This Girl is up for a dialogue

In 1994, after an interview on the progress of restoring Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a Dutch newspaper proclaimed that ‘Jørgen Wadum is in love with her’. Although never so candidly declared from my side, it should be noted that our relationship started much earlier. It may appear predestined, but in the 1960s during my teen-age years in Vejle (Jutland, Denmark), I had an A1-size poster of the Girl prominently displayed on the wall in my room. So, the Girl and I are in fact beyond a ‘golden wedding anniversary’. Like in any good relationship, the Girl continues to enchant, inspire, and fascinate.

Thanks to the recent Girl in the Spotlight project, all the notes, letters, drawings and thoughts encountered during my first face-to-face meeting with the Girl in the 1990s were again brought to light. It was a bit like rediscovering a box in the attic with relics from the past.

Having a new team of internationally acclaimed experts review the documentation from the 1994 Vermeer Illuminated project – deliberations, photographs, and the research results compiled by the team of experts from the collaborating disciplines within conservation, conservation science, and art – could appear nerve-wracking. It was, however, a delight to learn that the painting is still in good condition. The removal of a brown ‘gallery tone’ of deliberately tinted varnish (applied after the 1960 restoration) and the delicate inpainting by Nicola Costaras in 1994 has survived the test of time.

Therefore, it has been a thrill to witness how the fresh approach by the Girl in the Spotlight project team and their highly sophisticated equipment evaluated the material composition of Vermeer’s painting anew. Advancing our understanding of the artist creative process will teach us to better understand his intention with the painting.

Creating a painting means making material choices. A variety of different brushes would move the paint from the artist’s palette to the canvas. The pigments bound in oils would be layered to indicate or mimic the textures of textiles, skin, and the moisture on her lips and in her eyes. Standing in front of the painting in the Mauritshuis offers the beholder a unique experience of privacy – the Girl and you captured by her enigmatic gaze – and one becomes engaged in a very secret and emotional conversation.

Vermeer used different pigments and paint mixtures to paint the Girl’s face.
Left: Visible light photograph [René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography]
Middle: Earth pigments containing iron (Fe) were detected using macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF).
[Annelies van Loon: Mauritshuis/Rijksmuseum]
Right: Reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS) mapped the pigment mixtures: red is mainly vermilion, green is
yellow ochre mixed with vermilion, and blue is mainly yellow ochre.
[John Delaney and Kate Dooley: National Gallery of Art, Washington.]

Unravelling the meaning of making of a painting teaches not only researchers and caretakers of these delicate art works how to best understand and care for them for the enjoyment of future generations. We come to understand past interactions between a variety of traders of materials and pigments. From Afghanistan to Latin America they came and became mixed with locally produced white pigments and yellow colourants. They all landed in the paint box of Vermeer. In Delft. The world was at his fingertips.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring was created by stuff from around the globe, and the current top-notch international science project has nuanced and elucidated this further. The Girl herself is always up for a dialogue with everyone in the world.

The press was ready to capture the first moment that the Girl with a Pearl Earring being examined using macro-
X-ray fluorescence scanning (MA-XRF) within an enclosure in the Golden Room of the Mauritshuis. February
[Ivo Hoekstra: Mauritshuis]

Learn more about the project here:

Published by Jørgen Wadum

Jørgen Wadum is a Danish technical art historian.

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