9 March 2018

Unlocking the mysteries of the girl with a Pearl Earring

The canvas appeals to the imagination: her enigmatic gaze, the artist's use of colour and the outstanding play of light. Scholars have been fascinated by the work of art for years, particularly given that so many questions have gone unanswered. How did Vermeer paint his iconic masterpiece? Which materials did he use? The Mauritshuis in The Hague launched an in-depth investigation on Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), which will run until 11 March 2018. With this project, titled 'The Girl in the Spotlight', the Mauritshuis hopes to find answers to these long-standing questions. A team of international experts will use state-of-the-art technologies to investigate the canvas, pigments, oils and other materials Vermeer used to create his famous painting. Maastricht University is also contributing to this special project.


A practical application of mass spectrometry imaging is the so-called iKnife, a surgical blade developed by Heeren in collaboration with surgeon Steven Olde Damink from Maastricht UMC+. The knife collects and analyses molecular data near the incision to help the surgeon work with greater precision. In the case of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, this 'endless stream of information' was a bit disappointing. The sensitivity of the imaging device in the lab on Universiteitssingel left much to be desired. In other words: the layer to be analysed was too thin. In some way, this may be the most impressive result of the investigation into this minuscule painting sample: that a seventeenth-century paint mixer still manages to confound twenty-first century science to this day. Over time, research methods have developed to such an extent that scientists can learn a lot about the composition of the paint used by Vermeer even without a paint sample. The Mauritshuis hopes the current museum research will help to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the girl.

The research project 'The Girl in the Spotlight' is being carried out at the initiative of the Mauritshuis by internationally acclaimed experts associated with the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science. The NICAS partners are Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, TU Delft and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE).

Photographer: © Ivo Hoekstra, Credits: Mauritshuis, The Hague