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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102
JournalHeritage Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2019


The Netherlands Institute for Conservation + Art + Science + funded the participation of the NICAS partners in the project, including use of analytical equipment and the time devoted to the project by scientists from the RCE, TU Delft, University of Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum. The Girl in the Spotlight project was made possible with support from the Johan Maurits Compagnie Foundation. The research project The Girl in the Spotlight is a Mauritshuis initiative, led by paintings conservator Abbie Vandivere, with a team of internationally recognised specialists working within the collaborative framework of the Netherlands Institute for Conservation + Art + Science + (NICAS). The authors would also like to thank the following people for their useful discussions, and assistance with analysis and technical examination: René Gerritsen and Jaap Hoogerdijk (René Gerritsen Art & Research Photography); Bob van Wingerden (Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam); Klaas Jan van den Berg and Art Ness Proaño Gaibor (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands); Geert van der Snickt (University of Antwerp); Joris Dik (Delft University of Technology); Marya Albrecht (Mauritshuis); Maartje Stols-Witlox (University of Amsterdam); Jan Garrevoet, Matthias Alfeld and Gerald Falkenberg (beamline P06 at the PETRA-III (DESY) synchrotron facilities).

FundersFunder number
Geert van der Snickt
Johan Maurits Compagnie Foundation
Marya Albrecht
Netherlands Institute for Conservation?
Technische Universiteit Delft
Universiteit Antwerpen


    • Advanced imaging techniques
    • Contours
    • Flesh paint
    • Lead degradation products
    • Lead isotopes
    • Lead white
    • Paint cross-sections
    • Painting technique 17th century


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