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Art sleuths lead effort to solve mysteries of 353-year-old masterpiece ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’

Emilie Gordenker, left, director of the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery, and Abbie Vandivere, the paintings conservator, in The Hague, Netherlands, Feb. 15, 2018. (Michel de Groot/The New York Times)

An ambitious project was launched in late February to uncover the mysteries of how the 1665 painting Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer, came to be. The painting has been on display in the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague since 1881, and the gallery views it as the most “beloved” work of art housed there.

Abbie Vandivere, paintings conservator and head researcher at the gallery, is leading an international team of researchers which, over a two-week period, will try to solve the mysteries the Vermeer masterpiece has concealed for centuries. They are using state-of-the-art noninvasive scanning technology to examine the portrait anew, something last done in the 1990s when the technology researchers had at their disposal was not what it is today. Though the painting has been removed from its mount on the wall, researchers won’t physically have to touch its surface.

“We are hoping to find the answer to a whole host of questions,” Vandivere, told the Volkskrant. “What are the initial layers of the painting like? From which parts of the world did Vermeer’s pigments come? How did he manage to apply transparent blue layers over the light blue base layers of her headscarf?”

Girl With a Pearl Earring is now the gallery’s main attraction, but public interest in it hasn’t always been brimming. Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel, which takes its title from the painting’s, imagines the narrative of the girl depicted in it, of which nothing is known, as a housemaid whom the artist allowed to wear his wife’s earrings for the portrait. The book rekindled art enthusiasts’ interest in the work. And then in 2003 the novel was adapted for the big screen and the “girl” was depicted by Scarlett Johansson, which poured gasoline on that rekindled flame.

Thus, preserving the public’s access to the priceless painting was of high priority, which is where Emilie Gordenker, gallery’s director, came in. “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,” Gordenker told The New York Times. “We wanted to make sure that for people who will come, they get taken along in the process,” added.

The project is expected to be completed on March 12 and answer many of the outstanding questions researchers have about the painting, which has come to be known as “the Mona Lisa of the North.” One mystery that is not expected to be solved is the identity of the painting’s subject, nor is unearthing that secret even an aim of the project. “One of the things that makes this painting so spectacularly appealing is that we don’t know,” Gordenker said.

Read the full story at The New York Times.


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