Tuesday, February 24, 2009

THE SPHINX OF DELFT


Johannes or Jan Vermeer (October 31, 1632 - December 16, 1675) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in exquisite, domestic interior scenes of ordinary life. Vermeer was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime. He seems never to have been particularly wealthy, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death.
Vermeer worked slowly and with great care, using bright colours, sometimes expensive pigments, with a preference for cornflower blue and yellow. He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work. What strikes in most of his paintings is a certain love, which easily could be called a love sickness, for the people and the objects in his paintings. He created a world more perfect than any he had witnessed.
After having been virtually forgotten for nearly one hundred years, Vermeer was rediscovered in 1866 when the art critic Thoré Bürger published an essay attributing 66 pictures to him (only 35 paintings are firmly attributed to him today). Since that time Vermeer's reputation has grown, and he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.
It is not certain where Vermeer was apprenticed as a painter, nor with whom. It is generally believed that he studied in his home town and it is suggested that his teacher was either Carel Fabritius or more likely Leonaert Bramer. It is possible he taught himself or had information from one of his father's connections.
On December 29, 1653, Vermeer became a member of the Guild of Saint Luke, a trade association for painters. The guild's records make clear Vermeer did not pay the usual admission fee, a hint that his financial circumstances were difficult. In 1657 he might have found a patron in the local art collector Pieter van Ruijven, who lent him some money.
In 1662 Vermeer was elected head of the guild and was reelected in 1663, 1670, and 1671, evidence that he was considered an established craftsman among his peers.
Vermeer worked slowly, probably producing three paintings a year, and on order. When Balthasar de Monconys visited him in 1663 to see some of his work, the diplomat and the two French clergymen who accompanied him were sent to a baker, probably Hendrick van Buyten, who owned one painting he was very proud of.
In December 1675 Vermeer fell into a frenzy and died at the age of 43, within a day and a half. In a written document Catharina Bolnes attributed her husband's death to the stress of financial pressures. She, having to raise 11 children, asked the High Court to allow her a break in paying the creditors.
The Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who sometimes worked for the city council, was appointed trustee. The house, with eight rooms on the first floor, was filled with paintings, drawings, clothes, chairs and beds. In his atelier there were among rummage not worthy being itimized, two chairs, two painter's easels, three palettes, ten canvases, a desk, an oak pull table and a small wooden cupboard with drawers. Nineteen of Vermeer's paintings were bequeathed to Catherina and her mother. The widow sold two more paintings to the baker in order to pay off the debts.
In Delft, Vermeer had been a respected artist, but he was almost unknown outside his home town, and the fact that a local patron, van Ruijven, purchased much of his output reduced the possibility of his fame spreading. Van Ruijven's son-in-law Jacob Dissius owned 21 paintings by Vermeer, listed in his heritage in 1695, which were sold the year after in Amsterdam. Vermeer never had any pupils and his relatively short life, the demands of separate careers, and his extraordinary precision as a painter all help to explain his limited output.
Vermeer produced transparent colours by applying paint to the canvas in loosely granular layers, a technique called pointillé (not to be confused with pointillism). No drawings have been positively attributed to Vermeer, and his paintings offer few clues to preparatory methods. David Hockney, among other historians and advocates of the Hockney-Falco thesis, has speculated that Vermeer used a camera obscura to achieve precise positioning in his compositions, and this view seems to be supported by certain light and perspective effects which would result from the use of such lenses and not the naked eye alone. The extent of Vermeer's dependence upon the camera obscura is disputed by historians.
There is no other seventeenth century artist who early in his career employed, in the most lavish way, the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli, or natural ultramarine. Vermeer not only used this in elements that are naturally of this colour; the earth colours umber and ochre should be understood as warm light within a painting's strongly-lit interior, which reflects its multiple colours onto the wall.
This working method most probably was inspired by Vermeer’s understanding of Leonardo’s observations that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object. This means that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural colour.
Even after Vermeer’s supposed financial breakdown following the so-called rampjaar (year of disaster) in 1672, he continued to employ natural ultramarine generously, such as in Lady Seated at a Virginal. This could suggest that Vermeer was supplied with materials by a collector, and would coincide with John Michael Montias’ theory of Pieter Claesz van Ruijven being Vermeer’s patron.

