Though the experts didn’t come any closer to discovering the figure’s much-debated identity, they were able to use modern imaging techniques to peer beneath the top layers of the finished painting in more detail than ever before.
The analysis revealed an array of previously unseen features: Per a press release, the mysterious sitter originally appeared not in a gray void, but in front of a dark green curtain. Vermeer also revised several elements of the work’s composition, including the position of the girl’s ear, the top of her headscarf and the back of her neck. Though invisible to the naked eye, the figure does, in fact, have eyelashes.
“We were able to find out so much about Vermeer’s materials and techniques, but we still don’t know exactly who the girl is,” project head and conservator Abbie Vandivere tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown. “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.”
The artwork, completed around 1665, is one of Vermeer’s best-known works. Many of the 17th-century artist’s paintings center on women engaging in quotidian tasks such as reading, writing and playing musical instruments. In contrast, Girl With a Pearl Earring features an unnamed young woman looking over her shoulder to gaze directly at the viewer.
While it may seem like a conventional portrait, the 1665 work is actually a tronie, or painting that emphasizes character and costume over the depiction of a specific subject. According to the Essential Vermeer database, “The tronie furnished the artist [with] an opportunity to demonstrate his ability in rendering fine stuffs, an exotic garment or characteristic facial type.”