The Art of Painting
Oil on canvas
130 x 110 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
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Text from Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures.
I SUPPOSE that the natural feeling of anyone looking at Vermeer's Painter in his Studio for the first time would be pleasure in the daylight which falls on the patient model and passes over the map of Holland on the wall, like an incoming tide over the sand. We enjoy a moment of heightened perception, a simple pleasure of the eye; and Vermeer's early admirers were thus deluded into thinking that he was a simple artist.
Yet from the start all sorts of complicating factors have entered in. Before my eye can reach the peaceful figure in blue, with her yellow book, it has had to leap some curious obstacles, the swag of curtain, the bizarre silhouette of the painter and the objects on the table, foreshortened almost out of recognition. As I gradually become conscious of these details I begin to notice how curiously they are seen and related to one another. Each shape has that clearly defined identity which one sees in the drawings of children (or did before they were encouraged to express themselves). One still sees things in this way when one is half awake and looks with a sleepy eye at the knob of a bed or a lamp, without quite recognizing what it is. Vermeer has retained this early morning innocence of vision and united it with a most delicate perception of tone.
At this point I begin to think what other painters dwelt with this kind of fascination on curious shapes, and the first two names that come to my mind are Uccello and Seurat. I remember in Uccello's battle pieces that there are foreshortened objects similar to the book and the plaster head on the table in front of the model; there are even trumpets, almost exactly like the one in her hand. The difference is, of course, that Uccello's method of uniting his flat shapes is based on geometry, not on tone. He relates them all to certain ideal geometric constructions - what Renaissance theorists called the regular bodies and this was all part of what he understood by the word 'perspective'. Vermeer was interested in perspective, too, and deduced from it many similar patterns; but he is not interested in regular bodies and, being a post-baroque artist, his shapes are more often irrational, as one can see by comparing the artist's bulbous breeches with the rump of one of Uccello's horses. Seurat shared Vermeer's interest in tone, but he was by instinct the organiser of large flat surfaces. He did not wish to take half the side off a hollow box, as Vermeer did; and the two only meet in the impersonal fascination which objects like the ends of parasols, and the knobs on chairs, had for them both.
But these critical speculations have led me too far from the picture itself, and I must now look at it again to see what it can tell me about Vermeer. This is one of the rooms in which he painted. There seem to have been two, for window panes with two different kinds of leading are to be found in both early and late pictures; and they may have been one above the other, as the light always falls from the left, and has much the same quality. His perfect control of space makes them look big, but if one measures the squares of the floor they turn out to be quite small, which accounts for the objects in his foregrounds coming so close to the eye. Before beginning work on a picture he set the scene, arranging the furniture, looping the curtains. draping chairs and tables and hanging on the main wall a different map (we know four of them) or a painting from his collection. just as Poussin worked out the grouping of his figures on a model stage, so Vermeer perfected his compositions before he sat down to paint them. His father had been an art dealer, and on his father's death Jan took over the business. In consequence he had plenty of works of art with which to furnish his interiors and took a special interest in their presentation. Into this setting so carefully prepared he put a figure. He was happiest with only one, because in this way he could avoid any dramatic tension; but if, for the sake of variety, he introduced other figures he liked one of them to turn his back on us so that the disturbing impact of two glances was invisible. On the rare occasions when a human relationship is represented, as in a picture at Brunswick, it seems to have caused him disgust.
During the long period of preparation for each work he evidently considered how a scene of everyday life could take on an allegorical significance, and he used to express this in an oblique way by the picture in the background or by some unremarkable detail. But in the Painter in his Studio, the subject itself is the painting of an allegory. The model represents Fame and her figure is going to fill the canvas on his easel. He has begun by painting her wreath of laurels. This very still and silent maiden, who would surely never distort the sweet oval of her face by blowing a trumpet, is an image of Fame which confirms what we know of Vermeer's character. Almost the only contemporary record which is in the least revealing is an entry in the diary of a French gentleman named Balthasar de Monconys in 1663: 'At Delft I saw the painter Vermeer who had none of his works to show me; but we found one at a baker's. He had paid six hundred pounds for it, although it is only one figure and I would have thought it overvalued at six pistoles.' Fame. Already in 1663 Vermeer was famous enough for this well known connoisseur to make a long detour. But he would not show the visitor a picture: for I think it is out of the question that none of his works was available. On the contrary, we have no evidence that his pictures ever left his studio (the one at the baker's was a deposit against the household bills), and in the sales after his death quite early works were included with late ones. His business as an art dealer brought in enough money to support his nine children; and allowed him to go on painting as he liked, undisturbed. No other great artist has had so fine a sense of withdrawal.
