A macro X-ray fluorescence scanner is used to study Girl with a Pearl Earring in fine detail. (AP)

A macro X-ray fluorescence scanner is used to study Girl with a Pearl Earring in fine detail. (AP)

Johannes Vermeer’s 17th-century masterpiece, Girl With a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer’s 17th-century masterpiece, Girl With a Pearl Earring

A visitor photographs Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, the Netherlands.  (AP)

A visitor photographs Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, the Netherlands. (AP)

Spotlight on Pearl Girl

Posted: July 1, 2020

Abbie Vandivere gingerly holds Girl with a Pearl Earring in her hands. She has to wear gloves to touch this priceless old treasure, Johannes Vermeer’s most beloved painting. What secrets will she learn from it?

For two weeks, Ms. Vandivere and her team of researchers work day and night in the Golden Room at Mauritshuis Museum in the Netherlands. They study tiny bits taken from an already damaged part of the painting. These pieces have been covered in resin and then sanded down. Each is about the size of a period. The tiny bits are called cross sections. They look like lasagna or slices of layer cake . . . for a flea! Under a microscope, layers show: canvas, paint, and varnish.

More than 15,000 visitors watch from behind plexiglass as the researchers analyze the painting. Cameras with super-high resolution show the work’s crack patterns. X-rays reveal lead white paint in the girl’s eyes, face, shirt, and pearl. Infrared scans focus on black beneath the surface. Three-dimensional digital microscopes magnify 700 times. That’s close enough to see individual pigment particles.

How many layers did Vermeer paint and in what order? The scans can show that. Macro X-ray fluorescence scans map lead, iron, and mercury elements in paint. They show which parts Mr. Vermeer changed as he worked. He moved the girl’s ear. He repainted the top of her headscarf and the back of her neck.

The researchers took two whole years to study what they found in the Golden Room. Now they report: Though Vermeer painted in Holland, his painting’s red colors came from insects that lived on Mexican and South American cactuses. The white in the girl’s eyes and earring came from lead mined in England. The dark blue came from Asian or North American indigo. Today, the girl gazes out of what looks like a dark gray background. But when Vermeer was painting, a dark green curtain hung behind her. People have said for years that the girl in the painting has no eyelashes. But you can see them clearly in the iron map. They’re invisible to the naked eye . . . but Mr. Vermeer knew they were there.

Who is the girl? Researchers shrug. Not all mysteries can be solved—and that’s part of what makes the pearl girl so alluring.