Essential Vermeer 3.0
Looking for a painting by Vermeer? Find it with QUICK SEARCH!

The Complete Interactive Vermeer Catalogue

The textual material contained in the Essential Vermeer Interactive Catalogue would fill a hefty-sized book, and is enhanced by more than 1,000 corollary images. In order to use the catalogue most advantageously:

1. Slowly scroll your mouse over the painting to a point of particular interest. Relative information and images will slide into the box located to the right of the painting. To hold and scroll the slide-in information, single click on area of interest. To release the slide-in information, single-click on the painting again and continue exploring.

2. To access Special Topics and Fact Sheet information and accessory images, single-click any list item. To release slide-in information, click on any list item and continue exploring.

The painting of the still life on the background wall

Vanitas Still Life, Pieter Claesz

Vanitas Still Life
Pieter Claesz
Oil on panel, 39.5 x 56 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

The still life painting in the background with a foreshortened viol da gamba by an anonymous artist may have been the one in Vermeer's death inventory described as "a bass viol with a skull." The skull is not visible owing, perhaps, to the poor state of conservation of this passage. Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning "Be mindful of death" and may be translated as "Remember that you are mortal," "Remember you will die," "Remember that you must die," or "Remember your death." It names a genre of artistic creations that vary widely from one another but share the same purpose—to remind people of their own mortality.

It is common knowledge that still lifes were part of the memento mori, or Vanitas, tradition that was very popular in 17th-century Netherlands. In the present work, scholars have interpreted the Vanitas theme as an admonition on the young woman's vain and flighty pastime: letter-writing. Critic Peter Sutton observed that letter writing being associated with vanity and transitory pleasure was well established in genre painting of the time. However, the self-aware smile of the young letter writer and the composed atmosphere that pervades this picture seems to be at odds with such a moralistic interpretation.


The "Spanish" chair

Officer and Laughing Girl (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Officer and Laughing Girl (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657–1660
Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 46 cm.
Frick Collection, New York

Two types of Spanish chair with lion-head finials appear in Vermeer's oeuvre: one with a gilt lozenge motif on black leather upholstery with oval-shaped finials and another with blue upholstery and slender finials. An identical chair with a lozenge motif was represented in the earlier Officer and Laughing Girl (detail left) and Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. Some scholars have attempted to attribute the lion-head motif symbolic meaning. One writer went so far as to see in the tiny hand-carved lion heads signs of latent male aggression. Recalling Freud's famous quote "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," it may be that sometimes a chair is just a chair, even if it was painted by Vermeer, also given the great number of times such chairs were represented in Dutch interior painting.

A number of experts believe that the telltale pointillés, or sequin-like dots of light paint scatted on the intricately carved lion-head finials, are artifacts of the camera obscura. However, even this theory has its detractors. Walter Liedtke was critical of attributing too much importance to the camera obscura in respects to Vermeer's working methods. He stated that the presence of the optical effects similar to those produced by the camera obscura "in no way implies that the artist who produced them must have used a camera obscura. It simply attests that the painter was very attentive to phenomena involving light and applied himself to transcribing them in his work as faithfully as possible."

In any case, nine red Spanish leather chairs (negen roo spaensleere stoelen) were listed in the Great Hall during probate inventory of Vermeer's home.

Curiously, behind the chairs appears to be a dark flat object presumably tilted against the wall that no one has yet identified.

The blue tablecloth

A similar blue cloth may be found in other paintings of Vermeer such as the Woman Holding a Balance and Woman with a Pearl Necklace, where it is piled up in mountainous folds. In the present picture, the folds are less dramatic and thus in keeping with the serene atmosphere of the picture. The folds struck the incoming light quietly reverberates against the pale lemon-yellow of the ribbon of the string of pearls creating one of the most suggestive chromatic statements in the artist's oeuvre.

Is this painting a portrait?

A Lady Writing (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Some writers have proposed that the turned head of the young woman indicates that the painting was intended as a portrait. Moreover, Vermeer seems to have taken more care to individualize the woman than usual. Her head is set in the middle of the canvas and the composition is arranged to reinforce the face as the psychological center. More than one writer has suggested that the model may have been Vermeer's wife Catharina Bolnes, although there is no objective evidence to back up such a claim.

