The Painting's Journey to its present Appearance

Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace

From its genesis in the artist’s studio to its present day appearance in the museum
When looking at a painting in a museum, we usually take for granted to see precisely what the artist painted several centuries ago. But often, artworks are subject to alterations. Already the artist himself may have changed his mind and modified the composition in the process of painting. Different periods and cultures had different opinions on how to treat artistic heritage and thus may have left their mark on the object. And finally, time itself has probably left its unavoidable traces. In this exhibition we are going on a time travel through the history of Jan Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. From its genesis in the artist’s studio to its present day appearance in the museum we will take a look at the changes that this artwork has undergone in its almost 400-year history. Art technological examinations, historic evidence and older copies of the painting will help us trace this process. 

As art technological research has found out, the painting’s genesis was marked by significant alterations to the painting’s composition. Neutron autoradiography can turn underlying layers of paint visible.

In this case, the neutron autoradiography shows that Vermeer first conceived the painting with a map on the back wall (as one can actually find it in several other paintings by his hand)...

...and a lute-like instrument on the chair in the foreground.

The fabric draped over the desk initially had smaller outlines so that the tiled floor was visible in the bottom center.

Even though Vermeer had already started to execute these elements in paint, he decided to eliminate them, thus creating the dense atmosphere that makes the painting so captivating: whereas before, the composition with its many objects seemed rather cramped and noisy…

…now the viewer’s attention is immediately directed towards the young woman.

The blank wall serves as an atmospheric backdrop for the woman’s gaze and for the interplay between her and her reflection in the mirror. By simplifying his composition, Vermeer succeeded in turning a gray wall, animated by the play of light and shade, into the main contributor to an intimate tableau that is calm and suspenseful at the same time.

The back of a painting often offers precious information to art historians and conservationists who investigate its history. Thus, the next alteration to Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace remains equally hidden to the common viewer but is betrayed by an old label on the object’s verso.

The label reads “Momper. Rentoileur des Musées Impériaux”. M. Momper was active in Paris and specialized in the doubling of canvases. This means that he attached a second canvas to the back of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace in order to provide greater support for the fragile artwork. Even though the exact year of the doubling remains unknown, this intervention must have taken place in the 1850s.

In the process of the doubling, the edge of the fabric that was originally wrapped around the stretcher frame was unfolded. The original canvas was flattened and attached onto the new, second support canvas, which is slightly larger than the old canvas. In the x-ray of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, you can see very clearly where the original canvas used to be wrapped around the frame: a thin black line that runs parallel to the painting’s edge is visible at the bottom and along the right hand side. You can also see how, by unfolding the canvas, the painting actually became a bit bigger.

The same applies for the upper edge of the painting, even though in this case, a part of the new support canvas was actually integrated into the painting, thus increasing the painting surface significantly. When taking another look at the neutron autoradiography, one can see that the upper strip of the canvas appears in a slightly darker hue. This means that the colors applied in this upper area are actually composed of pigments different from the ones used by Vermeer in the area below. The color in this part was applied when the canvas was made larger probably in the course of the doubling in the 1850s.

It now also becomes clear that in Vermeer’s first composition that still contained the map on the wall, the map would have been cut off by the picture’s upper edge. This is in fact the layout Vermeer uses whenever he shows a map in the background of a painting.

This additional strip that is not part of the original painting is usually cut off in reproductions of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. In the museum, this part of the painting is actually covered by the picture’s frame, so visitors never get to see it. Here however you can see an uncropped photo, in which the addition becomes easily detectable as the yellowed strip at the upper edge. It is covered with an old varnish that yellowed overtime. Whereas that varnish was taken off on all original parts of the painting, the later addition hasn’t received such a treatment yet.

Other changes in a painting simply happen over time and without anyone’s active contribution. One of these effects is the darkening of the colors. In the case of Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, we have evidence that the darkening has turned parts of the painting less visible than was the case several decades ago. Vermeer’s signature “IMeer” on the edge of the table is barely readable today. However, two documents from the 19th century record it quite clearly and suggest that it was much better visible at that time.

The Berlin collection
The Berlin collection was among the first ones in the world to integrate facsimiles of the paintings’ signatures into their museum catalogues. Especially in the early editions from the 19th century, these renditions of the signatures are impressively faithful to the original. The Berlin museum’s catalogue from 1883 contained a facsimile of Vermeer’s signature on Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace, rendering it in more detail than would actually be discernible today.
Credits: Story

Concept / Text: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Dr. Katja Kleinert & Svea Janzen

Editing / Realisation: Malith C. Krishnaratne

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.