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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

A Pendant?

Although various scholars are doubtful that Vermeer intended the Girl with a Pearl Earring and A Study of a Young Woman as a pendant, the two pictures reveal both striking and subtle similarities. Walter Liedtke, noted that "the paintings appeared more consistent in quality and immediacy than one have might imagined when the two works were place side by side during off-hours of the 1982 Mauritshuis exhibition." 1

Study of a Young Woma, Johannes Vermeer

A Study of a Young Woman
c. 1665-1776,
oil on canvas
17 1/2 x 15 3/4 in. (44.5 cm. x 40 cm.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring
oil on canvas
17 1/2 x 15 3/8 in. (44.5 cm c 39 cm.)
Koninklijk Kabinet van Scilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague

Both paintings portray a young woman who turns her head to look directly at the viewer set against a dark background, and each wears a similar large drop pearl earring and a elegant yellow scarf that falls behind her head. Moreover, the dimensions of the two paintings are almost identical. Both paintings were most likely regarded by contemporaries as tronies (see Tronies for in-depth discussion of the term) and it is known that Vermeer painted most probably painted three tronies, two of which were listed in the 1696 Dissius auction of 21 Vermeer paintings.

38. a tronie in antique dress, uncommonly artful, by the same .............36 guilders.

39. another ditto (tronie) by Vermeer.................................................17 guilders.

40. a pendant by the same................................................................17 guilders.

The doubts expressed by most scholars in regards are based on different stylistic subtleties, variations in illumination, the slight difference in dimension and mood. Indeed, some differences exist, but when confronting an artist of Vermeer's caliber, it may be unreasonable to think that he would have willingly restricted to such a degree his creative impulse for the sake of maintaining absolute uniformity of format.

Stylistically, both of the faces are painted in a similar manner, but differently than any other of Vermeer's rendering's of the female physiognomy. The unparalleled delicacy and accuracy of tone link the paintings conceptually and technically. Perhaps only the mistress seen in profile in the Mistress and Maid has been afforded similar attention. When compared closely, the contours of the two faces against the dark background are analogous in pictorial function and execution. The subtly blurred contour seems to be have been determined to the highest degree of perfection by the artist. The absolute economy of description and lack of line as a delimitating or defining element of form, constitute perhaps the esthetic raison d’être of the two works. In line's place, "effortlessly and automatically, tone bears the whole weight of formal explanation."  3

The different quality of light, more intense in the Girl with a Pearl Earring and more forgiving in the Study of a Young Girl, is dictated more by appropriateness in respects to the two different physiognomies rather than by divergent pictorial concepts. The dualism of light and human substance which the artist had addressed and partially reconciled in his earlier paintings has been entirely overcome in both of these pictures. Light has been transformed into humanity and humanity into light. In any case, Dutch painters did not adhere blindly to the pendant format and often took great liberties in the interpretation of the theme at hand. In a pendant by Ferdinand Bol (see below), which no doubt is a very conventional one, the illumination of the husband and wife are far more different than the Vermeer paintings.

In regards to mood, the simultaneous seeing and being seen of viewer and sitter, represented more actively in the Girl with a Pearl Earring and more passive in the Study of a Young Woman,  is far more purposeful than in any other of Vermeer's works and deserves to be considered another significant link between the two pictures. Again, if we observe a well know pendant (image below) by the  Dutch marine painter Van de Velde, it is obvious that an eventual difference in mood found in the two Vermeer's in question is not sufficient to disqualify them as pendants, for it is precisely the difference in mood which has become the subject of the two marine-scapes.

Although the dimensions of the two paintings differ slightly,  paintings were often cut down to be accommodated in different size frames after they had left the artist's studio. A  well know pendant paintings by Van der Velde (below) are not exactly the same height.

It would seem that the discrepancies brought forth by scholars who reject the idea of the paintings as pendants are present in other historically documented pendants of the time. Perhaps their arguments should not overshadow the many subtle and significant affinities of the two works by Vermeer.

Dutch Pendants

The word pendant comes from the Latin 'pendere', meaning to hang. A pendant is a counterpart: a painting intended to hang together with its pair. They are often of the same format and with identical frames. At times they were hung on the two sides of a door or fireplace.  By far the most popular subject of pendants were feature married couples such as those of Ferdinand Bol seen below.  However, Dutch painters were capable of conceiving pendants in a highly original manner as well. Van de Velde, one of the most refined of Dutch marine painters, depicted two ships in a completely different weather and lighting conditions. The word 'pendant' can also be used for sculptures, pieces of furniture and other objects that are made in pairs.

  1. Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, New York, 2000
  2. It could be argued that The Girl with a Red Hat and Girl with a Flute, due to their small size, might be more likely candidates for the pendant listed. In the same auction of 21 paintings by Vermeer, The Milkmaid  was paid almost the same sum as the much larger View of Delft, thus, size was not always be strictly correlated to price. Although there is no conclusive evidence to prove that one of the two tronie couples mentioned above correspond to the paintings listed in the sales catalogue, it is clear that Vermeer had, at one time or another, conceived tronies as a pendant.
  3. Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, London, 1952,p. 21