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HOW TO PAINT YOUR OWN VERMEER:
Recapturing Materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master


by Jonathan Janson
2006

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

Dating

General Considerations and a Table of Comparative Dates by Vermeer Scholars

Of the thirty-four unanimously accepted paintings by Vermeer, only one bears an uncontested date.1 Scholars have used composition, subject matter, style, painting technique and even fashions to formulate plausible dates which, however, vary significantly from author to author. As can be seen in the table below, the dates once given by important Vermeer scholars for the Girl with a Pearl Earring ranged between 1656 and 1667 (a rather large gap if we remember that Vermeer's career lasted only about 20 years). In the past decades the range has narrowed down considerably to approximately 1665 to 1667.

Not only are discrepancies in dating due to the lack of fixed chronological reference points, but also to the wide range of painting styles and techniques in which the artist experimented throughout his fecund pictorial evolution.2 When the four superb Vermeer's that hang side by side in the Rijksmuseum are observed, their stylistic differences are easily noted. The dry and almost naive application of paint in The Little Street calls to mind the work of Pieter de Hoogh and seems indeed to have very little to do with the geometric exasperation and crystalline surface quality of the Love Letter: The Milkmaid's vigorous and densely painted surface, coupled with an unabashed exhibition of local color, appears alien to the extremely limited palette and the ethereal layering of translucent paint of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. It is no wonder that in the early 1850s, when Vermeer’s paintings had begun to be studied methodically, many works by other Dutch artists were included in his oeuvre. Not until halfway through the twentieth-century were they pared down significantly and ultimately arranged in a more or less uniform chronological order.

Style and Technique

The present day chronological order of Vermeer's works is based on an understanding that, although Vermeer's style and technique varied notably, they evolved in a fairly linear order. While theme and composition can be consciously manipulated by the artist's will to a great degree, style and in particular painting technique are more intimately related to the artist's physical and unconscious self of the artist. Consequentially, they tend to evolve more gradually for painters of Vermeer’s ethical stature Vermeer.

Dating of the Girl with a Pearl Earring

Arthur Wheelock, one of the foremost modern Vermeer scholars and an expert in the master's painting technique, believes that the extremely subtle passages of flesh tones of the Girl with a Pearl Earring are representative of Vermeer's works of the early and mid 1660s. In these earlier renderings of the female face, thick layers of opaque paint (impasto) applied with visible brushwork are characteristic. More than once, signs of uncertainty and labor can be observed. The Girl with a Pearl Earring by contrast, seems painted almost effortlessly, free of such uncertainties. Vermeer's later works are conceived within a more abstract context; observation has succumbed to a severe stylization. The modeling and facial expression of the sitter's faces are rendered with greater clarity, but a certain brittleness and lack of warmth are evident.

The technique and style Vermeer used to paint the Girl with a Pearl Earring is analogous to that of the single women pictures of the early and mid 1660s. Paint is applied with economy in a series of thin layers and according to a highly optical criterion. Contours are more suffused. Tone and chiaroscuro create a sense of impalpable luminosity and warmth. The contours in deeply shadowed areas shadow are extremely vague yet suggestive. They are painted so thinly that the ground layer beneath can often be perceived.

As in other paintings of the mid and late 1660s, Vermeer seems to have also used the badger brush to smooth the paint level and blend imperceptibly adjacent areas of color in the faces. The profile of the standing young woman in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter in the Rijksmuseum, which is large enough to permit an accurate stylistic comparison, reveals analogous subtle transitions of light and dark as those seen in Girl with a Pearl Earring which may indicate the use of the badger brush. In both paintings layers of barely observable translucent paint evoke rather than merely describe the subtleties of feminine physiognomy. Line, as a vehicle of definition of form, is absent. Variations of chiaroscuro and tone bear the weight of description. And although the headgear and dress in the Girl with a Pearl Earring are painted with a surprising simplicity unusual in Vermeer's work of this period, the artist intended to focus our attention on the expression of the young girl’s face. Other methods of dating have been proposed as well.

Fashion

At times, the turns of fashion which Vermeer documented rather closely have provided useful information. Although Vermeer's A Lady Writing is not dated, the woman's costume and hairstyle relate it to other paintings of the mid-1660s. The hairstyle of the seated young lady, with braided chignon and ribbons tied in bows formed liked stars, were in fact particularly popular in the early 1660s. Unfortunately, the costume of the Girl with a Pearl Earring has no parallel with contemporary Dutch fashions and her yellow garment is painted so summarily that few scholars have attempted to identify either its style or material. The particular Turkish style headdress finds no close comparison in Dutch art.

Identity of the Sitter

In 1952, Andrè Malraux attempted to date the painting to the 1670s through the identification of the model as the oldest daughter of Vermeer. There exists no objective evidence that the painting is in reality a portrayal of Maria.3 The exact date of her birth is unknown, although it is generally believed to be c.1654-1655. Accordingly, the young girl, in Malraux's opinion, would have been approximately 15 years of age when Vermeer portrayed her. However, if we are to accept the more plausible date of the early to mid 1660s, Vermeer's daughter would have only been only ten years of age at the time, obviously too young.

Although attempts at dating the painting through identification of the model may seem alluring, they are at best speculative. No records exist that indicate specifically who any of Vermeer's sitters were except for a lost self-portrait, obviously representing Vermeer himself, described in the 1696 Dissius auction. Vermeer may have used his wife and youngest daughter (s) as sitters for his paintings as easily as he may have used a relative, friend, patron or an acquaintance among the artistic milieu of Delft. The fact that the paintings of Vermeer have a strongly intimate character may reflect his artistic ideals rather than a choice of models.

Conclusion

Although the exact dates of Vermeer's paintings will probably never be known, a reasonably accurate chronological sequence of Vermeer's painting has formed in the last hundred and fifty years. In final analysis, the Girl with a Pearl Earring should be dated from the mid to the late 1660s, considering its strong stylistic and technical affinities with of the works generally ascribed to the same period.

A Table of Comparative Dates by Vermeer Scholars

The following table contains the date given to Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer scholars who have compiled catalogues of Vermeer oeuvre.

1656 BODE, Wilhem von Bode
c.1600 VALENTINER, Wilhem R.
1660 DE VREIS. A. B. Jan Vermeer van Delft, London / New York (2nd.ed.), 1948
c. 1657-1659 GOWING, Lawrence Vermeer, London, 1952 and 1970
1660-1665 BLOCK,Vitali Tutta la pittura de Vermeer di Delft, Milan, 1954
1665 GOLDSCHEIDER, L. Jan Vermeer, London, 1958
1665 BLANKERT, Albert Vermeer, (with contributions by Ruurs, Rob and Van der Watering, Willem),1978
c. 1665-1666 WHEELOCK, Arthur K. Jr. Vermeer; The Complete Works, 1997
1665-1667 LIEDTKE, Walter Vermeer: The Complete Works , New York, 2008
  1. The Procuress, 1656
  2. Vermeer is known to have painted landscapes, religious and mythological subjects, genre interiors, self-portraits and tronies
  3. Arthur K. Wheelock with contributions by Albert Blankert, Ben Broos, and , Jorgen Wadum, Johannes Vermeer, 1995