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Johannes Vermeer

A Review by Mark Harden

The exhibition "Johannes Vermeer", on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. November 12, 1995 through February 11, 1996 before moving to The Hague's Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, was the first ever exclusively dedicated to the paintings of the celebrated seventeenth-century master of Delft. This show brought together twenty-three of the thirty-six works attributed to Vermeer, presenting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a thorough survey of his stunning work.

Vermeer chose as his motifs moments from ordinary life. He often portrayed individuals transfixed in quiet contemplation or in the performance of some seemingly mundane task: pouring water or milk, reading or writing a letter, donning jewelry. Yet the images are rendered with such expressive virtuosity that these moments are transformed into aspects of eternal truth.

The means by which Vermeer accomplished this transformation is one of the arcane mysteries of his art. The inviting realism of his paintings makes them accessible to nearly everyone. A closer examination of Vermeer's technique, however, reveals that he often altered reality in order to achieve a more powerful expression of his theme. The manipulation of light and shadow, in particular, served to intensify aspects of his composition.

The preparations for the exhibit have resulted in valuable additions to Vermeer scholarship. Most of the works underwent cleaning prior to the show, which not only presented their pristine appearance, but revealed many hitherto unrecognized subtleties in technique. Specialists have subjected the paintings to x-radiograph and infrared reflectography. These state-of-the-art methods provide a behind-the-scenes look at how Vermeer planned and executed the works. In many cases they reveal changes he made to his original composition, providing insight into his creative process.

Few biographical details of Vermeer are known. He left no writings. No facts have come to light regarding his artistic training and there are no records of any commissions he may have received As a result, art historians have had to focus exclusively on the paintings themselves. This concentration on technique, omitting biographical detail in the critical interpretation of Vermeer's work, has clearly contributed to our comprehending his art as an expression of eternal truths transcending the ostensible subject matter.

This exhibit was unfortunately affected by the federal government shutdown. It is a sad reflection on the state of affairs in Washington that budgetary gridlock limited the number of people able to view this extraordinary display. The only consolation is the knowledge that the art of Vermeer will be remembered long after the names of today's politicians have been swept into the dustbin of time. While no reproduction can substitute for the experience of viewing the genuine work of art, we at Glyphs hope that this review conveys at least a taste of the exhibit for those who were unable to see it in person.

"View of Delft", c. 1660-1661
Oil on canvas
96.5 x 115.7 cm (38 x 45 9/16 in.)
Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague

In an early review of the exhibition, curator Arthur Wheeler was quoted as asserting that the show would not have been held had "View of Delft" not been made available. Although I had always considered it a remarkable painting, this claim still seemed somewhat extravagant. Then I saw the exhibition. "View of Delft" is prominently hung in the center of the second room. It is without a doubt one of the most captivating, compelling works of art I have ever seen. It has an overwhelming presence, conveying the perception that you are beholding a cityscape more real, more substantial than anything you could possibly encounter in the outside world. One of the pleasures of Vermeer's art is its accessibility. You can stand in awestruck wonder before this painting without having to analyze it, without needing to understand it on an intellectual level in order to appreciate it. Of course, when you awaken from your aesthetic reverie, it is only natural to want to understand how Vermeer could bring about such an intense effect.

The most significant effect is the lighting. Dark clouds overhanging the city cast the foreground in shadow. This not only calls attention to the vastness of the sky, but serves to draw the eye into the heart of the city, which is bathed in warm sunshine. Vermeer also used various textural effects to convey the physical presence of Delft. Anticipating Georges Braque by 250 years, he blended sand with the paint used to render the stone facades, bridge and roofs. In the tallest tower, Vermeer applied a thick impasto of yellow to accentuate the sunlit areas.

"View of Delft" is the only painting of Vermeer that lends itself to comparison with a known motif. As such, it offers valuable insight into his creative procedure. Study of contemporary topographical drawings and paintings of Delft reveals that Vermeer freely adjusted the cityscape in the interests of his composition. He made numerous changes that flattened the cityscape, reinforcing its frieze-like profile. By accentuating the horizontals of the buildings, walls and bridge, Vermeer gave the city added weight and solemnity.

X-radiograph and infrared reflectography show that in the original composition, the reflections of the twin-gated tower ended in the water. By later extending these reflections downward past the bottom of the canvas, Vermeer bound the city profile to the foreground. The reflections, functioning practically as shadows, anchor the mass of buildings to the near shore, forcefully integrating the composition.

