Vermeer & the Art of Painting

Presented on the occasion of the Vermeer exhibit at the
National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.,
November 12, 1995 to February 11, 1996

Note: This is an excerpt from the excellent book "Vermeer & the Art of Painting", by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. It is just one of the seventeen Vermeer works described by Mr. Wheelock. Do yourself a favor and check out the rest of his wonderful book.

Part Two

A final component of Vermeer's composition that is difficult to explain fully is the mirror. Vermeer carefully placed it directly above the keyboard of the virginal so that the bottom edge of its black frame is overlapped by the black painted border of the instrument's lid. He thus linked it compositionally with the virginal and created a visual vertical extension of the instrument's rectangular geometric form directly above the young woman. By this means, and by including her reflection in the mirror, he reinforced her compositional and thematic significance within the painting.

By tilting the mirror, Vermeer allows the viewer to look down on the woman and the carpeted table and floor tiles; this device also reveals the bottom portion of the artist's easel. The reasons he decided to include the easel are unknown. One possibility is that he was trying to depict the scene as he saw it with total accuracy. Indeed, the sensitivity with which he has rendered the reflection in the mirror is remarkable. He set the image back into the mirror rather than as though it were painted on its surface by rendering forms softer and smaller and by depicting the distorted reflections along the mirror's beveled edge. He carefully recorded the perspective of the table and floor and rendered naturalistically the light falling on the woman from the window. Nevertheless, as with still-life painters like Abraham van Beyeren (1620/21-1690), who often included an image of the artist at work in the reflection in a silver pitcher, Vermeer probably intended the image of his easel in the mirror as an artistic conceit, as a reminder that he had orchestrated this scene and that he, with his remarkable technical virtuosity, was bringing it to life. A final possibility is that, in the tradition of Jan van Eyck in the Arnolfini Marriage Portrait (National Gallery, London), his presence in the mirror indicated that Vermeer was a witness to this private and yet transcendent moment in which art and nature, through the vehicle of music, become harmoniously united. These three explanations for the presence of the easel, far from being mutually exclusive, are totally interrelated and offer a clue to the complex workings of the artist's mind.

The illusionism of the image in the mirror works because it reflects a room that convinces the viewer of its reality. Vermeer has so carefully constructed the space, created the sense of texture in objects, and naturalistically rendered light effects that the viewer feels immediately drawn into that world. One accepts its existence as a matter of course. One's overriding sense is that if illusionism exists here, it is to be found in the mirror, not in the reality it reflects.

The basis of Vermeer's manipulation of spatial effects is his awareness of the expressive possibilities of linear perspective. By constructing a relatively short distance point, Vermeer used a sharply receding perspective to make the room look larger than it probably was in reality. The scale variation between foreground and background is abrupt and that contrast, as well as the pronounced orthogonals of the window frames along the left wall, directs the eye immediately to the background. Vermeer further compressed that space by filling the right side of the composition with the large tapestry-covered table. Because the table is placed perpendicular to the picture plane, the orthogonals of its receding edge also lead to the vanishing point situated on the sunlit left sleeve of the young woman at the virginal. The eye is drawn to that central figure by the perspective and held there by the vivid colors of her costume. The reflection of her face in the mirror, by which she becomes accessible to the viewer, reinforces her significance as does the clear geometry of the starkly silhouetted forms of the virginal and mirror that frame her.

Vermeer's perspective, however, is only one component of the powerfully evocative character of this interior. His asymmetrical arrangement, in which the left side of the room is empty and the right side is filled with objects, creates a dynamic balance around the centrally placed vanishing point that is crucial to the emotional impact of the scene. The woman becomes the fulcrum around which the public and private worlds of this painting revolve. She is the one to whom the viewer has direct visual access and the one through whom the harmonious chords of the music are released. She is, however, turned from the viewer. From the direction of her gaze in the mirror one comes to realize that the privacy of her relationship with the gentleman is a secondary theme that Vermeer has included to enlarge upon the first. He preserves their privacy through the exclusiveness of their gazes, but also by creating for them an intimate space within this vast interior behind the compact arrangement of furniture on the right.

The artificial constructs of this dynamically charged space are convincing because of the realistic character of the light and textural effects that Vermeer created. An important component of the perspectival construction, for example, is the diagonal pattern of the black-and-white marble floor. To enhance its illusionistic effect, Vermeer not only reduced the amount of detail for rendering the veins of the marble as the floor recedes into depth, but also varied its color. In the foreground the black squares of marble are given a bluish cast, but this tone changes to a dark gray halfway into the room.

