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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 Painting within Vermeer's Oeuvre

The Broader Context: Specialization Among Dutch Artists

It has been calculated that between  5 and 10 million works of art were produced by seventeenth-century Dutch artists. This astounding number can be explained by a widespread demand for art supported by purchasing power of prosperous middle class and naturally, a veritable army of artists and craftsmen. Prints, maps and copies of paintings could be found in many Dutch homes.

Not only could the more traditional religious, mythological and historical themes be bought or commissioned, but portraits, landscapes still-lives and genre themes were in high demand as well. Each category was subdivided into even more specific categories. Landscape painters, for example, produced naturalistic views of the Dutch countryside, cityscapes, winterscapes, imaginary landscape, seascapes and Italianate landscapes. The diversity of categories in Dutch seventeenth-century paintings was fostered by the fact that instead of painting to the order the few wealthy and powerful, painters were (for the first time in the history of Western art) producing whares commercially to individual buyers of different economic and cultural backgrounds receptive to pictures of all kinds of subject matter and a wide range of styles.

Prices were generally low since competition was fierce. In order to survive each painter had to secure himself a particular style to differentiate his work from others already available. Many painters depended on secondary sources of income to survive. Vermeer himself was not able to support his numerous family with his painting but depended on the generosity of his well-to-do mother-in-law. Since it took a very long time to become proficient in any of these categories, painters usually specialized in one area only.

Within this context Vermeer, like Rembrandt, were part of a minority of more talented Dutch painters who were able to create masterpieces in different categories.

Vermeer's Subjects

Vermeer is know to have painted religious and mythological  themes,1genre interiors, landscapes as well as bust length figures. The term "bust length figure" has been used since is not certain if these paintings were intended as true portraits or if they were so-called tronies. The religious and mythological paintings belong to Vermeer's  formative first years. He returned only once to a religious theme2 after he had begun to paint in the genre mode that was very popular in Delft as elsewhere in the Netherlands. It might be said that once the painter had discovered the expressive and perhaps commercial potential of subjects of contemporary life, he lost interest in the more traditional subjects. No still-lives or flower paintings are know by Vermeer's hand.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of three, or perhaps four bust length figures that have survived.3  He painted roughly the same number of landscapes. Two landscapes have survived but another unaccounted landscape is mentioned in the 1696 Dissius auction in which 21 paintings by Vermeer were sold.

The subject of the Girl with a Pearl Earring may be a logical extension of Vermeer's evident interest in female presence and activity.  In his paintings which contain figures, he represented  40 women and 13 men. The painting is perhaps pendant of the Study of a Young Girl, both are of very similar in composition and style ( for further discussion see A Pendant? ).  All three bust length figures - or four, if the Girl with a Flute is taken into account -  look out  of the painting directly towards the viewer. They may have been an attempt to explore the more intimate aspects of female nature. In the remaining compositions in which women are seen engaged in various activities, the artist seems not only interested in the women themselves, but their relation to social context as well.

Of all the bust length figures perhaps the Girl with a Pearl Earring  is the most engaging. At times it seems that the subject of the painting is not so much the woman we observe, but the relationship which she so acutely solicits with the viewer. This may be the reason for the immense popularity of the work. Vermeer makes us aware for human presence as in no other of his work

We do not know if the picture was ever sold during Vermeer's lifetime. In the inventory taken after the painter's death, two tronies, (Girl with a Pearl Earring can be easily identified a tronie) one with dressed in Turkish fashion were found in the kitchen. Although the two paintings were not described as by the painter's own hand, the fact cannot be excluded.

Some scholars believe that the three tronies are listed in the 1696 Dissius auction were part of the collecion which had come into Dissius' hands through his father-in-law Pieter van Ruijven who had bought the paintings directly from the artist. Since we do not know if the painting was intended as a portrait, we do not know either if Van Ruijven had commissioned the painting as a portrait, perhaps one of his daughters who was roughly of the same age as the sitter in the painting at the time when the artist had presumably painted the picture. It cannot be excluded that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was a study for the standing model in the Art of Painting. The strong resemblance between the  two models have  long noted and there exist other ties between the two paintings as well. (For further discussion of the argument click here.

In all likelihood we know less about the Girl with a Pearl Earring than we do about any other painting by Vermeer. The extremely suggestive quality of the work coupled with the almost unexplainable lack of knowledge regarding many aspects of the work may explain the world-wide popularity the painting enjoys.

  1. A lost painting ascribed to Vermeer called  Jupiter, Venus and Mercury belonged to the Dutch art collector Van Berckel in the early 18th century.
  2. Vermeer's late painting Allegory of Faith in the Metropolitan is the only such case in which the artist returned, perhaps reluctantly , to a religious theme.
  3. The Study of a Young Girl in the Metropolitan and the Girl in the Red Hat in the National Gallery are both considered authentic, while the Girl with a Flute in the National Gallery is believed to have been begun by Vermeer but finished by a later hand.