In this painting, Vermeer achieved a sense of monumentality by subtle textural, lighting and compositional techniques. He moved beyond descriptive realism to create a mood that conveys the history and character of his city.

"Woman in Blue Reading a Letter", c. 1663-1664
( 575 x 701 / 48 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
46.6 x 39.1 cm (18 11/32 x 15 13/32 in.)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

We all know how annoying it can be in a crowded gallery to overhear the comments of other patrons discussing a work. And the Vermeer show was of course so crowded that this was inevitable. Yet my experience in the exhibition was that as viewers approached this painting, they assumed a hushed silence. It was as if no one dared to interrupt the woman's concentration on the contents of her letter. In this painting, Vermeer has rendered an intense contrast by combining the dynamically expectant posture of the woman with a geometric composition that locks her in space.

The woman is placed precisely in the center of the composition. A table and chairs erect a framework around her statuesque profile. The strong horizontal of the bar at the bottom of the map focuses attention on her hands holding the letter. This compositional grid restricts any hint of motion and denies physical release of the woman's emotional excitement. It seems as if the wandering patterns of the map above her head are her only outlet and express her inner turmoil.

The geometric arrangement does not end with the positive elements of map, table and chairs. Vermeer incorporated the negative shapes of the wall into the structure as well. The asymmetrical balance of these shapes provides additional stabilization of the composition. The importance of these spaces to Vermeer is revealed through an x-radiograph, which shows that he extended the original map outline toward the left. This balanced the width of the wall areas to the left and right of the figure.

Vermeer also used color to stabilize the design. The blue of the jacket, chair and table coverings and the light brown of the dress and map exert a calming effect. The tonalities firmly affix the figure within the compositional framework.

There are two light sources. This serves to diffuse the shadows, avoiding the harshness that a dominating light source would have imposed on the work. Yet again, Vermeer shows his willingness to revise reality to enhance his composition. The flow of light is subtly altered. While the chair and map cast shadows, the woman does not. Encompassing the woman in a diffuse light separates her from her temporal framework, which enhances the sense of permanence that she radiates. To intensify this effect, Vermeer went so far as to contour the figure with a line of light blue.

Although no narrative in the painting makes the content of the letter explicit, there are references to it. In Dutch painting of this time, a letter is nearly always associated with love. The map, as well as the empty chair, allude to an absent lover. The sense of expectancy is made literal by the apparent pregnant condition of the woman.

In "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter", Vermeer achieved a remarkable synthesis of permanence and expectation. The result is a powerful emotional expression that goes beyond the transient associations of the subject matter.

"Woman Holding a Balance", c. 1664
( 719 x 800 / 48 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
40.3 x 35.6 cm (15 7/8 x 14 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

This painting has been known until recently as "The Goldweigher" or "Girl Weighing Pearls". Microscopic analysis, however, has revealed the pans of the balance to be empty. The highlight on the pans is not rendered with lead-tin yellow, which is used elsewhere on the canvas to depict gold. Vermeer represented pearls with a thin gray layer topped with a white highlight. The pan highlight is a single layer. In addition, there no loose pearls on the table that would indicate other pearls waiting to be weighed.

This seemingly trivial analysis as to what is being weighed actually bears importantly on the meaning of the work. For "Woman Holding a Balance" is overtly allegorical. The woman stands between a depiction of the Last Judgment hung in a heavy black frame and a table covered with jewelry representing material possessions. The empty scale stresses that she is balancing spiritual rather than material considerations. Vermeer's portrayal does not impart a sense of tension or conflict, rather the woman exudes serenity. Her self-knowledge is reflected in the mirror on the wall. Vermeer's point is that we should lead lives of moderation with full understanding of the implications of a final judgment.

The composition is designed to focus attention on the small and delicate balance being held. The woman's arms act as a frame, with the small finger of her right hand extended to echo the horizontal lever of the balance. The bottom of the painting frame is even altered to provide a partial niche for the scales. The frame ends higher in front of the woman than it does behind her. The complex interplay between verticals and horizontals, objects and negative space, and light and shadow results in a strongly balanced, yet still active composition. The scales are balanced, but dynamically asymmetrical. A cleaning in 1994 revealed previously undetectable gold trim on the black frame that provides a tonal link to the yellow of the curtain and the woman's costume.

Vermeer has endowed "Woman Holding a Balance" with more overtly allegorical context than his other domestic scenes. As such, it loses some of the invitingly subjective interpretation of a less direct work such as "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter". Nevertheless, Vermeer's masterful composition and execution produced a powerful and moving work.

