Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace
…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 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.