The young lady's hairstyle with braided chignon and ribbons tied in bows formed like stars was popular in the third quarter of the 17th century, particularly after the early 1660s. This information helps experts date the painting to the mid-1660s since, like many works by Vermeer, this canvas is signed but not dated.

The ebony jewlery box

A Lady Writing (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Both the ebony box, with its decorative panels and studded nail heads, and the metal writing set behind it are also found in Vermeer's later Mistress and Maid. Similar objects were featured in other genre interiors of the period. Vermeer expert Lisa Vergara suggests that Vermeer, Gerrit ter Borch and many other genre artists of the time constructed their compositions from a repertoire of costumes and props retained by the artists themselves.

In the Netherlands, writing sets usually consisted of a plate with two small cup-like vessels with covers: one for the ink and one for the '"blotting sand" or pounce (later in the form of a salt shaker), as well as a quiver for the quills. More refined sorts of sets had one or two drawers to store the writing utensils (quills, pen-knife, signets and sealing wax).

The quill pen

A Lady Writing (detail), Johannes Vermeer

X-ray images of the present painting show that the quill pen was originally in a more upright position and that the contour of the hand which holds the pen was also altered.

Introduced around 700 A. D., the quill pen was the dominant writing instrument until the 19th century (replaced by the dip pen and later the fountain pen). Quills had to be sharpened frequently, using a special "pen-knife" and lasted about only a week. This is why paintings that portray lawyers or scholars in their studio often feature quill pens laying on the desk. A hand-cut goose quill pen provides a sharp stroke and more flexibility than a steel pen.

The strongest quills come from the primary flight feathers taken from living birds in the spring. The left wing was favored by writers because the feathers curve out to the right, away from the hand holding the pen. Goose feathers are most commonly used; scarcer, more expensive swan feathers are considered premium. Depending on the availability and strength of the feather, as well as the style of penmanship, other feathers used for quill-pen making include feathers from the crow, eagle, owl, hawk, and turkey. Calligraphers examine ancient manuscripts to see how many times the scribe sharpened his quill.

The structure of the quill was altered by standing it in hot sand for a period of time. The heat strengthens the feather's barrel making it more flexible. After it had slowly cooled the nib can be cut. Often the barbs of the feather were stripped off to allow the writer to grip the shaft more securely. The shaft acted as an ink reservoir and ink flows to the tip via capillary action.

Fine quality paper was made of wood, hemp and linen while coarser quality was made of rags of old clothing.

The string of pearls

A Lady Writing (detail), Johannes Vermeer

This string of pearls with a lemon yellow ribbon is almost identical to that which can be seen lying on the table in Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance. If carefully observed, the outer edge of each pearl has barely been delimited. Only the globular forms of the thick impasto highlights, called pointillés, tell us exactly where each pearl is located. The lack of a definite contour suggests the pearl's transparency while the roundness of the pointillés inform us of their reflective quality and their spherical form. Throughout his career, Vermeer experimented with various techniques to render the particular luminosity of pearls.

The white-washed walls

Perhaps the ordinary white-washed walls in Vermeer's paintings suggest meaning that is not apparent to the modern viewer. The art historian H. Rodney Nevitt pointed out that a 17th-century Dutchman who was returning from a long period of travel once remarked that he was happy to be at home once again within the comforting white-washed walls. Evidently, at the time such walls were uncommon outside the Netherlands.

The stark uneven walls present one of the most challenging pictorial problems in Vermeer's oeuvre. Observing similar renderings by Vermeer's contemporaries, the spectator cannot help but note the various tones of gray pigment used. Instead, in Vermeer's renderings, these same or similar tones appear inseparable from the play of light as it rakes across the uneven surface of the plastered surface—paint seems to disappear.

In this painting, the palette for the wall was simple as it is effective: finely modulated mixtures of white lead, umber and black. This simple formula for painting white objects was widely known.

What do the white-washed walls mean?

Perhaps the ordinary white-washed walls in Vermeer's paintings suggest underlying meaning of Dutch identity which is not apparent to the modern viewer. The art historian H. Rodney Nevitt pointed out a 17th-century Dutchman who was returning from a long period of travel once remarked that he was happy to be at home once again within the comforting white-washed walls which, evidently, at the time were uncommon outside the Netherlands.

