NEW YORK—It’s as if he had walked through a forest without making a sound, hardly leaving a trace. Through a three-month journey of examining, cleaning, and repairing every square inch—one at a time—professor Dr. Jorgen Wadum contributed to revealing the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in all her splendor for the whole world to see. Twenty-two years after he did the most recent restoration, Wadum is still most intimately connected to that iconic painting by the 17th century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer.
“I’ve been up, poking my nose at her when I was in the Mauritshuis museum not too long ago, and I think she still does it brilliantly,” Wadum said a day before his lecture on perspective and painting techniques at The Frick Collection on Feb. 3.
But what is it that the “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has been doing so brilliantly for over 350 years, during her intermittent displays?
Often referred to as “the Mona Lisa of the north,” it’s also a simple composition. The gaze of the girl captured in a moment, the lack of any reference to place or knowledge of who she was or why she was wearing such an enormous pearl, renders her enigmatic. The painting invites you to invent whatever story you want to project on to the girl.
The Director of the Mauritshuis Museum, Emilie Gordenker, described it so succinctly when she said in the documentary film “Exhibition on Screen: Girl with a Pearl Earring” that the painting is more a portrait of a relationship than of a person.
Novels have been written about it—like Tracy Chevaliers’s work by the same title—as well as movies and documentaries. One only has to see all the images of the countless people imitating this tronie (a 16th century Dutch term for a character study) to witness her universal appeal.
With concentrated precision, using the same microscopes that surgeons use, Wadum prolonged her life further, so that people from around the world could continue to be enamored.
“I am very happy that the pigments and the binding media—that we mixed in with the pigment—are not discoloring, they are staying,” he said.
Wadum looked at every brushstroke Vermeer had made. “I can wake up in the middle of the night, and I can see parts of a painting, its brushstrokes, and how they were overlapping,” he said.
Wadum possibly may even understand Vermeer’s paintings in ways that Vermeer himself was not consciously aware of while creating it. For example, he could see how many hairs from Vermeer’s paintbrushes had been left in the wet paint to be discovered centuries later.
Putting the Pieces Back Together Again
In his 20s when Wadum wasn’t quite sure what career path to take, he worked in a porcelain factory painting flowers and was rather bored. When he went on a road trip hitchhiking with his girlfriend at that time, they had a car accident of which he was the sole survivor.
Remembering his three-month stay in the hospital, he said, “I had ample time to get my broken arms and legs put together again, and I decided that I should probably concentrate on something a little bit more intellectual than just painting flowers on vases.”
Fast forward some years later and he was putting the pieces together of old masters’ paintings, which would take about the same amount of time to restore that it took for his body to recover from the tragic accident.
The combination in conservation of aesthetics, art history, and the scientific understanding of materials was the perfect mix for keeping Wadum interested.
“The way the old masters mixed the materials fascinated me, not just repairing damage, but understanding the making and aging of old masters’ materials, how damage appears, understanding why it cracks and eventually falls off, or falls apart, and what you can do while still respecting the integrity of the artwork, even if you can come up with all kinds of fancy materials to fill it up and paint it over,” he said.
The art conservation field may seem like a hermetic, mysterious world controlled by a tight-knit cohort of experts. But when Wadum was restoring the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” in 1994, he was in a climate-controlled glass room in full view of the public.
The entire process was transparent. While an international committee of experts would ensure that everything was going according to plan, everything was explained openly in a constant dialogue with the public.
The conservators had learned from the past and did not want to trigger any kind of public uproar.
Of the two ends of the conservation spectrum, southern Europe tended toward not necessarily removing all aged and yellowed varnish, however, retouching everything that had been damaged—considering the artworks like archeological fragments of the past. On the other end, northern Europe tended toward cleaning off all the varnish from previous restorations and retouching to get as close as possible to how the artist originally intended for it to look. In other words, the southern approach would allow signs of ageing to show the inevitability of decay, while the northern approach would consider the artwork as a living artifact that should look as close to the original as would be safe to realize during treatment.
While the methods of varnish removal are the same from north to south, Wadum explained that the fine line of how far to go varies and is rather slippery.
“Because what is that layer that stays? Is it the original varnish, or is it just the residues from varnish that was purely dissolved but not taken away? Would it be the more insoluble parts that are staying and may well be, over time, cross-linked further and be yet further insoluble, and therefore pose a problem in the future?” he said.
