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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

Portrait or Tronie ?

A careful consideration of the Girl with a Pearl Earring gives rise to the question of how far the painting is to be taken as a portrait. P. T. A. Swillens, who compiled the first exhaustive study of the artist's life and work in 1950, believed that one of the most important characteristics of a seventeenth-century portrait was its likeness and although we can no longer judge of this anymore, the face would not be called a beauty in an aesthetic sense. Swillens writes that Vermeer made no attempt to idealize her. Contemporary scholars are not in agreement on the subject. According to Arthur Wheelock the painting is an "idealized study" which reveals Vermeer's "classical tendencies" while Walter Liedtke rejects the Vermeer's "classical tendencies" altogether. Rather, "in Vermeer's work "the restrained emotion and contemplation had nothing to do with Poussin or "Neo-platonic" concepts," but were, more simply, consistent with the local artistic tradition and character of Delft." 1

The Tronie

"The now defunct term (tronie) refers to heads, "faces," or "expressions" (compare the French trogne, or "mug") and to a type of picture familiar from many examples by Rembrandt and his followers. The majority of Dutch tronies appear to have been based upon living models, including the artists in question or a colleague, but the works were not intended as portraits. Rather, they were meant as studies of expression, type, physiognomy, or any kind of interesting character (an old man, a young woman, a "Turk," a dashing soldier" and so on). Garments that looked foreign, "antique," costly, or simply curious were of interest for their own sake and frequently offered opportunities to show off painterly techniques."2 In the seventeenth century there was an avid market for such studies, which were considered a separate genre (although for an artist they also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings.

The Portrait

Tronies, were in effect, paintings made and sold for the open market. The artist was entirely free to choose the sitter, dress and technique. A true portrait is quite different matter. As R. H. Fuchs has pointed out, " category in pictorial art is so conservative as portraiture. A portrait is not just a likeness of an individual to be preserved for posterity; it was also an image of pride, a projection of social position. A man who wants his portrait painted cannot but attach a certain importance to himself, in whatever sense, and he is not likely to take chances; he is concerned about his appearance. Normally, and the history of portraiture testifies to this fact, he opts for the classic formula - the formula which has proved its efficiency." It is all too obvious that it was the commissioner had a fundamental role in determining the painting's final aspect. He choose the sitter, attire, dimension, technique and often the type background and surroundings props as well. The painter's role was essentially to give life to the clients' vision of himself through the technical and expressive means which had initially attracted the client's attention to the artist. The above considerations would seem to rule out that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was intended as a portrait.

Vermeer's Tronie

Vermeer is known to have painted three tronies. John Larson was a Hague/London sculptor who in an inventory drawn up in August 1664 had a painting described as "a tronie by Vermeer." It was valued at 10 guilders. In the Dissius auction of 1696 in which 21 works by Vermeer were sold, two of the paintings were described as tronies, The relative part of the catalogue is reproduced below.

38. a tronie in antique dress, uncommonly artful, by the same (Vermeer).............36 guilders
39. another ditto (tronie) by Vermeer.................................................................17 guilders.
40. a pendant by the same..............................................................................17 guilders

The first tronie fetched 38 guilders while the other only 17 guilders The prices of the two paintings were low in respects to many of the other sixteen by Vermeer sold in the same auction, a fact which has lead some scholars to believe that the Girl with a Pearl Earring was not among the two tronies. The beauty of the painting, they argue, must have surely been evident to buyers present at the auction and it would not have been bought for a fraction of the price reached by the Milkmaid (item no.1 at 155 guilders), or Woman with a Balance (item no. 2 at 175 guilders.) However, Dutch buyers may have had a somewhat different perception of a tronie such as the Girl with a Pearl Earring and before spending their hard earned money, they may have considered more than just the work's esthetic value alone.

The Economic Value of a Tronie

It is not always a simple matter to determine in what manner Dutch paintings of different subjects and styles were evaluated in their own times. Enormous number of paintings were bought and sold, often as investments, creating a highly volatile market. English diarist John Evlyn noted that even peasants purchased works of art which they later sold at considerable profits at city fairs. Rembrandt, who had become wealthy as the most acclaimed portraitist of his time, was later to face grave financial difficulties when his manner was superceded by the more elegant French style practiced by some of his own far less talented students. Frans Hals, another popular portraitist, was given a stipend from his native Utrecht when he was no longer able to support himself financially.

