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The blue cushion with decorative tassels in the foreground is a naaikussen (sewing cushion), a familiar object anywhere in 17th-century Netherlands. The naaikussen was made of a rigid material covered with velvet or cloth. Inside were a series of compartments that held the various accessories necessary for sewing. In Vermeer's rendition, a mass of red and white threads spill out suggestively from the the contraption's opening. Such cushions were frequently held on the young lady's lap as a base for her handiwork. A similar cushion appears in The Love Letter and in countless works of the time such as Gabriel Metsu's The Hubter's Gift.
Costume expert Bianca M. Du Mortier reveals that "from the 16th century onwards, the naaikussen was the symbol of the industrious, virtuous woman who occupied herself with needlework and did not waste her time on trifles. Moreover, surviving naaikussens have a lock at the front and it seems likely that these fitted sewing cushions were used to keep not just needles and threads but also jewelry. Some examples had elaborately decorated interiors, making them true luxury items. The ingenious construction of the more elaborate types comprises two identical halves made of wood. The fabric covering that joins the two halves is padded and secured with large stitches through regular holes in the wooden rim. As the lining is also made from a single piece of fabric, the two wooden 'trays' are as they were sandwiched between the two fabrics."
Simpler cushions were made primarily to be placed on the sewer's lap as a base for working.
The small parchment-covered book lying on the table has been variously identified as a prayer book, a small Bible (in this context, the Holy Bible would symbolize domestic virtue which was a fundamental concept in Dutch civil life) or most likely, a pattern book. The feather-like forms which are in front of it are most book ties although they are rendered with such artistic license that some writers saw them as feathers. As pointed out by the art historian Albert Blankert, a similar ribboned book appears in Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam 's picture of a lacemaker of c. 1660–1665 (Lacemaker and Patron), in which a standing gentleman, most likely a customer, is checking the accuracy of a young girl's lace by comparing it to a pattern book.
The earliest documentation of bobbin lace—Vermeer's lacemaker is clearly making bobbin lace—is the pattern book Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschn, by an author known only as "R. M." The Nûw Modelbuch was printed in 1561 by Christopher Froschower in Zurich. The pattern books testify that bobbin lace did not start simple and become complex: rather they show from the beginning complexity and variety of working methods. After these two works little was published until Isabetta Catanea Parasole's Speccio delle virtuose donne (The Mirror of Virtuous Women), published in Rome in 1595. Unfortunately, the early pattern books contain no working instructions so interpretation of the patterns is left to the lacemaker.
The lacemaker sits at a rather complicated piece of furniture, a triangular table, for lace making. The table's uppermost surface could be raised and lowered by inserting a peg into one of the holes in the leg with the knob top. The rectangular leg, crowned by a carved (detachable?) knob. No such device from Vermeer's time has survived and, according to Albert Blankert, only one other 17th-century painting shows a comparable but hardly identical construction.
This tapestry seems to have something in common one which appears in Vermeer's Love Letter and Astronomer. The floral pattern's slender leaves suggest that the carpet was not imported from the Far East but a tapestry produced locally in Belgium or the Netherlands. It is not out of the question that it was made in Vermeer's hometown Delft, which is known to have had prospering tapestry industry.
Delft boasted famous tapestry workshops; the most famous were those owned by Maximiliaan van der Gucht and François Spiering.
To exalt the expressive tension of the young lacemaker absorbed in her work, Vermeer drew up close to the subject eliminating all but a patch of blank white-washed wall behind her. However, even the unobtrusive presence of the anonymous wall may have had its own story to tell.
As the art historian N. Rodney Nevitt Jr. pointed out, in a passage of a pastoral romance by Johan van Heemskerck, Batavische Arcadia (Batavian Arcadia), a traveling young Dutchman tells of his travels in the Pyrenees where he stumbled upon an inn run by an expatriate Dutchman: "I was amazed to find there a neatness (in white-washed walls and other examples of Dutch cleanliness) to which my eyes had almost grown unaccustomed, for I had been a long time abroad." The Dutch were known, and often ridiculed, throughout 17th-century Europe for their obsessive cleanliness and it is believed the lime used in the paint of the walls was helpful to ensure the highest standards of hygiene in environments where beer and cheese were produced.
