Uncovering the Secrets of the ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’

The “Girl” is the star attraction of the Mauritshuis, a collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings that draws about 400,000 visitors each year. Removing her from public view for any length of time potentially affects attendance, so museum officials tried to keep the examination period as short as possible, and to keep her in the public eye as much as possible.

Instead of taking her up to the restoration studio, Emilie Gordenker, the Mauritshuis’s director, decided to put the whole research project on display in the museum’s Golden Room, a regal chamber with 18th century décor, where the “Girl” and the research team will be enclosed in glass partitions while video monitors allow visitors to observe what’s happening inside. A high-resolution, three-dimensional reproduction of the “Girl” created by OC, a Netherlands-based Canon company, will sit on an easel outside the glass chamber.


Ms. Vandivere and Ms. Gordenker examining an X-ray photo of “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Credit Michel deGroot for The New York Times

“Getting the ‘Girl’ out of her frame means that she’s not visible in the way that she normally is for visitors, and that was a big concern for us because people come from far and wide to see this picture,” Ms. Gordenker said. “Occasionally she’ll be lying on a bed with all kinds of cameras hanging around her, so you might not be able to see her as usual, or she might be half covered by a scanner. We wanted to make sure that for people who will come, they get taken along in the process.”

It has been more than two decades since Vermeer’s so-called “Mona Lisa of the North” has been the subject of an examination, and since that time, there has been a great deal of advancement in the tools used to examine artworks. In 1994, researchers employed tools such as X-radiography, UV photography and infrared reflectography, and took tiny paint samples out of the painting.

Today’s imaging tools are noninvasive, which means there’s nary a brush or Q-tip in sight, and there will be no removal of particles. The technologies that have been brought together for this examination will “cull a few terabytes of data,” said Joris Dik, one of the lead researchers, from Delft University of Technology. These can later be used to create high-resolution computer visualizations of the painting that were never possible before.

“I can imagine at the end we’ll have something like Google Earth where you can click on all different layers and zoom in and out of the painting to see different elements within the layers of paint,” he said.

The “Girl” has been on display in the Mauritshuis since 1881. The work wasn’t considered to be a particular highlight of the collection — which also includes Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” and “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius — until a major exhibition in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1995, followed by the publication of Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling novel of the same name four years later and the subsequent 2003 film, starring Scarlett Johansson.

Ms. Chevalier imagined the fictional subject for Vermeer’s painting as a housemaid who is invited into the inner sanctum of the master’s studio, and allowed to wear his wife’s pearl earring for the portrait, creating a certain frisson between the artist and his model.

Ms. Gordenker said that in reality, the picture probably wasn’t painted as a portrait of any particular person. Trying to figure out the identity of the real-life “Girl” — if there even was one — isn’t a question for research.

“One of the things that makes this painting so spectacularly appealing is that we don’t know,” Ms. Gordenker said. That’s one mystery that this year’s inquiry will not attempt to solve.

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