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Explore Vermeer's masterpiece "Girl with a Pearl Earring" up close, and see how it's different (and not) from a high-res 3D print of the painting. We visit the Mauritshuis in The Hague and learn what happens when conservation scientists study the painting with today's most advanced technology.

This project was made possible by Google Arts & Culture. For more info go to

The Girl in the Spotlight research project is a Mauritshuis initiative, with a team of internationally recognised specialists working within the collaborative framework of the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NCIS).

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(PBS Digital Studios logo)

This is the Hague, or as the Dutch call it, Den Haag.  It's the seat of the Dutch government and home to both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.  The king and queen live nearby and work in this palace, in front of which you can find an equestrian statue of William the 1st of Orange and maybe when it's cold enough, this snowman.  

In the city center sits the Binnenhof, a complex of medieval buildings where you'll find both houses of parliament and the prime minister's office in this little tower right here.  Right next to it is the Mauritshuis, which holds some of the most admired artworks in the world.  It's called Mauritshuis because it was Johan Maurits' house, who in the 17th century was a governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil.  It eventually became the royal picture gallery, housing the collection of Prince William V, which included works like "The Bull" by Paulus Potter.

Now it's a museum in which you can immerse yourself in masterworks by Dutch and Flemish artists of the so-called golden age, that moment of great wealth and cultural flourishing for the Dutch republic, when the East India Company's trade business blossomed and made some in Holland very rich.  Here you can bask in the best known works by Rembrandt and his contemporaries, see (?~1:20)'s famous "Goldfinch", and obsess over exquisite still lifes by the likes of Clara Peeters, and it also holds three of the 36 paintings known to exist by Johannes Vermeer.

Many come to the museum specifically to see one of them, which usually lives in this room and on this wall, but (drumroll) it's taking a two week soujourn to the museum's golden room, where it's secured behind a glass enclosure and surrounded by machinery and some of the best minds in conservation science.  It's "The Girl With a Pearl Earring", of course, Vermeer's 1665 painting that you've seen emblazoned on countless notepads and tzotzkes, and yes, Scarlett Johnsson pretended to be her in the film adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's novel.  

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In another corner of the room, sitting openly on a stand with substantially less security and fuss is another "Girl With a Pearl Earring".  This one is a high resolution, 3D print of the painting, open for close inspection and selfie taking while the real deal is less accessible.  Now, we understand rationally that one is original and one a copy, but what really is the difference between the two?  What makes the one that Vermeer carefully rendered into existence over three centuries ago so special, so worthy of scrutiny and investment, and the other not?  

In a world where flat images seem to reign supreme, does it matter what lies beneath the surface or what residues of history are carried with it?  To figure out what really does lie beneath the surface, the Mauritshuis has embarked on an intensive research project with a team of internationally recognized specialists.  They're collecting a massive amount of data that will be processed, visualized, and analyzed in the coming months and years.  The painting is in good condition, so why are they doing it?

Abbie Vandivere: We're working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to find out as much as we can about the materials that Vermeer used, where they might have come from in the world, his techniques, how did he start painting her, how--what were the first layers he applied, how did he build up the different colors?  One of our other questions is, what did the painting look like originally and how has it changed and what can we find out with the latest scientific techniques that are available, because we're using state of the art techniques of, that fall into several different categories, scanning techniques, microscopy, color gloss topography scanners, and infrared techniques, so with all of these complementary scientific examinations, we hope to find out all we can about "The Girl With a Pearl Earring".

Sarah: A lot has changed in conservation science since the painting was restored in 1994 and these current studies don't actually involve touching the painting at all.  

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Joris Dik: We developed basically non-destructive tools to analyze artwork.  Painting is layered, made up of different layers and OCT is a system that helps us understand the sub-structure of a painting, the layers that lie below the surface of the painting.

Sarah: Now, the 3D reproduction is very faithful when it comes to replicating the texture of the surface of the original painting.

Emilie Gordenker: But it comes out of the printer in layers, and the very last layer is color and that's why you don't get the kind of depth and liveliness that you do from an oil painting, 'cause oil paint is partly transparent so it's that play of light on the layers that makes it really come alive and glow.

Sarah: And it's that glow that has drawn people to the real girl since the painting entered the (?~4:54) collection in 1903.  When Vermeer was alive, he was by no means the household name he is now.  He had a following but went underrecognized for centuries and was even nicknamed 'the Sphinx of Delft', the town not far from the Hague where Vermeer was from. 

We know relatively little about this artist and how he was able to render such luminous pictures and profound clarity and calm.  