Vermeer's young lacemaker presumably wears a satin yellow garment with a lace collar. The collar is executed with such pictorial freedom that its decorative motif cannot be distinguished in any way although the artist was able to capture the material's transparency with amazing economy.
Although not a single sitter in Vermeer's paintings has been objectively identified, critics have asserted that at least some of them were members of his immediate family circle. Considering the probable date of this painting and the corresponding ages of the artist's eldest daughters Maria and Elizabeth, it would be normal that one of them posed for this picture. Sewing or lacemaking was part and parcel of the upbringing of a virtuous young Dutch woman. In any case, the facial features of the present figure compare favorably to those of fthe young lady bent over a letter in a work of the same period, the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.
The lacemaker's hairdo and falling locks, which costume experts tell us were in vogue for a limited number of years, confirms the date generally ascribed to the painting for stylistic motives. The dangling locks resemble those of the Young Woman Seated at the Virginal painted in the same years.
Many writers have pointed out the absolute economy of drawing and tone of Vermeer's late work, where form is brought to the limits of abstraction.
Perhaps one of the most commented passages in Vermeer's oeuvre is the red and white threads that issue from the opening of the sewing cushion. The threads have been rendered so freely that if one had not seen them within the context of the painting, they might not be recognizable and must have appeared even more so to Vermeer's contemporaries.
Such a dramatic, and perhaps illogical, distortion of reality finds few parallels in Dutch fine painting of the time. The threads appear wildly out of focus with respect to the two tight threads of the girl's work and a fine blue thread that twirls on itself against the front of the carpet-covered table. This phenomenon has been explained by the artist's presumed use of the camera obscura. The camera obscura, which is fitted with a single lens, has a very narrow field of depth which might produce an image similar to Vermeer's unusual rendering. To further support this hypothesis, the presence of curious sequin-like highlights, in photographic jargon referred to as "halations" or "disks of confusion," are clearly visible in various passages of this work.
Although we cannot see exactly what kind of lace the girl is making, it is possible to draw some conclusions from her tools which Vermeer has rendered with sufficient precision. The girl rests her hands on a rather flat, light-blue lacemaking pillow, nowadays called a "cookie-pillow" owing to its round form. This kind of pillow served to make shorter pieces or stripes of lace. Another long, thick, tube-like "bolster-pillow" was frequently employed to produce yardage (long strips of lace) but does not seem to be the case in Vermeer's work.
The light brownish pricking card (patroon or kantbrief) is partly visible, fixed on the blue pillow. In former times it was made of parchment. Although they are obviously not visible, little holes were pricked onto this card to establish the desired pattern. Pins were inserted carefully into every hole around which the threads were adroitly entwined. The preparatory phase was, and still is, very time-consuming work requiring complete concentration in order to avoid any mistake that would afterward compromise the whole work.
The little silvery pins with their globular reflections—they closely recall an optical phenomenon produced by the camera obscura called "halations" or "disks of confusion"—are visible quite well in Vermeer's rendering even though they have been somewhat abstracted. Around these pins, the threads, fed by the bobbins, are interwoven and crossed according to the desired pattern. The principal movements are the "twist" and the "cross," but there are numerous other techniques.
The achievement of Vermeer's maturity is complete. It is not open to extension: no universal style is discovered. We have never the sense of abundance that the deptiction of jewels of his century gives us, the sense that the precious vein lies open, ready to be worked. There is only one Lacemaker: we cannot imagine another. It is a complete and single definition.
Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, 1952
inscribed upper-left on the gray wall: IVMeer (IVM in ligature)
(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015
(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).