"The Geographer", c. 1668-1669
( 550 x 616 / 53 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
52 x 45.5 cm (20 1/2 x 17 15/16 in.)
Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main

In "The Geographer", Vermeer presents another individual in an interior. This male figure, though, is endowed with intense energy in comparison to the contemplative women of other compositions. The flow of light from left to right activates the canvas. The flow is accentuated compositionally by the massing of objects on the left. The light spills forcefully into the open area on the right, casting a powerful series of diagonal shadows. Vermeer adjusted his initial depiction of the figure to provide a more active stance. Detailed study of the canvas reveals that the geographer originally looked down at the table, with his dividers also pointed down. Adjusting the composition to align the man's face and the dividers with the flow of light gave further energy to the movement across the canvas. The folds of the robe also serve to activate the figure, with their dynamic, almost abstract depiction in their sunlit portion.

The painting accurately renders the cartographic objects that express the theme: the sea chart, globe, dividers, square and a cross-staff that was used to measure the elevation angle of the sun and stars. It is probable that Vermeer's sophisticated presentation of these instruments was informed by his association with famed scientist Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek. Although no documents exist linking the two, they were both born in Delft in the same year. A contemporary portrait of Leeuwenhoek closely resembles the figure in Vermeer's geographer, and it is very possible that Leewenhoek served as the model.

Another Vermeer work, "The Astronomer", is commonly considered a pendant to "The Geographer". In it, the same model is depicted, this time among the instruments of astronomical study. Both paintings dramatically convey the excitement of scholarly inquiry and discovery. Considering these works as pendants offers an allegorical interpretation: the astronomer, student of the heavens, searches for spiritual guidance; the geographer, student of the earth, charts the proper course for temporal life.

"The Lacemaker", c. 1669-1670
( 600 x 446 / 51 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas transferred to panel
23.9 x 20.5 cm (9 13/32 x 8 1/2 in.)
Musee du Louvre, Paris

"The Lacemaker" is a small scale painting, nearly dwarfed by its impressive wooden frame. Unlike the more contemplative figures in Vermeer's work, the subject here is very active, intensely focused on a physical activity. As opposed to the full-figure compositions, where furniture and drapery act to facilitate or deflect the viewer's visual entry, "The Lacemaker" brings the subject dramatically to the foreground. As a result, the viewer is drawn into a powerful emotional engagement with the work. Although the composition is quite shallow, there are different depths of field that draw the viewer into the canvas. The forms nearest the eye are unfocused, which encourages the viewer to pass on to the more distinctly defined middleground.

The intimacy is accentuated by the small scale, personal subject matter, and natural composition. The lacemaker's total preoccupation with her work is indicated through her confined pose. The use of yellow, a dynamic, psychologically strong hue, reinforces the perception of intense effort. Contrasts of form serve to animate the image. For example, her hairstyle expresses her essential nature - both tightly constrained and, in the loose ringlet behind her left shoulder, rhythmically flowing. Another strong contrast exists between the tightly drawn threads she holds and the smoothly flowing red and white threads in the foreground. The precision and clearness of vision demanded by her work is expressed in the light accents that illuminate her forehead and fingers.

The diffused ocular effect of the foreground objects, especially the threads, was definitely derived from a camera obscura image. Vermeer used the informal, close framing of the composition suggested by the camera obscura to accentuate the realistic, immediate impact of the painting. Contemporary Dutch painting portrayed industriousness as an allegory of domestic virtue, While the inclusion of the prayer book pays fealty to this theme, it is a secondary concern to the depiction of the handicraft of lacemaking, and, in the highest sense, the creative act itself. Once again, Vermeer succeeded in transforming a transitory image into one of eternal truth.

"The Girl with the Red Hat", c. 1665
( 575 x 734 / 54 k / jpeg )
Oil on panel
22.8 x 18 cm (9 x 7 1/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Coming upon this painting in the exhibition, the viewer is confronted with an abrupt change from the other works. "The Girl with the Red Hat" is small even by Vermeer's standards; it is his only known work that was executed on wood panel; and most importantly, its immediacy and intimacy contrast sharply with the meditative mood of the other paintings.

Despite its modest dimensions, a strong visual impact results from the large scale of the girl. Brought close to the picture plane, she communicates directly with the viewer. Her direct gaze and slightly parted lips impart a sense of spontaneity and anticipation. Vermeer relies heavily on color to establish the mood of the work. The red of the hat and the blue of the robe contrast strongly with the muted background. The bright red of the hat advances, heightening the immediacy of the girl's glance, while the blue of the robe recedes, balancing the composition. Vermeer retained warmth in the robe by painting the blue over a reddish-brown ground. The materials - the red hat, robe and chair finials - are animated by highlights of reflected light. Subtle highlights on the girl's eye and mouth animate her expression. Finally, the intense white of the girl's cravat, painted as a thick impasto with parts later chipped off, cradles her face, focusing attention on her expression.