Emilie: There is something very mysterious about how Vermeer built up his paint and how he achieved that incredible play of light and how he got that, that one dot on the pearl just right so that it looks like it's a real peal, even though it probably wasn't.

Sarah: One way to better understand how Vermeer achieved that astounding play of light is by looking at how exactly he laid down these minimal amounts of material through near infrared imaging.  

John Delaney: A lot of our techniques are based on either the transmission of a light, either the absorbence and re-emission of light, or the reflectance of light off the object, so today, what you saw was the transmission, measuring the transmission of light through the painted canvas and in the areas where the paint is thick, less light comes through.  

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In the areas where it's thin, more, and sometimes you can see shadows and features that are buried in the paint that are important to understand the (?~6:16) process.

Sarah: From samples taken during the 1994 restoration, we learn that the background didn't use to be the black or greyish color it reads as now.  It was originally a dark enamel-like green, made up of a base layer of black paint with a glaze of blue and yellow pigments over top that had degraded over time.

Joris: All paintings are degrading and we want to understand how fast these things are going, right, what is the kinetics of these degredation processes.

Sarah: Along with color shifts, the degredation process of the painting has involved cracking.

Abbie: The parts of a painting structure continue to move and change long after they're painted, and if paintings are kept in a stable environment with stable temperature and stable climate then we minimize those kind of movements, but these are changes that happen within the painting that we are not really able to, you know, turn back time and make them less prominent.  It's something that we learn to accept about old paintings and it's a sign of their age that is in some ways, you know, attractive and shows that they have a long history.

Sarah: This age is part of what differentiates the original from the print and what draws crowds to see it in person.  Theorist Walter Benjamin called that aspect of a work that doesn't transfer over reproduction its aura, or its "singular presence in time and space" and seen outside of its substantial frame, the humble objectness of the painting becomes more apparent.  That this is not just an image, not flat, but a physical structure with depth, the result of a human person daubing it delicately with fine brushes and rare pigments, building up those surface effects over time.

A machine didn't make this object.  A person did, and it's that feeling of direct connection with a person from times long past that's part of what makes the experience of an original so moving, but it's also about the girl herself.

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The (?~8:11) is full of faces looking out at you from the past and canvasses lovingly worried over by humans who came before.   What is it about this face in particular?  

Abbie: Almost everyone in the museum refers to the girl as "her".  She is the only painting here that is referred to, you know, as if she's a real person.

Sarah: And that's funny because this is not truly a portrait, but a tronie, a type or character or idealization, as other artists like Rembrandt also made at the time and can be seen in these galleries.  A young Dutch girl of Vermeer's time would not have worn an exotic turban such as the one she's wearing.  The pearl of her earring is too impossibly large to be genuine.  Vermeer likely had someone sit for the work, but she's in costume, not given a name.  The dark background leaves no context clues and allows her to float freely in space and time, which leaves us with plenty of room for interpretation and conjecture and imagination.  

Emilie: There's something so alive about her that it becomes more than a painting, more than an object.  It's really something that you live with and that you want to refer to as someone you know.  

Sarah: Although the print isn't identical to the real painting, it still has value.  It makes you look harder, closer, what differences can you identify?

Joris: There's no such thing as replacing the original, of course, but we're interested in making reproductions better.  Let's not forget, art is about sharing, right?  Sharing with the rest of the world, whether it's on your mobile phone or in a bus stop somewhere or a book or wherever, but all these reproductions, they fail to reproduce a number of important properties such as gloss, transparency, topography of the surface, right, these are really important things also for a painter like Vermeer, so getting these optical properties right requires us to take, you know, good measurements of the transparency of the gloss, of the paint surface in order to make these reproductions better.

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Abbie: Perhaps in the future, using all of the information we've gathered using these different techniques, we could think about making a 3D reconstruction that shows her closer to how she may have looked when she left Vermeer's studio, but obviously a 3D print will never take the place of the real girl.

Sarah: But will this always be the case?  With evolving technology, there may come a time when the copy comes closer to matching the magic of the original.  Regardless, reproductions serve and will continue to serve an important role in allowing more to see the girl than the lucky people who can make it to this special place and to have an experience so intimate you might even refer to an object as you would a friend.  The original and its copies call us to look at the world more closely, to ask questions about what lies beneath the surface and what histories might be concealed.  As we look at her and she looks out at us, we're invited to consider how it is that we connect with the people and things and ideas of the past and ponder the nature of images and of reproduction itself in a world that is increasingly and overwhelmingly full of them.

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