blue turban and her huge pearl earring, is always part of the fun.
The novelist Tracy Chevalier, in her book Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has become a successful film, imagines the character as a maid in the house of Vermeer who is persuaded to pose secretly for him.
Mauritshuis research also brought us closer to Vermeer’s painting techniques, said Vandivere, showing how he started composing the paint in various shades of brown and black before adding the colors, working systematically from the back foreground.
The pearl itself is an illusion in the sense that it has no outline or hook to hang it from the girl’s ear, she said.
The researchers also discovered changes made by Vermeer, including a change in the position of the ear, the top of the scarf and the back of the neck.
The researchers were able to determine where the raw materials for the colors came from. Vermeer would have bought them in his hometown of Delft, but the lead ore in its white would come from the Peak District; the cochineal in its red was made of insects that lived on cacti in Mexico and South America; and the blue in the scarf was made of semiprecious stone lapis lazuli from what is now Afghanistan. It is surprising how much he used, said Vandivere, because in the 17th century it would have been more precious than gold.
Mauritshuis director Martine Gosselink said: “The girl hasn’t revealed her secret yet, but we’ve gotten to know her a little better. This is not the end of our research. “