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“Girl With a Pearl Earring,” the 1665 portrait painted by Dutch master of light Johannes Vermeer, has enraptured viewers and intrigued scholars for centuries. The mysterious identity of the painting’s female sitter, as well as the specific pigments and techniques that Vermeer utilized to achieve its famous luminosity, remain subjects of fascination to this day.
Now, at-home art sleuths can pore over an interactive, 10 billion-pixel image that reveals the enigmatic work in astounding detail. As part of a technical examination undertaken by researchers at the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, where the painting resides, Emilien Leonhardt and Vincent Sabatier of Hirox Europe, an arm of the Japanese lens company, utilized a custom 3D microscope to capture 9,100 photographs of the artwork, stitching them together to create a high-resolution panorama.
“The goal of the inspection was to learn more about Vermeer’s painting technique, to evaluate the surface condition, and measure cracks and topography of key areas while assessing past restorations,” Leonhardt said in a video about the project.
The interactive website invites us to navigate the intricate web of craquelure on the Dutch Golden Age masterpiece’s surface; marvel at minute brushstrokes that radiate light; or dive into the depths of the ultramarine blue the artist used for the model’s headscarf. (The Mauritshuis’s research found that Vermeer applied generous amounts of the pigment, which was derived from the lapis lazuli stone, more valuable than gold in the 17th century.) Users can also zoom into 10 key areas, including the sitter’s iconic pearl earring and her captivating gaze, at a resolution of one micron per pixel.
The photographs and the museum’s two-year examination uncovered previously unknown facts about the painting; for instance, the sitter originally stood behind a green curtain, but physical and chemical changes in the paint over time have rendered the background a dark gray. The artist also took care to paint his sitter’s eyelashes, which are not visible without the help of Hirox’s microscope. The woman’s identity, however, remains one of art history’s best-kept secrets.