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17 October 2016

The Girl with a Ball Bearing Earring? A case study of when science unpicks art

A prominent scientist in the Netherlands believes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring isn’t actually wearing a pearl. Here’s how he investigated his hunch.

By Sonia van-gilder-cooke

The Duchess of Cambridge – always so careful about accessories – must have thought she had got this one right. On her first solo trip abroad to the Netherlands, she wore pearl earrings to view seventheenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl Earring at a museum in the Hague. “The girls with pearls,” The Telegraph crooned, noting that the queen herself had leant Kate the earrings for the trip.

Photo: Getty

Something, however, may have escaped the art history-trained Duchess, as well as most of the rest of us: the girl in Vermeer’s painting is not actually wearing a pearl earring.

That, at least, is the theory of Dutch astrophysicist Vincent Icke, who’s garnered some attention for his unconventional take. His moment of clarity came during a visit to the painting in 2014, where he found himself searching for the pearl from the title. The pendant, he thought, looks like silver or polished tin. “This was something different from a pearl, because I own a pearl earring,” he says.

All photos unless credited otherwise: Vincent Icke, Dutch Journal of Physics​

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Icke was so troubled by this that he ran some experiments to test his hypothesis, which he published in the Dutch Journal of Physics in 2014. His conclusion: the earring is too pear-shaped, metallic and big to have come from the sea. “You can understand to a large extent what something is made of by how light reflects off it,” he says. “It is clear that this object must have been a highly reflective shiny object, and not a pearl.”

It’s true – on second glance, the pearl in the painting does look suspiciously like a Christmas bauble. What do the world’s Vermeer experts make of it?

Ariane van Suchtelen, a curator at the Mauritshuis museum where the painting is housed, says that the museum can’t be sure that Vermeer intended the earring to be a pearl. In Vermeer’s day, painters did not usually give titles to their works. The painting has been called various things in the twentieth century, including Girl with a Turban. Of those titles, the Mauritshuis museum chose Girl with a Pearl Earring for a major joint exhibition with the National Gallery in Washington, DC in 1995-6, and it has stuck.

As for Icke’s questions about the earring’s size, van Suchtelen points out that painting is a work of the imagination rather than a portrait. The earring’s large size might simply have been an artistic choice. If Vermeer did use a real-life earring as a model, it most likely would have been a large faux pearl made of glass, rather than a genuine, fit-for-royalty mega-pearl. “Icke definitely has a point, if you think of paintings as a one to one depiction of reality,” says van Suchtelen. This work, however, is about illusion, she says. “I am certain that Vermeer intended to create in paint an illusion of a pearl.”

Other art scholars agree that it’s a pearl, even if it doesn’t exactly look like one. “His paintings look so real that we get sucked into the idea that they’re real,” says Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., renowned Vermeer specialist and curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. “There’s a lot of fantasy.”

He points to Vermeer’s The Little Street, painted c.1658. Lots of people have spent years trying to figure out where exactly the Little Street is, he says. “Nobody can find it because there’s not a real place like that.”

The Little Street. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But what about the girl and her pearl? Why is it so big and shiny? Wheelock says Vermeer was more concerned with the impact of the painting than “an accurate depiction of pearlness”. The pearl, after all, is smack dab in the center of the picture – if Vermeer had painted a pearlescent surface, he says, it all might have been a bit dull.

Reflection of a near point light source on balls. Left: completely diffuse, Right: completely reflective, Middle: 40 per cent diffuse.

Wheelock balks at the suggestion that a pearl might look more “fuzzy” than the earring in the painting. “I’m not sure you want a big fuzzy thing right there in the middle,” says Wheelock. “We have to sort of remember that he’s an artist – he’s not a photographer, he’s not a scientific pearl expert. That’s not his place in life.”

Icke, however, won’t be swayed. “If a person maintains that it is a pearl, but Vermeer’s painted it like silver, I would find that highly debatable,” he says. Nevertheless, he concedes that the question will never be truly settled. “The man has been dead for four centuries,” he says. “I am totally willing to admit that an experiment in this case doesn’t prove anything.”