Heritage Science (Dec 2019)

Beauty is skin deep: the skin tones of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring

  • Annelies van Loon,
  • Abbie Vandivere,
  • John K. Delaney,
  • Kathryn A. Dooley,
  • Steven De Meyer,
  • Frederik Vanmeert,
  • Victor Gonzalez,
  • Koen Janssens,
  • Emilien Leonhardt,
  • Ralph Haswell,
  • Suzan de Groot,
  • Paolo D’Imporzano,
  • Gareth R. Davies

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 7, no. 1
pp. 1 – 20


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Abstract The soft modelling of the skin tones in Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis) has been remarked upon by art historians, and is their main argument to date this painting to c. 1665. This paper describes the materials and techniques Vermeer used to accomplish the smooth flesh tones and facial features of the Girl, which were investigated as part of the 2018 Girl in the Spotlight research project. It combines macroscopic X-ray fluorescence imaging (MA-XRF), reflectance imaging spectroscopy (RIS), and 3D digital microscopy. Vermeer built up the face, beginning with distinct areas of light and dark. He then smoothly blended the final layers to create almost seamless transitions. The combination of advanced imaging techniques highlighted that Vermeer built the soft contour around her face by leaving a ‘gap’ between the background and the skin. It also revealed details that were otherwise not visible with the naked eye, such as the eyelashes. Macroscopic imaging was complemented by the study of paint cross-sections using: light microscopy, SEM–EDX, FIB-STEM, synchrotron radiation µ-XRPD and FTIR–ATR. Vermeer intentionally used different qualities or grades of lead white in the flesh paints, showing different hydrocerussite/cerussite ratios and particle sizes. Lead isotope analysis showed that the geographic source of lead, from which the different types of lead white were manufactured, was the same: the region of Peak District of Derbyshire, UK. Finally, cross-section analysis identified the formation of new lead species in the paints: lead soaps and palmierite (K2Pb(SO4)2), associated with the red lake.