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Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master

by Jonathan Janson

An in-depth look into the materials and methods of Johannes Vermeer and the studio practices of 17th-c. Dutch painters

Composition and Pose

Sybl, Michaelangelo

The Libyan Sibyl

Although both pose and composition of the Girl with a Pearl Earring are so natural as to go almost unnoticed, they are fundamental elements in achieving the expressive qualities desired by the artist . The turning gesture of the sitter was a pictorial device which was tenaciously exploited by the great Italian master Michelangelo Buonarotti and was widely used in the figurative art.

Michelangelo understood that when a figure's body moves in one direction and the head in theopposite direction, the controposto ("contraposition") evokes tensionwith the body representing instinctual impulses while the head the higher function of the mind. The effect is particularly pronounced in Michelangelo's work since the entire body, which is often represented nude, is portrayed.

Vermeer, employed same pictorial device in the Girl with a Pearl Earring but in a much less marked way in keeping with a more subtle psychological tone. His aim was not to express the universal struggle between the flesh and the spirit, a theme with deep religious moral overtones, but the uncertain, priivate relationship between the painter and his model.

Berninni, Bonarelli

Constanza Bonelli

It is very rare to find portraits of the age in which the sitters' mouth are not dutifully closed. But since Vermeer painted four women with their lips partially opened, he must have been very aware of the effect it created. The sensuous undertone of such an expression may have appeared far more noticeable than it does today. Bernini's portrait of Costanza Bonelli is a rare portrait which shows the sitter with parted lips. This may not be casual. Costanza was the wife of Matteo Bonarelli, one of Bernini's pupils and co-workers. Bernini fell passionately in love with her.

The rarity of the parted lips motif in contemporary portraiture may lead us to believe that the painting was not intended as a true portrait, but a as a tronie in which the sitter's exotic costume or particular expression was the painting's true subject. For further information on the question, see Portrait or "Tronie"?.

In nine of Vermeer's paintings, the sitter's look directly in the eyes of the viewer as in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. This convention was universally employed to engage the viewer in a dialogue with the painting. Vermeer intensified the effect by eliminating the background making it difficult for the viewer to direct his attention to another part of the painting except the fall of light on the sitter's expression.


While "pose" refers to the gesture of the sitter within the inferred three dimensional space of the picture, "composition" refers to the two dimensional organization of the painting. In Vermeer's art composition played a fundamental role in determining the expressive content of his complex interiors. Although the Girl with a Pearl Earring is perhaps one of the simplest of all his works, it is nonetheless composed in a very subtle manner.

Vermeer's painting is consciously organized around a series of axis's. The most pronounced one describes the gesture of the girl, it runs from the shadow of the girl's temple down through to her left shoulder. The vertical axis of the painting, that serves as an visual anchor, begins at the highest point of the turban and runs directly through the pearl earring down along the net vertical division of dark and illuminated sides of the yellow garment. A third axis follows the fall of the turban and further stabilizes the girl's movement. Thus, while introducing diagonal lines to suggest movement and psychological potential of the sitter, Vermeer subtly balances them within a stable context of an overall pyramidal form.

The effectiveness of Vermeer's pose and composition can be better appreciated they are compared to those of a portrait painted by a contemporary of Vermeer.

When compared side by side to Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, the young woman in Frans Van Mieris' portrait seems isolated and distant. Although she is beautifully and meticulously rendered, Vermeer's girl appears more real. The viewer senses the physical and psychological presence of Vermeer's girl because she occupies more of the picture plane and thus appears nearer to the viewer. She positively inhabits and activates the pictorial space which surrounds her, rather than being passively incapsuled by it.

In Van Mieris' painting, the so-called "negative space" surrounding the figure is equally undifferentiated on both sides. In Vermeer 's painting instead, the two negative spaces are varied and visually stimulating. On the right Vermeer has created an angular wedge which is completely different in size and character from the much larger one to the left.

Beatrice Cenci, Guido Reni

Engraving after Beatrice Cenci
Guido Reni.

Vermeer may not have arrived alone at such a pictorial solution. A portrait of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni 1 had been noticed in the earlier part of the century for the startling similarity of pose and gesture. Although it is not know if Vermeer had ever been to Italy or had access to the engraved image, it is not out of the question. The Beatrice Cenci was copied many times and engravings of popular paintings circulated freely throughout Europe. Such engravings often served as models for new compositions.

  1. Identified as a portrait of Beatrice Cenci (1577-99), this painting is famous for the tragic story of its subject, a young Roman noblewoman who was immortalized by Stendhal and Dumas. While the canvas is traditionally attributed to Reni, its poor quality in comparison to other works of the master has led many critics to reject it as an autograph work. Instead, it could be by a painter in the immediate circle of Reni, possibly Elisabetta Sirani, who is known for rendering the master's models in abbreviated and reduced form. Beatrice, the daughter of the rich and powerful Francesco Cenci, suffered from her father's mistreatment. Violent and dissolute, he imprisoned Beatrice and her stepmother in the Castle of Petrella Salto, near Rieti. With the blessing of her stepmother and two brothers, all of whom shared her exasperation at his continued abuse, Beatrice murdered her father in 1598. She was apprehended and, after a trial that captured the imagination of all Rome, condemned to death at the order of Pope Clement VIII, who may have been motivated by the hope of confiscating the assets of the family. In the presence of an enormous crowd Beatrice was decapitated in the Ponte Sant'Angelo in September of 1599, instantly becoming a symbol of innocence oppressed. It has been hypothesized that Caravaggio was present at the decapitation and was thus inspired to paint his Judith cutting off the Head of Holofernes. The precise and realistic rendering of Caravaggio's scene, anatomically and physiologically correct to the minutest details, presupposes the artist's observation of a real decapitation.