The support is a slightly open, plain-weave canvas with a thread count of 12 x 12 per cm. The canvas has been glued onto an oak panel measuring 23.9 x 20.5 cm. X-radiography shows line of tack holes and cracks from former fold lines at the left and right edges. Strainer bar marks are evident also at the sides 2 cm. from the fold lines. Along the top edge the line of cracking is 1.4 cm. from the edge of the canvas and along the bottom edge 2 cm. Assuming that the strainer bars were of equal width, this would suggest that only the tacking edge has been removed from the bottom edge and the tacking edge plus 6 mm. from the top edge. This would give original measurements of 24.5 x 19.3 cm. making the painting slightly narrower and taller than at present.
The thin, gray-brown ground contains chalk, lead white, and umber. The red; pink and light blue areas were painted wet-in-wet. Brushmarks impart texture to the background paint, and impasto touches are found on the highlights. X-radiograph shows a pentimento: the knee was lower so that a triangle of wall was visible under the tabletop. The blue in the tablecloth is discolored. The flattened tacking edges along the left and right sides have been retouched.
* Johannes Vermeer (exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis - Washington and The Hague, 1995, edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.)
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).
(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).
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Domestic imagery in painting began to be produced with great frequency only after the Treaty of Münster in 1648, a period of tremendous affluence, which led to an increase in awareness of civility that self-conscious cultivation of grace and status. In painting, people were no longer represented as mere stand-ins for gods, mythological and historical figures, but as real people in real settings engaged in real activities.
According to the writer Simon Schama, the Dutch culture of the 17th century was a conflict between home and world. In response to their own commercial successes, they invented the "cult of housework," an ideological elevation of domestic work to an almost sacral status. Numerous prints, manuals, and sermons contributed to the process of sanctifying the home as a refuge against the incursions of market values. No aspect of daily life was considered too insignificant to be portrayed, whether strumming a lute in solitude, reading a letter or quietly making lace. However, the Dutch often attached moral values (frequently contradictory) to each of these activities so that the painting could not only delight the eye but nourish the soul as well.
Embroidery, like lacemaking, was traditionally shown in representations of the Education of the Virgin. In Dutch literary and pictorial traditions sewing and lacemaking were associated with fundamental values of Dutch culture, industriousness and domestic virtue. Women belonged in the home, doing needlework, taking care of the household, and looking after the children.
The Lacemaker, therefore, pictures an ideal: an industrious woman in a tidy house. While engaged in work rather than leisure, her elaborate hiardo and elegant satin dress seem to be more in-keeping with middle or upper classtastes. However, there can be little doubt that her diligence will preserve her virtue.
One of the greatest extravagances in the history of clothing was lace, of Europe's ancient crafts. Lace is an openwork fabric, patterned with open holes in the work, originally made by hand but now by machine. The open holes can be created by removing the threads or cloth from a previously woven fabric, but more often open spaces are created as part of the lace fabric. True lace was not made until the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Until the time of Queen Elizabeth of England lace was not common. True lace is created when a thread is looped, twisted or braided to other threads independently from a backing fabric. All lace was handmade and very expensive. It was made from many fibers such as cotton, silk, and flax as well as metallic threads like gold, silver, copper, and even hair. In Vermeer's painting, we can clearly see that the girl is making bobbin lace. As needle lace is to embroidery, bobbin lace is to weaving. In bobbin lace, the threads are plaited, twisted and interwoven. The solid parts resemble woven cloth.
Bobbin lace became more popular than needle lace because it was lighter in texture and it worked well in Elizabethan costume. It also lent itself to the manufacturing system of the day. Businessmen would purchase the raw materials and pass them out to home workers. They would get paid for each piece they completed. The businessman would sell the product and keep the profit. Bobbin lace, unlike needle lace, was made by men as well as women. Even fishermen in the "off-season" would make bobbin lace. The advent of machine lace at first pushed lace-makers into more complicated designs (ones that the machines couldn't handle) and then eventually pushed them out of business almost entirely. Bobbin lace is also known as bone-lace. The name bone-lace comes from the fact that some bobbins were formerly made of bone. The collar worn by Vermeer's lacemaker is presumably made of lace although it has been painted with such economy that only its transparency transpires.
