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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

The Pearl

The young girl’s tear drop pearl hangs freely and motionless, “caught within a pool of recessive space.”1 Its form and substance are essentially defined by the thick white fleck of impasto2 which registers the same beams of light which rake across the girl’s face and turban and by the soft reflection that has gather up some of the light cast off by the intensely light band of the white collar below. The ovoid shape conveys the “experience of weight and volume,”3 qualities which are less appreciable in a spherical formed pearl. It is likely that a pearl of such dimension and form did not exist and that the artist had either represented an artificial one or that he deliberately exaggerated its dimensions, no feat for a painter of notable technical proficiency.

Vermeer's women are often associated with the pearls eleven of them wear, so much that his oeuvre itself has become synonymous with the pearl. In 1908 Jan Veth articulated a widespread sentiment while observing the Girl with a Pearl Earring: "More than with any other VEREMEER one could say that it looks as if it were blended from the dust of crushed pearls."

Pearls in the Seventeenth-Century

In the seventeenth-century pearls were probably an extremely important status symbol. "In 1660 Samuel Pepys (an English diarist) paid 4 1/2 pounds for a pearl necklace, and in 1666 he paid 80 pounds for another, which at the time amounted to about 45 and 800 guilders respectively." 4 At about the same time the traveling French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys had been shown a single-figured painting by Vermeer which had been paid 600 guilders5 and that he considered the price outrageous.

The Dice Players (detail)
Georges de la Tour

"Pearls are linked with vanity but also with virginity - a wide enough iconographic spectrum. The most beautiful pearl in Vermeer's work is undoubtedly that worn by the Girl with a Pearl Earring - a massive creation of highlights and shadows and obscure shadows. The largest know pearl with a perfect skin or "orient" had a circumference of 4 1/2 inches. Artificial pearls were invented by M. Jacquin in France around this time, thin spheres of glass filled with l'essence d'orient, a preparation made of white wax and silvery scales of a river fish called ablette, or bleak, but cultured pearls were also coming in from Venice. This girl of Vermeer's seems to be wearing a glass "drop earring" which has been varnished to look like an immense pearl; such earrings were currently fashionable in Holland, as we see in paintings by Van Mieris, Metsu and Terborch. But Vermeer's pearl is probably doubly artificial, having been enlarged to such a size by the painter's imagination and desire to adorn the girl with something spectacular." 6

A pearl of similar dimension and form can be seen in Dice Players by French painter, George de la Tour's (1593-1692) . De la Tour, curiously, has been called "the Vermeer of the night." Although the French artist's works had much in common with Vermeer's, there exist no evidence that either of the two may have been aware of the other's work.

Vermeer's Pearls

The drop, or tear shaped pearl seen in the Girl with a Pearl Earring, was portrayed in eight other canvases by Vermeer: Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Woman with a Lute, The Concert, A Lady Writing, Girl with a Red Hat, A Study of a Young Woman, Mistress and Her Maid, and Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. All of these pictures date from the mid 1660s on.

The drop, or tear shaped pearl seen in Girl with a Pearl Earring, was portrayed clearly in eight other canvases by Vermeer: Woman with a Pearl Necklace (8), Woman with a Lute, The Concert (1), A Lady Writing, Girl with a Red Hat (3 - 4), A Study of a Young Woman, Mistress and Her Maid (2),and Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (5 - 6). All of these pictures date from the mid 1660s on.

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  1. Edward Snow, A Study of Vermeer, 1979, p. 19
  2. Impasto is a thick opaque layer of paint whose irregularities catch light more than the surrounding layers of even paint and attract the eye. Painters used impasto either to heighten the sense of light or the sense of a specific material texture. Note William Kalf’s impasto treatment of the lemons which appear in his dramatically light still-lives. The impasto appear to emulate their characteristic irregular surface.
  3. Edward Snow, ibid. p. 21
  4. Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, New Haven, 2002, p. 166
  5. In his travel diary, Balthasar de Moncoys registered:" In Delft I saw the painter Verme(e)r who did not have any of his works: but we did see one at a baker's, for which six hundred livres had been paid, although it contained but a single figure, for which six pistoles would have been too high a price." Simply put, de Monconys thought the painting he saw was worth less than a tenth of the price mentioned.
  6. Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft, New York, 2001, pp. 123-124