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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 Turban

Man with a Turban
Jan van Eyck

A Boy Wearing a
Turban and Holding
a Nosegay

Michael Sweerts
c. 1665-1656

The Archer
Van Vliet
c. 1640

The Cumaean Sibyl
c. 1610

Guido Reni

"Turbans were a popular fashionable accessory in Europe as early as the 15th century. During the war against the Turks, the remote way of life and foreign dress of the 'enemy of Christendom' proved to be very fascinating."1Vermeer, as well as many other European painters, had obviously enjoyed introducing an exotic note in their paintings and welcomed the possibility to show off their technical prowess.

The appearance of the young girl's Turkish turban within the context of Vermeer's seemingly quintessential Dutch oeuvre should not come as a complete surprise. Other objects of Turkish origin may be associated with the painter. Some of the carperts which appear as table coverings in Vermeer’s interiors (contemporary painters rarely represented these precious imports lying on the ground where in reality they were usually placed) are of Turkish origin. They must have been appreciated for their sensual floral motifs and the large mass of warm red color both which which enlivened and otherwise chaste geometrical interiors.

Furthermore, in the inventory (29 February, 1676) taken shortly after the artist's death was listed: "a Turkish mantle of the aforesaid Sr. Vermeer," "a pair of Turkish trousers" and "a black Turkish mantle" all in the "great hallway" of his house. Some scholars have suggested that the two tronies (see Portrait or Tronie? for a full discussion of this term) in “Turkish dress” found in the kitchen could possibly have been by Vermeer's hand.

Although Vermeer’s painting clearly belongs to the Northern tronie tradition, the young girl’s turban belongs to a long line of European paintings in which fanciful turbans played a key iconographic or decorative role. One of the most illustrious depictions of the turban is Jan van Eyck’s Man with a Turban (1422) ,which is believed to be a self-portrait. “In Italian art in the first half of the seventeenth century, Domenichino, Guercino and Guido Reni, representatives of the highly influential Bolognese school, painted highly-colored half-length figures wearing turbans (though in most cases, female, and intended as prophetesses or sibyls).2 In the Netherlands as well, Persian and Turkish fashions had captured the imagination of many artists and a variety of turbans make their appearance regularly in a number of artists' works including including Rembrandt and Michael Sweerts, who seems to have had a penchant for this particular headgear.

In particular, scholars have recently called the attention to Michael Sweerts’ A Boy Wearing A Turban and Holding a Nosegay, a revealing example of the Dutch tronie tradition, as a possible direct precedent to the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Sweert’s, painting dates ca. 1655-1656 or about ten years before the Girl with a Pearl Earring was presumably painted. The out of the ordinary garb, the black background (typical of Sweerts) and the curious turban coupled with the distinctive blue light/yellow color scheme may have indeed struck Vermeer’s imagination. Painters of the time often borrowed novel motifs from one another and Vermeer scholars generally believe that Vermeer systematically drew upon fellow genre painters for both his themes and compositions. Albert Blankert, one of the most reliable authorities on Vermeer’s art, furnished ample evidence of the fact that the derived most of his genre subjects from well-established iconographic traditions. 3

Even though Vermeer may not have met Sweerts personally, his paintings were in Holland by the 1660s. When in 1663 the Baron de Monconys visited the Delft baker van Buyten in order to see one of Vermeer’s paintings, his companion was a painter from Brussels, Louis Cousin. Sweerts and Cousin were neighbors in Rome in the mid 1650s and both worked for the Pamphilj, the family of Pope Innocent X. Cousin might well have discussed Sweerts with Vermeer at this meeting. In fact, Sweerts lived in Amsterdam from 1660-1661 and there added to his paintings of young men and women set close to the viewer against dark, indistinct backgrounds, with vivid, moist eyes staring out of the picture plane. Wheelock has suggested that Vermeer himself could have rather conveniently seen Sweerts’ paintings in Amsterdam because of the many contacts Vermeer had there. 4

Artists must have obviously delighted at the chance show-off their talents in rendering massive brightly colored turbans atop the heads of their models. However, the type of turban worn by Vermeer’s young girl is so unusual that no reasonable comparison has been found in the context of European painting. It is composed of two parts. The tightly wrapped piece of striking ultramarine blue material, accentuates, rather than conceals, the oval shape of girl’s head. The pendant, which is curiously knotted at the top of the girls head, falls almost vertically acting as a visual anchor the girl’s turning gesture.

It is likely that the piece of fabric used for the pendant of Vermeer’s makeshift turban , whatever its proper use may have been, appears in other pictures by the artist. Its material and the light yellow color with a blue border color seem to be very comparable to the one seen draping from the still-life in The Art of Painting. It is difficult to make an precise idea of its material. It is rendered too summarily in the Girl with a Pearl Earring, but if we are to judge by the rendering in the Art of Painting (if it is in fact the same one) it appears to be made of some kind of reflective cloth, such as silk or caffa which was used for interior decoration. Vermeer’s own father had been trained to work in caffa. Although described very dryly with no hint of its texture, the same piece of cloth may also be seen hanging from the chair in the right foreground in The Love Letter and from the table of The Allegory of Faith. 5

  1. Norbert Schneider, Jan Vermeer 1632-1675: Veiled Emotions, Cologne, 1994
  2. Guido Jansen and Peter C. Sutton, Michael Sweerts: 1616-1664, Zwolle, 2002, p. 144
  3. Lawrence Gowing, the author of one of the most penetrating studies of the artist, clearly states: "it would be hard to find a theme of any boldness in his work which is not based on a precedent; inquiry multiplies the evidence that the majority of his figure motifs were directly derivative." Albert Blankert as well, has furnished ample evidence of the fact that Vermeer derived most of his genre subjects from well-established iconographic traditions.
  4. Arthur Wheelock, Johannes Vermeer, (with contributions by BLANKERT, Albert, BROOS, Ben, and WADUM, Jorgen), 1995
  5. Although far less evident, it may have made a very understated appearance on the table of the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.