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Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

An in-depth look into the materials and methods of Johannes Vermeer and the studio practices of 17th-c. Dutch painters

History of Conservation and the 1994 Restoration

When the Girl with a Pearl Earring was brought to light after more than 200 years of obscurity, the Amsterdam Nieuewe Courant wrote that "when the painting had been acquired by Mr. Des Tombes (in 1882) it was in a sorry state of neglect." The condition of the painting suggests it had been stored inadequately and it had obviuosly suffered serious paint loss. A first restoration was carried out in 1882 by Van der Hagghen in Antwerp.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, detail of lips

Lips during

When it arrived in the Mauritshuis in 1903, the then director Mr. Bredius, wrote "...(the painting) has many overpaintings which appear to have been applied to hide seriously overcleaned areas of the painting..."1 It was cleaned, regenerated and varnished in 1915 by D. de Wild, the in-house restorer of the museum at the cost of 5 guilders. Regeneration, which is no longer practiced, softens brittle and clouded varnish by exposing the picture's surface to alcohol vapors and with the application of copaiba balsam.

In 1960, the painting was lined with a mixture of wax-resin onto a fine linen canvas. Relining is conducted when an old canvas has degenerated significantly or when the paint no longer adheres uniformly to the original canvas. The 1960 restoration consisted in relining, removal of varnish and some minor retouching by J. C.Traas. It now seems that preceding retouches were not removed but simply painted over.

1994 Restoration

Girl with a pearl Eatting, detail of pearl

Earring before

In 1994, the painting was again restored in view of the upcoming Washington / Mauritshuis Vermeer exhibition. This time, the restoration and conservation were undertaken in consultation with an international committee. Since the museum did not wish to remove the painting (Vermeer's View of Delft was also restored contemporarily) from the public view, a temporary restoration studio was set up that allowed the public to observe the paintings while being restored. Although its material condition was not threatened, it suffered severely from an aesthetic point of view. The varnish had yellowed considerably and some of the retouches has become seriously discolored. Some black pigment was detected that had been added to the top varnish layer evidently to alter its hue.

The reflection under the pearl contained a small, bright highlight which was not a part of the original painting. This "reflection" was a flake of paint colored by surrounded light toned filler which had stuck to the spot during an earlier restoration. Once the flake was removed, the pearl regained its original softness.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, deatil of pearl earring

Earring after

Old varnish was painstakingly removed by cotton swabs and solvent. Most of the old retouches were also removed in the same manner but the more tenacious ones had to be scraped with a surgical scalpel. Once all varnish and retouches were finally removed, the Vermeer's original fresh and delicate use of color became one again apparent. "Certain details, characteristic of Vermeer's technique which—sometimes close to pointillism—that had been hidden for years were also revealed. The small reflection near the left corner of her mouth is an example. This highlight consists of two small pale pink spots on top of each other."2

The retouched areas which had been removed were then brought up to the level of the paint layer and painted to match the color of the original ground. They were then retouched with correctly matching paint using materials that could be removed at a later date if desired. Finally, a colorless dammar resin was used as varnish to protect the surface of the paint and to obtain a uniform gloss. Dammar resin is used since its chemical properties are well known and it is very easy to remove.

The paintings' masterly three dimensional effect, brilliant chromatic effect of the blue and yellow turban and the subtleties of the flesh tones were revealed as they were originally intended by Vermeer.

The painting was restored by Jørgen Wadum and retouched by Nicola Costaras.

  1. Jorgen Wadum, Vermeer Illuminated: Conservation Restoration and Research, The Hague, p. 18
  2. ibid. p. 23