Exploring the hidden layers of Girl With a Pearl Earring

Elizabeth Kim /
Mar 8, 2018 / Culture

An international team of experts are peeling back Girl With a Pearl Earring’s every last layer of paint. Without ever touching it.

Throughout a two-week long exhibit at the Mauritshuis, the public will be able to look beyond the veneer of Girl With a Pearl Earring’s brilliant face and discover the internal layers of 350-year-old paint. Using a collection of new exploratory technologies, the museum hopes to harvest all kinds of data about the Girl With a Pearl Earring’s inner life.

“The expertise and the scientific equipment are coming from the whole world, converging on this one painting, this one masterpiece,” said paintings conservator, Abbie Vandivere. “We’ll see how much information we can gain with the technology at our disposal in a very short period of time — two weeks, working 24 hours a day, day and night.”

At the Mauritshuis, Girl With a Pearl Earring is the star attraction among a collection of Dutch 17th-century paintings drawing over 400,000 visitors each year. Removing Girl With a Pearl Earring would potentially affect attendance, so museum officials insisted on keeping the examination period as short and as visible to the public as possible. Emilie Gordenker, the Mauritshuis’s director, decided to put the entire research project on display in the museum’s Golden Room. In this regal chamber, Girl With a Pearl Earring and its research team will be encased in glass partitions while video monitors allow visitors to observe the operation as its happening inside. Like a TV medical drama, this operation is being played out in daily broadcast episodes for the public.

“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.”

The imagining technologies utilized throughout this exploration process are noninvasive— without a brush or even a Q-tip in sight, there will be no removal of particles. The tools that have been brought together for this examination will “cull a few terabytes of data,” said Joris Dik, one of the lead researchers. This data can be later used to create high-resolution digital screenings of the painting in detail never seen 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.”


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Words by Elizabeth Kim

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