In the early part of the 20th century a romanticized notion that old master paintings should have a rather yellowish tonality—as seen in the Mona Lisa for example—prevailed until the 1960s. “There was a sense that old master paintings should look like a painting that had been hanging in a room of directors drinking Cognac and smoking big cigars,” Wadum said.
Cleaning controversies, heated debates, and struggles to influence public opinion have resurfaced over centuries. Wadum believes museum directors of the past had been anxious about cleaning off the yellow varnish, fearing uproar from intellectuals who still maintain the painting-in-a-smoky-room notion, or who didn’t want to absorb the cost of having to clean a museum’s entire collection in order to keep it consistent.
“Since the 19th century Western culture has been aestheticizing decay so much that a yellow varnish was considered as part of the original,” Wadum said.
But the yellow varnish can be damaging, as it becomes more acidic over time. It ages differently than paint, becoming stiffer and gripping the surface layers of paint. So it could peel off the paint to some degree, Wadum explained.
Wadum takes the approach of aiming at safely removing all of the varnish from previous restorations and repairing damages to the point of coming as close as possible to the artist’s intent, despite how speculative it may be to really know the original. But that does not mean using materials that are identical to the original, for the so-called plastic surgery.
He used reversible materials that can be easily removed without having to use strong solvents in the future. “So if in 50 or 100 years time, for whatever reason, you would want to remove whatever we had added and want to make a new restoration, you could do that without any risk to the original paint,” he said.
Pin and String Argument
As an expert of Vermeer experts, Wadum has gathered several insights on the painter’s methods. He’s certain the artist did not use a camera obscura, as other scholars have alleged, or as the inventor Tim Jenison raves about in the film, “Tim’s Vermeer.”
“I know that in 17 of his paintings there is a pinhole in the vanishing point,” Wadum said. “There must have been a small needle sitting there with a piece of string hanging around it. While painting he could take that string in one hand and make sure that the receding lines were all going to the vanishing point. That was the method of many artists at the time. Almost all of them did it when they wanted to make a good perspective,” he said.
That simple pinhole discovery alone is enough to discombobulate anybody set on the postulation that Vermeer depended on a camera obscura to create accurate perspectives.
“There are some people who hate me for that,” Wadum said. Wadum wrote a review on Philip Steadman’s book, which is titled “Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth behind the Masterpieces.” Steadman’s website shows he was not happy about Wadum’s criticism.
“When you start with a book title that says ‘the truth’ of something that happened 350 years ago, then you are begging for trouble, and I gave him trouble,” Wadum said with a little smile.
Wadum doesn’t think that Vermeer painted fuzzy around the edges because the painter was tracing and mimicking what he would see through an old lens of a camera obscura. He also believes the artist would have used the simplest and most efficient means to create such convincing perspectives, instead of having to trace the upside down and reversed image seen with a camera obscura, and then have to reproduce it right side up and re-reversed on the canvas.
Wadum believes that while Vermeer was probably aware of the existence of the camera obsura, the painter was probably more influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s writings on the perception of seeing and on “sfumato”—on creating soft transitions instead of sharp contours.
“I think Vermeer was a fairly energetic painter, but extremely slow in deciding when to finish a painting. He made breaks and would then come back again. He could make short cuts, but he could also over paint, tediously, because he knew exactly what he wanted,” Wadum said.
In the case of the “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Wadum explained that especially the eyes are in perfect focus, while the rest of the painting is more or less fuzzy. He believes Vermeer understood that our eyes naturally search for what is in focus and therefore he knew how to guide the viewer.
“He had to mimic an out-of-focus image to make you feel a stronger emotional attachment to that painting,” he said. And indeed we are drawn to look straight into the girl’s eyes to reflect on our own inner state.
Despite the simple elegance of discovering 17 pinholes, Wadum was humble about it, as he said at the end of the interview, “The older you grow the more you realize how little you actually do know.”
Prof. Dr. Jorgen Wadum is the director of conservation at the Statens Museum for Kunst and of the Center for Art Technological Studies and Conservation (CATS) in Copenhagen. From 1990 to 2004 he was the chief conservator at the Mauritshuis, The Hague. He has written several published books and lectures internationally on technical art history and cultural heritage.