Lady Standing at a Virginal
From Olga's Gallery

Vermeer painted mostly domestic interior scenes. His works are largely genre pieces and portraits, with the exception of two cityscapes.
His subjects offer a cross-section of seventeenth century Dutch society, ranging from the portrayal of a simple milkmaid at work, to the luxury and splendour of rich notables and merchantmen in their roomy houses. scientific connotations can be found in his works.

The Kitchen Maid
1658
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org

With quiet concentration a woman pours milk into a bowl. With her left hand she supports the can she is pouring from. Around her are various objects: a loaf of bread, a stoneware jug, a basket and a brass bucket. The woman is standing near the window so she can see what she is doing. The light falls on her hands; her silhouette is dark against the white wall. There is a fascinating play of light and shadow in this painting. This is one of Johannes Vermeer's genre pieces in which he establishes an intensely intimate atmosphere. Although the artist observes his model from nearby, she continues with her work, totally unperturbed.
The lighting in Vermeer's Milkmaid is extraordinarily subtle. Light falls from the left through the window. Beneath and beside the window it is somewhat shadowy, but the woman is standing in full brightness. When you look carefully at the painting you see that Vermeer has introduced tiny points of light all over the canvas: on the edges of the jug and the bowl, but also on the fastening of her yellow dress, and on the bread in the basket. Vermeer paid great attention to details. He has painted tiny rough patches into the texture of the white plasterwork. Also, he gives careful thought to a nail set high in the white wall, as well as to the light entering through a cracked windowpane. The structure of various objects is expertly rendered: gleaming brass and crumbly bread.
(© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org)
Only three paintings are dated: The Procuress (1656, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie), The Astronomer (1668, Paris, Louvre), and The Geographer (1669, Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut).

The Procuress
1656
Oil on canvas
Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

The Astronomer
Oil on canvas, c.1668
Musée du Louvre, Paris
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

The Geographer
Oil on canvas, c.1668
Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center


The Astronomer and The Geographer were recorded together in 1713, and sold together in 1729. These paintings reflect the blossoming of scientific enquiry in seventeenth century Europe.
The geographer leans over an unrolled map or nautical chart, with a pair of dividers in this hand, deep in thought. He is dressed comfortably and informally, with his long hair pulled behind one ear. The terrestrial globe above him was made by Jodocus Hondius in 1600, and is a twin to the celestial globe in The Astronomer. It is, however, the same room as the twin painting, except that the painting The Finding of Moses has been replaced by a map of Europe, similar to a chart by William Blaeu from the early seventeenth century. There is more light in the geographer's world than the astronomer's: perhaps an indication that the former is less mysterious than the latter.
The painting is signed by Vermeer on the closet just above the geographer's head, and another inscription was added in the nineteenth century at the upper right of the painting.
(Written by Ann Mette Heindorff, Copyright © 1999-2007)
After The Procuress almost all of Vermeer's paintings are of contemporary subjects in a smaller format, with a cooler palette dominated by blues, yellows and greys. It is to this period that practically all of his surviving works belong. They are usually domestic interiors with one or two figures lit by a window on the left. They are characterized by a serene sense of compositional balance and spatial order, unified by a pearly light. Mundane domestic or recreational activities become thereby imbued with a poetic timelessness (e.g. Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie). To this period also have been allocated Vermeer's two townscapes, View of Delft (The Hague, Mauritshuis) and A Street in Delft (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum).
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter
1662-63
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org