So what kind of lace may the girl in Vermeer's painting actually making? Of course, we must take to account that Vermeer most likely did not paint exactly what he saw with photographic precision. However, an educated guess would be that she is working on a rather short piece of lace, perhaps a geometric motif for non-continuous lace or a short stripe later to be attached to a piece of linen, for instance for a small tablecloth or runner or for a cushion. She is certainly not making a very complicated pattern or non-continuous lace, for which she would have far more bobbins at hand and would have probably used a "bolster" pillow.
From both an anthropological and architectural viewpoint, the home had acquired enormous importance in the second half of the 17th century in the Netherlands. Scenes of Dutch domesticity flourished and women were among the most frequently depicted subjects. They reflect concepts that were important to the Dutch culture such as family, privacy, intimacy, comfort and luxury. The new Dutch household had begun to be perceived as the realm and responsibility of woman while the public world, divided for the first time cleanly from it, belonged to the male.
Vermeer principally painted women engaged in cultivated leisure (playing musical instruments or letter writing or reading), perhaps, in order to emphasize their literacy (pictorial tradition suggests the letters his women read are about love but they also speak to a burgeoning ideal of the educated domestic woman). Only two times did he portray them working, in the early Milkmaid and the late Lacemaker.
According to a study made by Gary Schwartz and Trudy van den Oosten, working from a database of 3,340 Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish paintings, males comprise about 74% of the figures, women 19% and children 7%. Vermeer painted proportionately more women than his colleagues. However, unlike his colleagues, Vermeer represented no families, no children or no elderly people in his interiors.
Some authors have creatively asserted that "women dominated the life of Vermeer" citing along with the choice of the motifs of women in his painting, a domineering mother-in-law, a household of daughters and at least one strong-willed maid. Based on the treatment of his figures, others have psychoanalyzed him as a "person who is afraid of women" or as a "distant father." However, it is far more likely that the unusual proportion of women and the manner in which they are depicted reflect consciously elaborated artistic goals rather than psychological or personal motives. In more than one case, the known lives of some Dutch painters contrast with their preferred subject matter.
The art of Vermeer had a negligible influence on painters of his time and his name and work were almost entirely forgotten until the mid-19th century. Although widely considered a "painter's painter" in art circles of the early 20th century, his work continued to inspire few artists. Curiously, his apparently uncomplicated painting was praised more than any other modern artist by one of the most extravagant artists of all times, Salvador Dalí.
Dalí wrote: "the first time I saw a photograph of [Vermeer's] Lacemaker and a live rhinoceros together, I realized that if there should be a battle, The Lacemaker would win, because The Lacemaker is morphologically a rhinoceros horn."
One of Dalí goals was to "rescue" modern painting. His figurative mode and obsessive extolling of the Old Masters not only incited fellow Surrealists against him in the 1930s, but also later situated him in a diametric opposition to the avant-garde's penchant towards abstraction.
Throughout art history, artists had incessantly attempted to grasp form and to reduce it to elementary geometrical volumes. Leonardo always tended to produce eggs Ingres preferred spheres, and Cézanne cubes and cylinders. According to Dalí, all curved surfaces of the human body have the same geometric spot in common, the one found in this cone with the rounded tip curved toward heaven or toward the earth the rhinoceros horn!
After this initial discovery, Dalí surveyed his own images and realized that all of them could be deconstructed into rhinoceros horns.
Dalí also discovered what he termed "latent rhinocerisation" in the works of the Great Masters. According to the Spanish Surrealist, "The Lacemaker is a rhinoceros horn (or an assemblage of horns), and the rhinoceros' actual horn is, in fact, a Lacemaker. The painting triumphs over the living rhinoceros because it is entirely comprised of these animated, spiritualized horns, whereas the rhinoceros wields only the single diminutive horn/Lacemaker on its nose."
A copy of The Lacemaker had hung on the wall of his father's study and had obsessed Dalí for years. In 1955, he asked permission to enter the Musée du Louvre with his paints and canvas to execute a copy of The Lacemaker.
Dalí explained, "Up till now, The Lacemaker has always been considered a very peaceful, very calm painting, but for me, it is possessed by the most violent aesthetic power, to which only the recently discovered antiproton can be compared."
