Dutch painter Johanne Vermeer’s famous 1665 painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring” is off display and under the scrutiny of some of the most cutting-edge noninvasive technologies in existence. The purpose of the two-week intensive study of the painting at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in the Netherlands is to better understand the steps Vermeer used to bring his masterpiece to life. But even the latest tech can’t provide all the answers, according to a Cornell University art historian.
Lisa Pincus is an expert in seventeenth-century Dutch art and a visiting assistant professor of art history and visual studies at Cornell University. She says technology can provide important insights into art, but truly understanding meaning can prove more elusive.
“Getting under the skin of a painting via x-ray fluorescence may reveal several aspects hidden from unaided sight, such as changes in degraded pigments, previously overpainted compositions, and the chronology of a composition. Such discoveries give a boost both to materials science research and to a technical understanding of painting, and sometimes to questions of authorship.
“New technologies may well reveal new data, but these require analysis and interpretation to become useful and insightful knowledge about practices, markets, trade networks, historical significance. There are limits to science; a data-set alone can’t elucidate the meaning of a painting. For that to occur, we need other cultural practices to describe the kind of meaning that lodges in the eye.”