A young woman is reading a letter, around her are a table and chairs. She is illuminated by the light from what is presumably a window. On the wall behind her is a map. The artist has achieved a muted tone with his use of blues and browns. Vermeer has played here with the light and shadow. While the map and the chair cast a distinct shadow on the wall, the woman does not. It makes her stands out from the background. The subtle gradations of color and the contrasts in this painting were already greatly admired two hundred years ago. A 1791 auction catalogue remarks on 'the pleasing effects of light and shadow'.
In Dutch genre painting a woman reading a letter was usually a reference to love. The map on the wall may refer to a distant lover, but the painting offers no further clues to a hidden meaning. The map, showing Holland and West Friesland appears in an earlier painting by Vermeer of the Soldier and the Laughing Girl. This picture, painted in 1658, is now in the Frick Collection in New York. Although the young woman appears to be pregnant, this is not necessarily the case. The fashionable wide jacket she is wearing may make her figure appear fuller than it is.
The woman is surrounded by furniture. The table and chairs define the space around her. Vermeer adjusted the balance in his painting by playing with the areas of light and shadow. X-ray photos show that the map on the wall was originally narrower. To improve the composition Vermeer made it wider. He also altered the woman's jacket. Originally it was a wider, fur-trimmed cloak. Vermeer made the jacket simpler and less wide. The woman's back, dark in shadow, stands out sharply against the light wall behind her. The contour of her back is clear and deliberately depicted, while other lines are more fuzzy, such as the illuminated profile of her face.
(© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org)

View of Houses in Delft
"The Little Street"
1658
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org


In a cobblestone street are two houses with a gate opening onto the passageway between them. A woman sits in an open doorway, busy sewing; two children are playing on the stoop. Soapy water is washing down a small runnel between the paving stones - probably the woman in the passageway has just scrubbed her part of the stoop. Vermeer has recorded this everyday scene with apparent casualness. Although world-famous, not much is known about Vermeer's Little Street. In fact the original location has never been identified, and indeed may never have existed. But more significant is the atmosphere of the picture. The women are diligently employed while the children are absorbed at play. The scene emanates tranquillity and security.
Vermeer has achieved a great deal with limited means. A detail from the bricks above the gateway illustrates how suggestive his method of painting is. In some places the canvas shows through the paint but together the touches of color combine to create the impression of solid brick. Elsewhere the paint has been thickly applied, as on the shutters in front of the windows and the white plastered portions of the wall. Here the surface of the paint appears flaked, like plaster, while on the shutters it is smooth as if painted on wood.
(© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org)
A few of his paintings show a certain hardening of manner and these are generally thought to represent his late works. From this period come The Allegory of Faith (c 1670, New York, Metropolitan Museum) and The Letter (c 1670, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum).

The Love Letter
1669-70
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org

Pulling a curtain to one side, a scene of domestic intimacy is revealed. A well-to-do woman, clothed in yellow, is being handed a letter. She glances up questioningly at her maid and pauses in her lute playing. The room with the two women is brilliantly lit; the space in front of it is darker. Sheet music can be seen on a chair. Perhaps the lady is waiting for a person with whom to play music. On the dark wall at the left of the door opening is a map. Vermeer signed the painting with his characteristic signature, compressed on the left, next to the maid, is the name 'JVMeer'.
Although the lady has not yet opened the letter it is apparent from the picture that it is from a lover. The two pictures in the background indicate this. A painting within a painting often indicates the artist's intention in the picture. Here the lower painting is a seascape. In the seventeenth-century language of imagery the sea stood for love, and a ship for a lover. The emblem written by Jan Krul 'Far from home, never far from my heart' expresses this well. The upper picture shows a man walking along a sandy path: as in the painting of the ship, there is the suggestion of a person on a journey.
An emblem is a picture accompanied by a motto or a verse. Jan Krul's emblem has the motto "Though you are far away, you are always in my heart". The picture shows a ship with Cupid at the sails. The man at the forecastle is addressing his beloved on the quay. His gesture illustrates how precarious love can be. A verse accompanies the picture:
On the unbounded sea of trackless waves,
My amorous heart sails between hope and fear:
Love is like the sea, a lover like a ship,
Your favor a safe harbor, your rejection a rock;
If the ship were to run aground,
All hope of a safe return would be dashed;
Show the harbor of your favor, by a beacon of love,
So that I may escape the Sea of love's fear.
Source: Jan Harmensz Krul, Images of Love: Dedicated to Amorous Youth, Amsterdam 1640.
Vermeer has incorporated even more references to love into his picture. A lute symbolises the harmony produced by love: when one lute is played, other nearby lutes resonate in sympathy. The Dutch writer Jacob Cats illustrated this effect with a so-called emblem. The lute and sheet music in Vermeer's painting The Love Letter suggest that the lady is waiting for another player. In the foreground a pair of slippers and a broom probably refer to a less exalted kind of love.
(© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org)
The often-discussed sparkling pearly highlights in Vermeer's paintings have been linked to his possible use of a camera obscura, the primitive lens of which would produce halation and, even more noticeably, exaggerated perspective. Such effects can be seen in Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (London, Royal Collection). Vermeer's interest in optics is also attested in this work by the accurately observed mirror reflection above the lady at the virginals.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman
Oil on canvas, 1662-1665
Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace, London
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Only 35 of Vermeer's canvases have survived, and none appears to have been sold. Their small number is the result of Vermeer's deliberate, methodical work habits, comparatively short life, and the disappearance of many of his paintings during the period of obscurity following his death in Delft on December 15, 1675. With a few exceptions, including some landscapes, street scenes, and portraits, Vermeer painted sunlit domestic interiors in which one or two figures are shown engaged in reading, writing, or playing musical instruments. These objectively observed, precisely executed genre paintings of 17th-century Dutch life are characterized by a geometrical sense of order.
Vermeer was a master of composition and in the representation of space. He arranged tonal values and perspective over the foreground, into the middleground, and farther into the distance in such works as Girl Asleep at a Table (circa 1656, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City). In Maidservant Pouring Milk (1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Woman with a Water Pitcher (1663, Metropolitan Museum), View of Delft (circa 1660, Mauritshuis, The Hague), and other works, he recorded the effects of light with a subtlety, delicacy, and purity of color that probably never have been surpassed.