In seventeenth-century Netherlands subject matter, technical sophistication and the complexity of composition of a painting had a bearing on price. This fact is clearly evidenced in a diary entry of the French art connoisseur Balthasar De Monconys who had paid a visit to Vermeer's studio in 1663. De Monconys wrote: "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 primarily on the basis of subject. For centuries classical, historical and religious themes had been considered the most appropriate for achieving painting's primary goal; that of elevating the human spirit. And although in Northern Europe, landscape, still-life and portraiture had gradually become more independent from didactic and ethical questions and were begun to be appreciated and collected in their own specific beauty, the weight of classical ideals were still felt. Scenes of every day life, called genre, had become increasingly popular in Holland and although the Dutch delighted in recognizing themselves and the world of the senses reflected in art, they introduced symbolic and allegoric meaning in the their compositions wishing to elevate the moral value of their work and perhaps appeal to a more affluent and educated patronage.

Vermeer himself began as a painter of classical and religious subjects and was no doubt aware of the aristocratic patronage and tastes of the nearby The Hague. His eventual patrons and clients formed a small, but closely tied cultural elite who were receptive to the use of symbolic meaning and complicated allegories which an evident component of many of his interiors.

Moreover, the quality, as well as the sheer quantity of detail, were greatly appreciated by connoisseurs of the time. Gerard Dou, a contemporary fijnschilder whose incredibly refined painting technique had secured him international fame and patronage, not only received and annual stipend from Pieter Siering Silvercroon to secure his patron first choice but also charged 6 guilders per hour, which added up to 600 to 1,000 guilders ( the price paid for a middle class Dutch home) for paintings with a single figure. The Girl with a Pearl Earring is noted in particular for its extremely broad manner of painting which can in no way be compared to typical rendering of the fijnschilder.

To modern eyes certain components of Vermeer's art such as perspective, which is today taken for granted, were quickly noted and highly appreciated in his own times. The young Dutch collector Peter Teding van Berckhout who visited Vermeer's studio was shown "curious and exceptional works" which he described in his diary as "perspectives." If we were to believe that one of the tronies Vermeer is known to have painted was the Girl with a Pearl Earring, it should not be too much of a surprise that it was not appreciated as it is today. Perhaps in the eyes of contemporary collectors, a tronie such as the Girl with a Pearl Earring, however esthetically appealing, lacked the pictorial, intellectual and moral complexities they generally associated with his art.

The relatively low evaluation of Vermeer's tronies may be deduced by other evidence found in the Dissius auction. Vermeer's tiny Lacemaker (9 1/8 x 8 1/4 in, 24.5 x 21 cm ) was sold for 28 guilders while one of the tronies went for 38 guilders and another for only 17. The extremely popular theme of lacemaking was widely recognized for its moralizing nature. It expressed one of the principle values in seventeenth-century Netherlands: domestic virtue. In the same auction a tronie by Rembrandt was sold for a mere 7 guilders and 5 stuivers. Although Rembrandt's style was no longer in vogue, his name certainly was more widely known than Vermeer's.

Four Tronies by Vermeer in Scale

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Study of a Young Woman

Girl with a Red Hat

Girl with a Flute
(attributed to Vermeer)

The Dissius Tronies

Some scholars believes that the pendant mentioned in the Dissius auction were likely to have been the Girl with a Flute and Girl with a Red Hat which are approximately half the size of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Other than their dimensions the pictures have many points in common which might indicate that they may have been conceived as a pendant. The two young sitters have a strong resemblance to each other, they both were exotic hats and the same drop pearls and are set against a tapestry in a chair with lion finials. Light enters from the left side of the picture caressing the left cheek, nose and chin of both figures. There are also technical affinities, both paintings are on panel and green earth is used in the shadowed portions of the face. However,Girl with a Flute is not unanimously accepted as authentic although modern consensus seems to be polarized around the idea that it was begun by Vermeer and finished by a later hand.

Examples of Dutch Tronies

Frans Hals

Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn

Van Vliet

Rembrandt van Rijn

  1. Walter Liedtke,  Vermeer and the Delft School, New York, 2001, p. 138
  2. ibid.,  pp. 387-388