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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

The Garment and The White Collar

The Yellow Garment

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail)

The yellow garment worn by the young girl is unique in Vermeer's oeuvre and is, from a technical point of view,  probably one of the painter's most generalized renderings. The broad vigorous brushstrokes suggest rather than clearly define the heavy folds of what would appear to be a cape or a loose-fitting garment of rustic cut mad e of course fabric.

P.T.A. Swillens in 1950 suggestively accounted for the young girl's dress in the following manner: "The blue-yellow  head covering  of the portrait in The Hague and the yellow cape (?) round the shoulders are not usual wear for those times. It is a special dress, which suits children and which children delight in, just because it is unusual and different and attractive in colour. Just with such a fancy-dress children betray that they are still childish." From a pictorial point of view, the apparent three dimensional solidity and chromatic weight of the garment, however, anchors the bust solidly to the base of the composition and provides a pedestal for the exceptional luminosity and delicacy of the young girl's expectant expression. 

The White Collar

Although the stark white collar presumably represents some kind of undergarment, it has been painted with such daring simplicity that it is impossible to comprehend either its cut or fabric. Nonetheless, it plays a fundamental role in the aesthetic equilibrium of the painting's composition and seems to delimit the above and below: the mind and the body. What is truly surprising about this slash of solid white paint is that it was applied so deliberately and is almost identical in shape, position and function to model's collar in the Art of Painting. In both picture it serves as a kind of visual hinge which connects the head and bust while at the same time permitting them independence and freedom of movement. The flesh tone of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is surrounded by the absolute black of the background and pure white of the collar, vibrates against the brilliant ultramarine blue of the the turban. The pictorial and expressive subtleties young girl's face, purity of tone and clarity of modeling would have been less evident had it had been in direct contact with the heavy yellow earthen tone of the garment. 

Unfortunately, the collar of the Girl with a Pearl Earring has lost much of its original character. The thick impasto paint (white lead) which Vermeer had originally applied has been flattened by relinings in which heavy hot irons were used to make a new canvas adhere to the older deteriorated one.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail)

The Art of Painting (detail)