Thursday, April 7, 2011

40 Days of Artists: Vermeer

Second to Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer is the most renown of northern masters in 17th century painting.  He was also one of the slowest paced painters to have ever lived.  Vermeer clearly had a lot of patience and methodical discipline when it came to painting.  Only about 40 paintings by Vermeer exist today. 
This is understandable, knowing how he worked.  Each painting would be worked up in layers that he would allow to dry before putting on the next layer.  The majority of the modeling for many of his portraits was likely done with a mannequin, since certainly no model would be able to pose in the time that it took Vermeer to complete a work.  Though his pace was slow, the results were some of the greatest pieces of Flemish Baroque painting. 
With only a brief visit to the Hague in the 1670s, Vermeer remained in his native Delft throughout his career.  The setting for many of his paintings was right in his studio, showing the famous natural light shining through the windows and the checkered floor pattern seen in a number of works.  Some of his greatest works that are featured in this room are The Milkmaid and Woman with a Water Jug.  But many consider his landscape View of Delft to be his masterpiece.  The majority of this painting consists of a cloudy sky with a hint of blue peeking through the clouds.  It presents a very idealized view of his hometown
But it really is Vermeer's portraits of typical, day-in-the-life scenes of his domestic servants that seem to be the most intriguing.  Perhaps one of Vermeer's most mysterious paintings is the portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring.  It is believed that there is a religious significance associated with the large pearl earring - that it represents the "oriental pearls of the gospel" according to Francis de Sales' Devout Life.  The pearls in this case being "chaste words."  The portrait is also thought to have probably been painted on the occasion of the sitter's marriage.
There are no known drawings from Vermeer, and it is pretty well certain he did not do any underdrawing for any of his paintings.  It is almost certain, however, that Vermeer used optics to capture the exquisite details of his paintings, specifically with use of a camera obscura.  This device was basically a projector in the 17th century that used natural light and a lens to project a full color image onto his canvas.  Many artists, even before Vermeer, are thought to have used optics similar to this to capture accuracy of detail - particularly the northern Renaissance master Jan Van Eyck.

Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Pearl Earring
oil on canvas
47 x 40 cm.
c. 1665

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