The most extraordinary textural effects in the foreground occur on the table in the tapestry, silver platter, and white pitcher. Each of these objects has a different surface and Vermeer used all of the technical prowess he had available to capture the differences in their materials. Vermeer constructed the rich patterns of the tapestry so that they convincingly curve over the folds as it gracefully drapes to the floor. Its colors range from the deep reds, blues, and blacks in the shadows to the very light, almost pastel tones of the summarily indicated patterns on the sunlit and receding planes along the top and left edge. Although Vermeer created the illusion of the tapestry's nubby weave throughout, he only thoroughly developed this textural quality along the sunfilled front edge of the table. Here, he built his form with a number of layers of paint. He first laid down a black layer over the light ocher ground and on this base applied a thin layer of natural ultramarine. He then created the yellow and red textile pattern over this deep blue foundation. The circular form of their accents can still be seen underneath the thin layer of lead-tin yellow that he then applied over them to unite them into a broader pattern. Vermeer used a similar technique in the reds, although he probably created the thick dabs of red with a combination of a red lake and lead white since the red is not as dense a color as the lead-tin yellow. As in the yellows he covered these accents with a thin glaze. The accents on the blues are less dense than in the reds and yellows and appear to be a mixture of lead white and ultramarine that lie on the surface.

Vermeer used a different technique to indicate the specular reflections off the silver platter. On a base of light blue paint laid over a light ground color, the form and accents were developed with a sequence of short strokes of varying shades of olive green, some of which were applied wet in wet. White accents, applied in what appears to be a relatively random pattern, lie on top. Finally, Vermeer created the white pitcher's sheen with an application of lead-white paint so smooth that individual brushstrokes cannot be distinguished. Vermeer conveyed the translucency of the shaded side of the pitcher's base with a thin light blue glaze that lies over the light olive green of the silver platter. He then indicated the specular reflection of the platter on this darkened side of the pitcher with a few irregular strokes of white.

In each of these instances Vermeer accented the textural characteristics of these objects through the way he depicted light hitting their surfaces. Vermeer's interest in the interaction of light with such objects is but one aspect of his mastery in this painting. From the shadows of the leading in the glass on the window frames to the multiple shadows on the sunlit wall behind the mirror or virginal top, he convinces the viewer of the flow of light into the room. Upon examining these light effects, however, one realizes not only how carefully Vermeer observed its various characteristics, but also how he used them selectively and creatively. Light falling at the back of the room, for example, is much brighter than it is in the foreground, probably because he had blocked the windows to the left of the picture plane with a shutter or curtain. In this way he helps draw the eye to the far side of the room. Given the reduced level of light entering through the foreground window, the brilliance of the light hitting the tabletop, platter, and pitcher is logically inconsistent even if compositionally effective.

Light effects around the virginal are far more artificially conceived than one would initially suspect. That direct sunlight enters the room is clear from the bright rear wall and pronounced diagonal shadow falling from the windowsill. Logically, however, sunlight that would create such a shadow would form similar ones at the juncture of the windows and the ceiling and behind the horizontal frame at the top of the lower window. Such shadows do not exist in this painting. The broad expanse of an evenly illuminated white wall was important as a backdrop for the subtle geometric harmonies Vermeer wanted to create with the silhouetted objects against it. By selectively eliminating shadows, moreover, he minimized the temporal quality of the light entering the room. The shadows create the semblance of reality while minimizing the transitory nature of the moment.

A comparable concern undoubtedly explains the character of the shadows in and around the virginal. A strongly accented diagonal shadow extends from the edge of the windowsill to the base of the instrument's feet. At the same time, another shadow, falling at a completely different and quite illogical angle, connects the top of the lower window frame with the top corner of the virginal. These shadows, which together encompass the full height of the virginal, connect the instrument and the architecture of the room. Because these shadows fall at such discrete places and do not cut across forms, they appear to be locked in place, as though that moment will not change.

A final instance of Vermeer's careful manipulation of light to reinforce the feeling of permanence in the composition occurs beneath the virginal. Although the vertical shadows of the legs of the base are clearly visible, Vermeer gave them greater substance by placing them closer to each other than they would appear in reality in order to reiterate the strongly silhouetted shapes of the legs themselves. Furthermore, he eliminated the shadow of the instrument's body against the rear wall, probably because it would have obscured the vertical emphasis provided by the shadows from the legs of the instrument.

Such careful considerations of light effects parallel other means by which Vermeer sought to make relationships within his composition more enduring. For instance, it is remarkable that the virginal is so high. In most instances these instruments were designed to be played seated as well as standing. Vermeer may have explicitly raised the instrument to a level where the woman's head is tangentially related to its upper edge and to the bottom of the mirror, thus strengthening the visual bonds among these three crucial components of the composition. Indeed, her position at the virginal as well as that of the man were areas of great concern for the painter. Infrared reflectography reveals that Vermeer first painted the man further forward and leaning more attentively toward the woman. She, likewise, had a more active stance. At present she appears to stand directly facing the virginal, but originally her pose resembled more closely that seen in the mirror. Her body was slightly turned away from the man, but her head was twisted back in his direction These adjustments were subtle but crucial. In both instances Vermeer transformed the figures from active poses to restrained and statuesque ones, and as a consequence emphasized less their transitory interaction than the permanent character of their relationship. The effect is to draw them more fully into harmony with their carefully ordered environment and to convey the powerful lasting effects of music upon the soul. By retaining the original image of the woman in the reflection in the mirror, Vermeer extended that moment in yet another way. Her reflected image reinforces the sense of the figures' communion with each other and adds a dimension of warmth that infuses the entire painting.

Return to Part One
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