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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 Signature

Girl with a Pearl Earring, signature

The signature of the Girl with a Pearl Earring is located on the upper left corner. It was painted with a lighter toned pigment over the dark background but is usually not visible in reproductions. Vermeer used light toned signatures in other paintings as well. The style is comparable to other signatures by the artist. Although the pigments of the signature cannot be analyzed the Mauritshuis has always maintained that it is authentic. A complete table of existing signatures by Vermeer can be seen below.

Vermeer was baptized Johannes Vermeer. "His Christian name (or Joannis or Johannis) was favored over the prosaic "Jan" by Catholics and upper-class Protestants. Although several books are dedicated to "Jan" Vermeer, the Delft painter never used that name. His uncle Anthony had already adopted the surname Vermeer (a contraction of Van der Meer, "from the sea") by 1625." 1

The signature has been
graphically enhanced
in order
to show the position, form and
tone of Vermeer's signature
as it may have perhaps appeared

The characteristic monogram which precedes the rest of the signature of the Girl with a Pearl Earring is composed of three elements: the "I" , (which stands for the "J" of Johannes) inserted in the superior opening of the "M." The "M" forms both the "V" of "Ver" and the "M" of "Meer." In Vermeer's earlier signatures the artist had already sought to combine the "I" "V" and "M" in various ways. Towards the mid 1660s he seems to have definitively settled on the combination seen in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. The signature is proportionately larger than those of most other pictures by Vermeer. A very similar signature appears in the same position and is approximately the same tone on Vermeer's Study of a Young Woman in the Metropolitan.

Vermeer positioned his signatures in various ways. At times the signature is light in tone and placed on a dark background, at times the opposite. At times one has to search to find it hidden in some obscure angle of the composition and at times it jumps immediately to the viewer's eye. The prominence of Vermeer's signature in The Lacemaker recalls that of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. It is so evident that it becomes a part of the composition. To date, no systematic review Vermeer's signatures had been undertaken.

From a purely speculative point of point of view, the vertical "I" which plunges into the ""V," may perhaps suggest underlying erotic tones which more than one scholar have noted in Vermeer's paintings. It would be interesting to submit the signature to a graphological examination.

Vermeer's Signatures

1. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
2. Diana and Her Companions (this signature has almost completely disappeared)
3. A Maid Asleep
4. The Procuress
5. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (this signature has become very faint)
6. The Little Street
7. The View of Delft
8. The Music Lesson
9. The Glass of Wine
10. Woman with a Lute
11. Girl with a Pearl Necklace
12. Woman Writing a Letter
13. The Lacemaker
14. Girl with a Pearl Earring
15. The Art of Painting
16. Girl with a Red Hat
17. The Astronomer (this signature is very doubtful)
18. The Geographer (inscription doubtful)
19. The Love Letter
20. Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid
21. Study of a Young Woman
22. A Lady Standing at a Virginal
23. A Lady Seated at a Virginal
  1. Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the Delft School, New York, 2001