From Planets to A Pearl Earring
May 14, 2020

From Planets to A Pearl Earring

One of Europlanet 2024 RI’s Transnational Access facilities has contributed to a new analysis of pigments used by Vermeer to add highlights to his famous painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

The ratio of lead isotopes in individual layers of the paint were analysed at the Geology and Geochemistry Isotope Facility (GGIF) at the Vrije University Amsterdam, to try to identify the pigment’s geographical origin. The study revealed that the lead in white paint and primer used by Vermeer all came from a mine located in the Peak District in Derbyshire, UK.

The research is part of “The Girl in the Spotlight”, an international study of the painting led by the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. Researchers from VU Amsterdam, including Paolo D’Imporzano and Gareth Davies, analysed samples from loose fragments of paint collected during restoration and cross sections taken from the edge of the painting. The researchers compared the lead isotope ratios in different paint layers with data from lead mines across Europe, which have distinct regional signatures as a result of variations in the geological settings. The team found that the source of the pigment in the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” was constant and consistent with the lead used in other Dutch paintings from the 17th century. The question now facing art historians is: does this mean that Vermeer’s studio processed the white lead to produce a range of pigments, or were the different pigments purchased from a single supplier? 

D’Imporzano and Davies are currently working with the Rijksmuseum to build up a detailed database of 17th-century Dutch paintings with a view to understanding how the source of lead varied over time and to determine whether lead isotope analysis can help identify when a particular work was painted.

Read the paper: van Loon, A., Vandivere, A., Delaney, J.K. et al. Beauty is skin deep: the skin tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl EarringHerit Sci 7, 102 (2019).

Girl with a Pearl Earring. Credit: René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography/ van Loon et al

Image: Detail of Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665, oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague (inv nr 670), showing the face of the Girl and sample locations 39 and 40. a Visible light image. René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography. Corresponding MA-XRF maps (0.4 mm/pixel): bc lead (Pb-L), d iron, e lead (Pb-M), f mercury, gpotassium, h calcium, i copper. Credit: René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography / van Loon et al