Macroscopic x-ray powder diffraction imaging reveals Vermeer’s discriminating use of lead white pigments in Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Science Advances  30 Aug 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 8, eaax1975
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax1975


Until the 19th century, lead white was the most important white pigment used in oil paintings. Lead white is typically composed of two crystalline lead carbonates: hydrocerussite [2PbCO3·Pb(OH)2] and cerussite (PbCO3). Depending on the ratio between hydrocerussite and cerussite, lead white can be classified into different subtypes, each with different optical properties. Current methods to investigate and differentiate between lead white subtypes involve invasive sampling on a microscopic scale, introducing problems of paint damage and representativeness. In this study, a 17th century painting Girl with a Pearl Earring (by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665, collection of the Mauritshuis, NL) was analyzed with a recently developed mobile and noninvasive macroscopic x-ray powder diffraction (MA-XRPD) scanner within the project Girl in the Spotlight. Four different subtypes of lead white were identified using XRPD imaging at the macroscopic and microscopic scale, implying that Vermeer was highly discriminatory in his use of lead white.

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