Did Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring have Cancer?


The Mauritshuis

Last Saturday I went to The Mauritshuis in the center of The Hague. You can find paintings in this museum of the Golden Age (17th century) and from the 18th century. The highlight of this museum is made up of works by a.o. Steen, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Frans Hals.

Girl With a Glassy Gaze

As I was walking through the museum I found many paintings breathtaking and many paintings raised questions within me. Then I saw Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) and I could not take my eyes off the painting as soon as I locked my vision onto the girl with the glassy gaze . It was the very first time I saw this painting and I knew why the world found this picture to be unique and very special. I could see she was wearing a turban, however this painting got me raising questions. She is wearing a turban and as I looked closer I saw she did not have any eyebrows and eyelashes. So…could it be that The Girl with a Pearl Earring had cancer?…

Did she have cancer?

As I found out in my search for the answer whether the girl had cancer or not, I found out that cancer was not unknown in the Golden Age. Cancer has been described and mentioned in the history of medicine. The earliest known description of cancer appears in Papyrus 7, an early copy of the New Testament in Greek, discovered and deciphered late in the 19th century.The Papyrus 7 provided the first knowledge of Egyption medical practice.

In modern times it is generally accepted that cancer starts as a local lesion and grows by destroying surrounding tissues. To cure cancer, remedies were introduced before the cancer became destructive and some cancer treatments make people lose some or all of their hair.  During  the Golden Age various chemicals including mercury and arsenic were used as external and internal treatment for cancerous lesions which can be seen as the “chemotherapy” of that time. The term chemotherapy however did not exist as we know it now. The term “chemotherapy” was first introduced in 1891 by a man named Ehrlich. In those days the term was used for the practice of using chemicals like arsenic to treat syphilis.In 1891 Ehrlich published a paper describing staining methods to differentiate lymphoid and myeloid cells and was the first to describe the term myeloid leukemia

Now sitting at home and thinking about this painting makes me wonder, it is possible that The Girl with a Pearl Earring was supposed to have been depicted as having cancer. I might be the first to bring up this topic and whether or not this sounds far fetched, it is quite something to think about.





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