One of the artists whose work I’ve studied recently is Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. Little is known of his life, and he produced fewer than fifty paintings, yet he is now considered one of the masters in the world of art.
I began looking at Vermeer’s paintings primarily to see the way in which he used light and shadow. I became intrigued and wanted to know more about him and his approach to painting. As I went in search of additional information, I found many mysteries surrounding Vermeer and his work — as well as a bit of controversy.
Because he lived in relative obscurity, we have no quotes or commentary on art that can be attributed to him. We do have, however, many thoughts about his work. His work has also played a significant role in popular culture. Here are just a few references:
- Jan Vermeer, a rockabilly song by Bob Walkenhorst
- The Great Game, episode of Sherlock in Season One
- After the Funeral, Agatha Christie mystery (1953)
- Girl with a Pearl Earring, novel by Tracy Chevalier
I heard about Girl with a Pearl Earring — the novel, not the painting — on a PBS interview with the author, and I was fascinated. In addition to the novel, a film version was produced in 2003. I have yet to read the book or see the movie. I plan to change that now.
I mention the novel and the author because of this quote from Tracy Chevalier:
“There is so much mystery in each painting, in the women he depicts, so many stories suggested but not told.”
It’s true. When I view one of Vermeer’s works, I’m intrigued, not just by the interplay of light and shadow, but by the subjects themselves, their quietness, their simplicity. Indeed there is something about these subjects, especially the women. They do seem to have stories, yet we don’t know what those stories are. We’re left to wonder.
I look at The Lacemaker and wonder what thoughts are in her head. She seems so focused on her task.
Who is she? Is she making lace for a gown she will wear? Or is her lacemaking her way of earning a living? Perhaps her exquisite lace will grace the gown of a great lady.
Where is she working? The surroundings seem so dull and gray. Is she enjoying her work?
Oh, so many questions!
Although Girl with the Pearl Earring is probably Vermeer’s best-known and most-loved painting, my personal favorite has always been The Milkmaid.
I’ve always loved the colors, and again, I’ve been intrigued by this simple woman going about her daily chores. She seems pensive, and I sense so many emotions hidden beneath the surface.
Another picture I like is Young Girl Playing the Guitar. She, too, seems thoughtful and perhaps a bit wistful. Is that a slight smile on her face?
I wish I knew her story.
I wish, too, we knew more of Vermeer’s story as an artist. I would love to read his thoughts about art, to learn what advice he might give to aspiring artists, his comments on the world in which he lived.
Since his work was re-discovered in the late 19th century — prior to this many of his paintings were attributed to other artists — Vermeer has become recognized as a master artist by many. Yet many others have been critical of his work because of their belief that he used mechanical means and optics to produce his paintings. There is a theory — known as the Hockney-Falco Thesis — which indicates that Vermeer made use of many aids, such as curved mirrors, camera lucida, and camera obscura.
With careful measurements and other forms of analysis, Hockney and Falco have postulated that Vermeer — and many other artists — resorted to these mechanical aids to assist them in their art.
These ideas are explored — and then discounted — in the documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, by Tim Jenison. I’m adding this to my must-see list.
And if Vermeer did use mechanical aids…? In my opinion, so what! This, of course, opens up a debate that goes on today, and which has apparently gone on for centuries. Is it cheating to use a mechanical aid in drawing? Artists today can purchase many devices to assist with drawing — from tracing paper, to light boards, to projectors much like the camera lucida.
We use rulers, T-squares, protractors, and other mechanical means to produce accuracy in our drawings. Do these tools lessen our artistry? We have value scales, grid viewers, and other compositional tools at our disposal. Should we be faulted for making use of them?
Personally, I don’t care how Vermeer produced his works. My feeling is that even with the use of mechanical aids, a high degree of skill is still required to produce a painting such as Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window — or any of the other beautiful, yet mysterious works from Johannes Vermeer.
I will always look with awe at his paintings, seeing the simplicity within them, admiring the lights and shadows, and marveling at his use of color. I will always wonder about the men and women he painted and the stories they would tell if only we could meet them.
And from time to time, maybe now I’ll also wonder a bit about Johannes Vermeer and other artists of his day, and the means by which they produced their masterworks. Yet in the end, for me, it’s the results that matter. Again, no matter what devices may have been used, Vermeer could not have created his masterpieces without a high degree of talent, knowledge, and understanding of the principles of art.