The small size of this work allowed Vermeer to use painstaking detail in its execution. A precise depiction of texture and light is achieved through the duplication of thin glazes over painted ground. To represent the hat, Vermeer firs painted an opaque layer of deep orange red. He then added semi-transparent strokes of light red and orange to render the feathers. The robe highlights allow the underlying blue to show through. With this glaze technique, the underlying layer is used to help model the forms of the composition.

Most scholars agree that Vermeer utilized a camera obscura in the composition and execution of "The Girl with a Red Hat". It is possible that he chose a wood panel support to replicate the gloss of a camera obscura image, which was normally projected onto glass. In particular, the diffused specular highlights of the lion head chair finial resemble the unfocused effect of an image seen in a camera obscura. Vermeer expert Arthur Wheelock points out, however, that Vermeer did not simply paint on top of an image projected by a camera obscura. While camera obscura effects were emulated in portions of the painting, in other places, the expected effects are not seen.

Compositional adjustments also contradict the literal reproduction of a camera obscura image. For instance, the left chair finial is larger and angled to the right. If the chair top is extended to the left, it ends up misaligned with the finial. Vermeer adjusted the lines of the chairback to stress the foreground plane of the composition while at the same time, allowing space for the girl's arm to rest.

"Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid", c. 1670
( 600 x 721 / 53 k / jpeg )
Oil on canvas
72.2 x 59.7 cm (28 13/32 x 23 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

This masterpiece has been stolen not once, but twice in the last twenty-five years. The owner, a member of Britain's Parliament, was targeted by the IRA, who broke into his estate in 1974 and took a total of nineteen paintings. It was recovered a week later, having sustained only minor damage. In 1986, the Dublin underworld stole the painting. Only after more than seven years of secret negotiations and international detective work was the painting recovered. Hopefully Vermeer's "The Concert", recently stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, will be recovered in a similar manner.

"Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid" exemplifies Vermeer's essential theme of revealing the universal within the domain of the commonplace. By avoiding anecdote, by not relating actions to specific situations, he attained a sense of timelessness in his work. The representation of universal truths was achieved by eliminating incidental objects and through subtle manipulation of light, color and perspective.

The canvas presents a deceptively simple composition. The placid scene with its muted colors suggests no activity or hint of interruption. Powerful verticals and horizontals in the composition, particularly the heavy black frame of the background painting, establish a confining backdrop that contributes to the restrained mood.

The composition is activated by the strong contrast between the two figures. The firm stance of the statuesque maid acts as a counterweight to the lively mistress intent on writing her letter. The maid's gravity is emphasized by her central position in the composition. The left upright of the picture frame anchors her in place while the regular folds of her clothing sustain the effect down to the floor. In contrast, the mistress inclines dynamically on her left forearm. Her compositional placement thrusts her against the compressed space on the right side of the canvas. Strong light outlines the writing arm against the shaded wall, reflecting in angular planes from the blouse that contrast abruptly with the regimented folds of the maid's costume. The mistress is painted in precise, meticulous strokes as opposed to the broad handling of the brush used to depict the maid.

The figures, although distinct individuals, are joined by perspective. Lines from the upper and lower window frames proceed across the folded arms and lighted forehead of the maid, extending to a vanishing point in the left eye of the mistress. The viewer's eye is lead first to the maid, then on to the mistress as the focal point of the painting.

Vermeer shuns direct narrative content, instead furnishing hints and allusions in order to avoid an anecdotal presentation. The crumpled letter on the floor in the right foreground is a clue to the missive the mistress is composing. The red wax seal, rediscovered only recently during a 1974 cleaning, indicates the crumpled letter was received, rather than being a discarded draft of the letter now being composed. Since letters were prized in the 17th century, it must have been thrown aside in anger. This explains the vehement energy being devoted to the composition of the response. Another hint is provided in the large background painting, "The Finding of Moses". Contemporary interpretation of this story equated it with God's ability to conciliate opposing factions. These allusions have led critics to construe Vermeer's theme as the need to achieve reconciliation, through individual effort and with faith in God's divine plan. This spiritual reconciliation will lead to the serenity personified in the figure of the maid.

Mark Harden is the art editor at Glyphs.