Naturally the painter in the Vienna picture turns his back on us and his fluffed out hair does not even allow us to guess at the shape of his head. We cannot even be sure whether it is Vermeer himself or a model. But what about that costume! Here, for once, he may have given himself away; for this beribboned doublet is remarkably similar to the one worn by a young man on the left of the Dresden Procuress, painted over ten years before. Is it really possible that the grinning, youth in this early picture is our immaculate artist? Did this jack in the box once emerge, to be shut down and firmly suppressed for ever? If so, it would account for the obsessive character of the painter of Fame, crouched at his easel like a gigantic cockroach, which so disturbed Mr Salvador Dali that he has introduced him into his Freudian concoctions almost as often as Millet's Angelus.
We may speculate about Vermeer's character: we know him as an eye. Mais quel oeil! For the first, and almost for the last, time in European painting, it is an eye which felt no need to confirm its sensations by touch. The belief that what we touch is more real than what we see is the basis of drawing. A firm outline denotes a tangible concept. Even Caravaggio, in his revolution against academic art, retained the concept of a form enclosed by an outline. Vermeer, the least Caravaggiesque of characters, was far more radical. When an area changed colour or tone he noted the fact without prejudice and without any indication that he knew what the object under scrutiny really was. Such visual innocence is almost unnatural, and one is tempted to look for a mechanical explanation. I think it almost certain that Vermeer used the device known as the camera obscura, by which the coloured image of a scene could be projected on to a white surface. Even if he did not use this machine (and they were said to be very difficult to employ) he must have looked at the scene through a sheet of ground glass in a dark box. This would account not only for the simplification of tone but also for the way in which highlights are rendered as small globular dots of paint. One finds the same technical trick in the paintings of Canaletto, who is known to have used a camera obscura, and anyone who has focussed an old fashioned camera will remember how the sparkle of light appears as little shining globules overlapping the forms from which they are projected.
But although this explains how Vermeer sustained his visual impartiality, it does not explain the qualities for which we value him most. There is, for example, his flawless sense of interval. Every shape is interesting in itself, and also perfectly related to its neighbours, both in space and on the picture plane. To see pattern and depth simultaneously is the problem that exercised Cezanne throughout half his career, and many layers of agitated paint were laid on the canvas before he could achieve it. Vermeer seems to glide through these deep waters like a swan. Whatever struggles took place have been concealed from us. His paint is as smooth, his touch as uncommunicative, as that of a coach painter. It is impossible to tell what calculations underlay these beautifully tidy results. His rectangles, for example - pictures, maps, chairs, spinets - fall together with the same kind of harmonious finality that we find in the work of Mondrian. Is this the result of measurement or of taste? Perhaps geometry played a part, but in the end the harmony of shapes must flow from the same infinitely delicate sense of relationships as the harmony of colours.
Everything in Vermeer's picture is intimately known and loved. 'I should paint my own places best" said Constable, and what he felt about the slimy posts and old rotten planks of the Stour, Vermeer felt about the clean white walls and chequered floors of Mechelen, his beloved house on the market square of Delft. In that setting he painted the things he loved - his wife, his friends, his furniture and favourite pictures. He is the great amateur. He never sold a picture; he painted solely to please himself, and it took two hundred years before posterity, or to be more precise the French critic Thore, noticed that he was in any way different from the successful Dutch genre painters of the period.
But nothing could be less amateurish, in the popular sense of the word, than the Painter in his Studio. It is the largest and most complex of his pictures, and there is material in it to lead the eye into many agreeable explorations. There is the shape of the painter's shoes, the red tip of his mahlstick and the blue leaves which are all of Fame that he has so far recorded; there is the chandelier, which reminds us of that ancestor of visual painting, Van Eyck's Arnolfini, and the mysterious plaster cast of a head (certainly not, as is sometimes said, a mask of Comedy), and finally, like a slice of plum cake at the end of this delicate meal, the thick curtain of tapestry, which he seemed to feel was complementary to the black and white diamonds of his floors. All this is fascinating but it would be meaningless without one indescribable element, the daylight.
We are back where we began, but with the recognition of how much more mysterious this achievement is than we had supposed. Why the tones of ordinary daylight are so seldom rendered in paint it is difficult to say; the fact is that even the most accurate eyes of Vermeer's own day - Terborch or de Hooch - did not achieve it. Terborch's light is always artificial, de Hooch's a little yellower than the truth. The reason may be that Vermeer is one of the few great painters whose colour is basically cool. Ordinary daylight is cool, but the number of colourists who have based their harmonies on the blue, grey, white and pale yellow of a window facing north is very small. Piero della Francesca, Borgognone, Braque, Corot in his figures, and, to some extent, Velasquez are the names that come to my mind; and as I think of them I realise that cool colour is not a visual preference, but expresses a complete attitude of mind, for all these painters have something of Vermeer's stillness and detachment. In his studio the blue dress and yellow book of Fame, quietly established before the silvery grey of the map, are as much an assertion of faith as the blood-red tunic of Christ in El Greco's Espolio.