A Woman Asleep at a Table
1657
Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org

Among his paintings are Soldier and Laughing Girl (1657, Frick Collection, New York City), and Girl with a Red Hat (1667, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).

Soldier and a Laughing Girl
1658
Oil on canvas
The Frick Collection, New York
© 14 Oct 2002, Nicolas Pioch at ibiblio.org

The Girl with the Red Hat
1665
Oil on panel
National Gallery of Art, Washington
From artchive.com/artchive


"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." -By Mark Harden at artchive.com/artchive
Vermeer was forgotten after his death and not rediscovered until the late 19th century. His reputation steadily increased thereafter. He is today considered one of the greatest Dutch painters. His work was forged for a time and sold to the Germans during World War II.
(From repropaint.com)
His mature domestic genre pieces have a characteristic pearly light. The eye is drawn into the picture by the careful placing of objects and a clearly defined architectural space. Figures pursue tranquil occupations, and the symbolic meaning of the scene is sometimes revealed through a painting within the painting. Vermeer was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century.
(From the National Gallery)

essentialvermeer homepage
BBC - History - Vermeer and the Camera Obscura

Time Line:
1632 Johannes Vermeer born in Delft, to Reynier Vermeer, a silk weaver, art dealer and owner of a small inn.
1641 Reynier Vermeer purchases the "Mechelen", a large inn on the market square in Delft.
Late in the 1640's Vermeer must have begun his apprenticeship since it took an aspiring artist six years of training before becoming a master.
1652 Vermeer's father dies and he almost certainly inherits the business.
1653 In Dec, Vermeer married Catherina Bolnes, daughter of Maria Thins and registered as a master painter in the St. Luke's Guild.
1662 Vermeer elected headman of the Board of the St. Lukes Guild, a trade association of artists.
1670 Again elected headman of the Board of the St. Lukes Guild, a trade association of artists.
1672 Vermeer moved his family to Maria Thins' house on the Oude Langendijk when the art market collapsed after France invaded the Netherlands. Vermeer's fortune deteriorated very quickly.
1675 Vermeer died and left his wife and eleven children with enormous debts.
1676 Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the microscopist, was named executor for the Vermeer estate.
1677 Sale of Vermeer's paintings to help satisfy the demands of creditors.
1800's Vermeer is "rediscovered" by Joseph Thore. Thore traveled across Europe to find all of Vermeer's works and his enthusiastic accounts brought Vermeer's name to the public for the first time.
(From mystudios.com)


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