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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.

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​

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."

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a freelance journalist based in London, and former Features Editor of the New Scientist.

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist