Research & Painter Review – Vermeer

I started my journey looking deeper into the painter Vermeer by reading Enchanting the Eye, Dutch paintings of the Golden Age, Christopher Lloyd’s, 2004 book on the paintings in the Royal Collection. I picked this one first mainly for practical reasons because from all my library books this was by far the smallest for reading on the train! The initial part of the book sets the scene of the Dutch Golden age history and politics but much of this information I’d already gleaned from the WHA. It explained that Vermeer had just 34 surviving paintings and almost two thirds of them had remained in Delft in the collection of his wealthy patron, Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-74). And even though he was later in his career by the time the French invaded in 1672 he was not immune to the fall out as he was an art dealer as well as a painter. The art market virtually collapsed, all artists ran into financial difficulties, less artists were being trained and those who were already working produced less.

Vermeer’s widow testified that ‘her husband during the war with the king of France, and the next years, had been able to earn very little, or almost nothing, so that the works of art which he had previously bought, and in which he dealt, had had to be sold off, at very great loss, to feed their children’. (Lloyd, 2004)

Like Caravaggio, Vermeer was also ‘forgotten’ after his death and many of his paintings were attributed to other artists (eg the one above was thought to be by Frans van Mieris the Elder owing to a misreading of the signature) until Charles Blanc published his illustrated compendium Historie des Peintres de toutes les Ecoles between 1853 and 1875 which had the first article devoted to Vermeer in it. The first serious study of the artist wasn’t until art critic Théophile Thoré published his study in 1866 and began to compile a catalogue of Vermeer’s works.

What I liked most about the book was that it provided information on Vermeer in the context of his contemporaries so although it didn’t give a broad overview of his life and work, I could see the work of other Dutch artists of the period alongside it.

Genre painting was so successful in 17th century Holland because mastery of technique matched treatment of subject matter. The courtyards and interiors seen in works by de Hooch and Vermeer are drawn according to surprisingly rigorous perspectival systems offset by opalescent light and carefully selected colours. What begins as geometry ends as poetry. In such paintings the viewer is witness to a whole range of intimacies that remain in the world of ambiguity: it is the uncertainty of the outcome that is arresting. (Lloyd, 2004)

The painting in the book is the one from the Royal Collection, Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (also known as the Music Lesson), and the reproduction was much better online (here) because you can see it full screen and zoom right into it. Interestingly this is the one featured in Tim’s Vermeer but more on that later.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman - Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-Delft 1675) early 1660s Oil on canvas | RCIN 405346 Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2016
Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-Delft 1675)
Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman – early 1660s
Oil on canvas | RCIN 405346
Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Most of the blurb in the book about the painting is the same as on the link above, i.e. Lloyd seemingly lifted it straight from the earlier Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002, but perhaps he wrote that too, I did not investigate. I did like the follow extra quote though:

The greatness of Vermeer is derived from an economy of means verging on the enigmatic – an enigma that pertains to Vermeer’s life as much as to his art. The viewer feels at once invited yet excluded, just as the artists technique appears to be seductively simple but is in fact awesomely intricate in its application of paint and choice of colour.   (Lloyd, 2004)

Lloyd’s book explained that as with all Vermeer’s paintings they are undated so the date is conjected based on an interpretation of style and complexity of composition, at present there is a consensus of c.1662-4 for the painting above.

The composition uses the perspective of the room and the objects within to lead your eyes deeper into the picture plane to the girl with her back to us whilst she stands playing music at a virginal to a man beside it. I’d never heard of a Virginal before, I thought it was a strange looking piano (because when I’d seen this image before it had been referred to as the music lesson and there’s another instrument on the floor). This virginal has an inscription on the lid, MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], which means ‘Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.’ and is comparable with those made by Andreas Ruckers the Elder which still exists in museums today. In fact all the items in the painting, and in many of Vermeer’s paintings, can be traced to surviving items from the period down to the smallest details. Some of the items, for example the chair in this painting, are also used as props for many of Vermeer’s paintings as is the room itself. Prof. Steadman posited in his book Vermeer’s Camera than as many as 6 of the 34 paintings can be identified as different scenes arranged in that same room. So it seems, like Caravaggio, that Vermeer also painted from observed life. Steadman actually goes one further, the premise of the book is that this is evidence that Vermeer use a camera obscura as part of his workflow (he used the viewpoints, features and perspective in the paintings to backwards engineer the room that Vermeer used a camera obscura as a booth camera in). The problem with his hypothesis is that the paintings, although the correct size to be camera obscura images are not mirror images as they would have to be, also, how would the painter paint in such low light? He left these as open ended questions at the end of the book which Tim Jenison picked up and obsessed over, turning into a feature-length documentary (by Penn & Teller) about Tim’s process of making a fully functional optical device (basically a mirror on a stick), recreating the room from the music lesson and painting his own version to check the hypothesis that in fact Vermeer did use a camera obscura and optical device in his work. Prof Philip Steadman was convinced as he explains in his really interesting UCL lunchtime lecture below:

 

I found it really fascinating that both of these artists, Caravaggio and Vermeer, whose work is so different, may have had similar unorthodox working practices. Of course, it also plumbs right into my interest in photography and makes me feel a certain kinship with them.

A more traditional look at Vermeer and his various work is presented in this documentary from 2001 (the same year as Steadman’s book), Vermeer: Master of Light:

I found the narration by Meryl Streep and the various padding a bit off putting but they interview many respected scholarly experts and art historians so it’s worth a viewing.

“In the 17th C, the mirror was a sign of vanity, a worldly attribute. We know that mirrors possessed meaning in the period because whole books were published containing precise instructions about this sort of sign language and testing writers and artist the meaning of certain images in conjunction with others so the presence of a mirror in the room may be an important clue to how the subject of the painting should be interpreted on a moral level” (Pointon, M, 1997)

However, for the lady and gent above, is there another interpretation? Does the presence of the mirror represent a judgement on this couple, or perhaps this lady?

Visit:

I went back to the National Gallery to see some his work in person, because as I’m discovering this is very important because the reproductions of paintings really don’t do them any favours. You don’t get any sense of scale and they are often gloomy and dull.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632 - 1675 A Young Woman standing at a Virginal about 1670-2 Oil on canvas, 51.7 x 45.2 cm Bought, 1892 NG1383 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1383
Johannes Vermeer, 1632 – 1675
A Young Woman standing at a Virginal
about 1670-2
Oil on canvas, 51.7 x 45.2 cm
Bought, 1892
NG1383
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1383

I saw A Young Woman standing at a Virginal (about 1670-2) and A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (about 1670-2).They are both quite small which is interesting and on the theme of music and love, which seems to be a recurring one for him. I noticed especially the hair around the faces of the young women are painted as little dots, which looks a little odd. The two are not hung together so I could see that they were similar but not quite how similar until I got home and reviewed the pictures side by side. In fact the National Gallery website seems to suggest that these two could have actually conceived as a pair (a pendant) because of the similar size, date and related subject matter.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632 - 1675 A Young Woman seated at a Virginal about 1670-2 Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm Salting Bequest, 1910 NG2568 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2568
Johannes Vermeer, 1632 – 1675
A Young Woman seated at a Virginal
about 1670-2
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm
Salting Bequest, 1910
NG2568
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2568

Jan Vermeer created extraordinary luminosity in his paintings by techniques based on optical experiments and meticulous observation of reflected colours, eg unique capture of sparkle light in minute pearl-like dots. (Honour, H & Fleming, J, 2009, WHA)

Lots of research has been done on them (and other loaned Vermeers). I know that I should be interested in the nitty gritty details of the how the canvas was prepared because this information can shed valuable light for art historians but really reading all about left me very cold. What I did find fascinating was the infrared view which showed all the paintings alterations. Also, very interesting was the analysis of the pigments used and the way he combined such a limited palate.

“Dutch 17th C paintings have long been enjoyed and admired for the apparent clear and precise way they allow us to enter the domestic world of Holland in the 17th century. Such pictures can be taken as stories in paint” (Pointon, M, 1997)

References

Blankert, A; Montias, J M & Aillaud, G. (2007) Vermeer. Overlook Press/ Duckworth

Krakora. (2001) Vermeer: Master of Light At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEior-0inxU
(Accessed on 28 Aug 16)

Lloyd, C. (2004) Enchanting the Eye, Dutch paintings of the Golden Age. Royal Collection Publications

National Gallery. (2016a) Johannes Vermeer – A Young Woman seated at a Virginal At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johannes-vermeer-a-young-woman-seated-at-a-virginal
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)

National Gallery. (2016b) Johannes Vermeer – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/johannes-vermeer-a-young-woman-standing-at-a-virginal
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)

National Gallery. (2016c) Vermeer’s palette At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/research/meaning-of-making/vermeer-and-technique/vermeers-palette
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)
 

National Gallery – Glossary. (2016) Pendant At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/pendant
(Accessed on 13 Sep 16)

Pointon, M. (1997) History of Art: A Students’ Handbook. (4th Ed), London, Routledge
Royal Collection Trust. (2016) Johannes Vermeer – Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman At: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/405346/lady-at-the-virginals-with-a-gentleman
(Accessed on 28 Aug 16)

UCL Lunch Hour Lectures, YouTube. (2015) Vermeer’s Camera and Tim’s Vermeer At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFfmc4e7KgM
(Accessed on 28 Aug 16)

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