The faces in Vermeer's paintings are adequately painted, but they differ, and in a few cases, suffer, if closely compared to those of his close colleague Gerrit ter Borch, one of the Netherlands's most accomplished and financially rewarded painters. While Ter Borch's formal portraits strike us as refined but muted by the necessities of convention, the men and women who populate his genre interiors breathe true life. They evoke emotions that range from painful uncertainty and quiet desperation to unguarded expectation and solitude. His depictions of both the working class and haute bourgeois rival, albeit in an understated manner, the portraits of Rembrandt.
If we match up Vermeer's Lacemaker and Ter Borch's Spinner, both picturing women immersed in domestic labor, the difference in their treatment jumps immediately to the forefront. In Ter Borch's work, the activity of the spinner absorbs her intellect but she remains an individual. Her facial characteristics are treated with respect, warmth and dignity. For Ter Borch, the sentiments of his tangible sitter and the art of painting are equally precious.
On the other hand, in Vermeer's Lacemaker, the viewer's eye tends to scan the whole painting exploring bit by bit the curiosities of the composition of which the girl's face is but a part. We are artfully guided by the calligraphic and supremely confident brushwork, and by the dazzling compositional rhythms. The few facial characteristics the artist permits us to inspect are reduced to a pattern of dark and light patches, barely continuous in their modeling. The direction of the girl's gaze, the alignment of her fingers with the taught threads all converge on a single point where, knot after knot, her lace is being miraculously produced. We experience the wholeness of lacemaking, something beyond the individuality of the lacemaker herself. She remains visible yet ultimately intangible.
During the 17th century, the best opportunities for female painters were in the Netherlands. The majority of female painters were daughters of painters. Those who weren't were daughters of intellectuals or minor noblemen with ties to artistic circles. Many were eldest daughters or came from families where there were no sons so their father took an unusual interest in their careers. Most women painters either produced far fewer works or stopped painting altogether once they were married although this is also frequently the case when male painters married rich women.
Since women were not allowed to study the male nude, which was considered essential for painting large-scale history paintings with figures partially or completely undressed, women opted to work in the "lower" categories of painting like still life, genre or portraiture.
The Netherlands boasts two excellent female painters who were in high demand in their own times, Judith Leyster, who painted figures and genre interiors, and Rachel Ruysch, who produced works for an international clientele. Although in the work of both painters one may note a feminine touch (which we may or may not have noticed had we not been aware they were women) both seemed content to work (and prosper) within the traditional genre framework of symbolism or moralizing allegory, as employed by their male contemporaries. Thus, the real lives of women who painted are not effectively conveyed through their work.
Geertruydt Roghman, from an Amsterdam family of artists, is one of the few female painters who depicted domestic tasks from a woman's perspective. She is principally known for her original suite of five engravings, "Household Tasks," which comprises sewing, spinning, reading (?), cooking and cleaning cookware. The two subjects set in kitchens are unusual in that the solitary maids are seen from behind.
Roghman's prints present a sober, altogether unflattering view of domestic life. And her kitchen scenes are remarkable for the figures' complete lack of individuality and appeal. Did Roghman wish to underline the hardships of domestic activities? According to one writer, Roghman depicted women "as self-possessed subjects rather than patriarchally controlled objects. Hence, women do not perform their chores for the approval of male viewers." Objectively, it is hard to compare Roghman's themes with those of her male counterparts Vermeer and Gerrit Dou. Whatever the interpretation, we must bear in mind that prints were generally intended for a broad audience while Vermeer's works were made exclusively with individual collectors in mind.
In any case, in regards to Dutch art and literature, the home, the family, and the domestic role of the housewife was held sacred and lauded as the foundation of Dutch society in the period after 1650. Domestic labor, as such, was not disparaged. It is hard to imagine a more edifying treatment of female labor than that of Vermeer's Milkmaid or Lacemaker.
Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692–1766)
Concerto Armonico no. 5 [900 KB], A tempo comodo (con sordino)