Story at a glance

  • "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is a famous oil painting by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch artist of the Golden Age.
  • It was originally painted around 1665 but has since been restored, most recently in 1994.
  • A new photograph using a high-tech microscope reveals a new level of detail in the work.

If you’re a fan of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, you’ve probably seen his “Girl With a Pearl Earring” many times. But have you ever seen it in 3D?

The Hirox 3D digital microscope allows you to see the painting at 4.4-microns per pixel, creating a 10-billion pixel panorama that you can magnify up to 700 times. It’s as if you’re holding it in your own hands, said Abbie Vandivere, head of The Girl in the Spotlight project, in a presentation.


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The painting is known as a tronie, a depiction of an imaginary figure (not a portrait) with an exaggerated facial expression, in this case an intimate look from a girl wearing a turban and a large pearl earring. The investigation revealed the different layers Vermeer used to build the painting: first the girl’s face, jacket, and collar, then finally the blue headscarf and pearl earring. The Dutch painter used high-quality ultramarine for the headscarf, which Vandivere said was more valuable than gold in the 17th century. Macro-X-ray fluorescence scanning and microscopic examination revealed eyelashes that are no longer visible — as well as a second highlight on the pearl that wasn't painted there, but fell as a flake of paint from elsewhere.  

All this information allows the Mauritshuis, a Dutch museum that houses the painting, to better care for and restore the painting in the future, and the public to better understand the “Girl.” 


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“Our scientific examination has brought us closer to Vermeer and the Girl than ever before. Combining and comparing different scientific technologies has provided so much more information than a single technology would have done on its own. Girl with a Pearl Earring is a more personal image than was previously thought,” said Vandivere in a statement. 

Called the "master of light," Vermeer's work captures the glint of her eye, a shimmer on her lips and the shine of the pearl as well as the captivating mystery that remains unsolved: Is she turning to speak to you or away from you?

“The fact that she is still a mystery keeps people coming back and keeps her exciting and fresh,” said Vandivere. “It is good that some mysteries remain and everyone can speculate about her. It allows people their own personal interpretation of the girl. Everyone feels their own connection with the way she meets your eyes.”


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Published on Jan 21, 2021