The stark uneven walls present one of the most challenging pictorial problems in Vermeer's oeuvre. Observing similar renderings by Vermeer's contemporaries, the spectator cannot help but note the various tones of gray pigment used. Instead, in Vermeer's renderings, these same or similar tones appear inseparable from the play of light as it rakes across the uneven surface of the plastered surface—paint seems to disappear.

In this painting the palette for the wall was simple as it is effective: finely modulated mixtures of white lead, umber and black. This simple formula for painting white objects was widely known.

The fur-trimmed yellow morning jacket

A Lady Writing (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Many art historians and writers of the past believed that the candid fur trim of Vermeer's yellow jackets was made from ermine (taken from the animal called the stoat). However, Dutch costume expert Marieke de Winkel discovered that even in the inventories of the wealthiest women ermine was never mentioned. It is more likely that the trim was actually made of the more humble cat, squirrel or mouse. Whatever may be the case, by painting the faux spots on the trim the artist probably aspired to convey an atmosphere of refined luxury, and perhaps virtue, where true ermine would have been at home.

In Europe, ermine furs were a symbol of royalty and purity. The ceremonial robes of members of the British House of Lords are trimmed with ermine. A Renaissance legend had it that an ermine would die before allowing its pure white coat to be besmirched. When it was being chased by hunters, it would supposedly turn around and give itself up to the hunters rather than risk soiling itself.

Catharina's yellow morning jacket must have been cherished by the artist since it appears five times in his oeuvre, each time painted with unsurpassed delicacy. In Vermeer's death inventory of 1676 a "yellow satin mantle with white fur trimmings" was found in the "groote zael" (great hall) of the artist's home, which likely belonged to his wife. Notable is the fact that in the present painting the distribution of the black spots on the trim just below the figure's neck appear to correspond reasonably well to those of the Mistress and Maid (see comparison left) and the Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Such adherence to reality is astounding in the light of the fact that no one, perhaps even Vermeer's wife, would have know if the spots were painted correctly or not.

The gray gown

Gray gown

The hidden object

Although art historians have combed Vermeer's paintings millimeter by millimeter for decades in the search of hidden details that might contribute to our understanding of his work, it would appear that no one has ever noticed that the patch of wall to the right of the lady's chair ends far too high on the picture plane to be where the wall meets the floor. This most likely means that there is some sort of object set flush against the wall that has not been identified. Until recently even the best digital images revealed nothing in this area except for uniform dark paint. But the painting has been recently photographed using the latest ultra-high-resolution digital camera. Careful inspection reveals that the area is not blank but punctuated with barely visible but deliberate painted brushstrokes. They seem to suggest the decorative elements of some kind of object. Most likely Vermeer intended to portray some sort of object familiar to his contemporaries but over time is no longer understandable.

The signature

Facsimile of signature on Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing

Center left on frame of picture on back wall: IVMEER (IVM in ligature).

(Click here to access a complete study of Vermeer's signatures.)


c. 1666
Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1665–1666
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., The Public and the Private in the Age of Vermeer, London, 2000

c. 1665–1667
Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008

c. 1662–1665
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

(Click here to access a complete study of the dates of Vermeer's paintings).

Technical report

The ground appears to be a single layer of a warm, light ocher color, containing chalk, (plant?) black, red, and yellow iron oxide (perhaps burnt sienna and yellow ocher), and lead white.

The brushwork of the final paint layers is very thin, except in the lighter tones. Thicker paint has been used only in the form of rounded dots for the highlights. Two preparations of lead-tin yellow were used in the yellow jacket: one coarsely ground, and the other more finely ground and paler, used for the highlights on the shoulder pleats. X-radiography and infrared reflectography indicate that Vermeer made an alteration to the angle of the quill and to some of the fingers holding it.

* 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.)

The painting in its frame

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in their frames).

Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing with frame


  • (?) Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1674); (?) his widow, Maria de Knuijt, Delft (d. 1681);
  • (?) their daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven, Delft (d. 1682);
  • (?) her widower, Jacob Abrahamsz Dissius (d. 1695);
  • Dissius sale, Amsterdam, 16 May, 1696, no. 35;
  • J. van Buren, The Hague;
  • Van Buren sale, The Hague, 7 November, 1808, no. 22;
  • Cornelis Jan Luchtmans, Rotterdam (1808–1816);
  • Luchtmans sale, Rotterdam, 20 April, 1816, no. 90;
  • F. Kamermans, Rotterdam, by 1819;
  • Kamermans sale, Rotterdam, 3 October, 1825, no. 70 (to Lelie);
  • Hendrik Reydon et al. sale, Amsterdam, 5 April, 1827, no. 26;
  • François-Xavier, comte de Robiano, Brussels (1827–1837);
  • De Robiano sale, Brussels, 1 May, 1837, no. 436 (to J. Héris for the following);
  • Ludovic, comte de Robiano, Brussels (1837–d.1887);
  • Heirs De Robiano, Brussels (1888–1906);
  • [J. & A. Le Roy, Brussels, 1907];
  • J. Pierpont Morgan, New York (1907–d.1913, from G.S. Hellman);
  • his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr., New York (1913–1940);
  • Sir Harry Oakes, Nassau, Bahamas (1940–1943);
  • Lady Eunice Oakes, Nassau, Bahamas (1943–1946);
  • [M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1946];
  • Horace Havemeyer, New York (1946–1956);
  • his sons, Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., New York (1956–1962);
  • National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer (acc. no. 1962.10.1).


  • Brussels 1873
    Exposition de tableaux et dessins d'anciens maitres organisée par la société néerlandaise de bienfaisance à Bruxelles
    Musées Royaux
    76, no. 264
  • New York 1908 (1908 and 1909–1913)
    Loan to display with the permanent collection
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • New York September 25–October 9, 1909
    The Hudson-Fulton Celebration
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    137, no. 136
  • Rotterdam July 9–October 9, 1935
    Vermeer, oorsprong en invloed: Fabritius, de Hooch, de Witte
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
    37, no. 86a
  • New York April, 1939–October, 1940
    Masterpieces of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800
    New York World's Fair
    195, no. 399, pl. 72
  • New York 1940
    Loan Exhibition of Allied Art for Allied Aid for the Benefit of the Red Cross War Relief Fund
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    no. 6
  • New York 1941
    Loan Exhibition in Honor of Royal Cortizzos and His 50 Years of Criticism in the New York Herald Tribune
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    18–19, no. 17
  • New York 1942
    Paintings by the Great Dutch Masters of the Seventeenth Century
    Duveen Galleries
    89 and 159, no. 68, ill.
  • Raleigh (NC) 1943
    An Exhibition of Paintings by Living Masters of the Past
    Baltimore Museum of Art, The North Carolina State Art Society Gallery
    unnumbered catalogue and ill.
  • New York 1946
    Loan Exhibition: 24 Masterpieces
    M. Knoedler & Co.
    no. 15, ill.
  • Paris 1976
    Chefs-d'oeuvre des Musées des Etats-Unis de Giorgione à Picasso
    Musée Marmottan
    no. 18 and ill.
  • Leningrad 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Hermitage Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Moscow 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Pushkin Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Kiev 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Minsk 1976
    Zapadnoevropeiskaia i Amerikanskaia zhivopis is muzeev ssha (West European and American Painting from the Museums of USA)
    State Museum
    unpaginated and unnumbered catalogue
  • Tokyo 1987
    Space in European Art: Council of Europe Exhibition in Japan
    National Museum of Western Art
    no. 86
  • Leningrad 1989
    Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth-XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA
    Hermitage Museum
    no. 14 and ill.
  • San Francisco 1990–1991
    Great Dutch Paintings from America, Mauritshuis, The Hague
    M. H. de Young Memorial Museum
    no. 67, color ill., as "A Girl Writing a Letter."
  • Frankfurt 1993–94
    Leselust: Niederländische Malerei von Rembrandt bis Vermeer
    Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt
    no. 85 and ill.
  • Washington D.C November 12, 1995–February 11, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer.
    National Gallery of Art
    156–159, no. 13 and ill.
  • The Hague March 1–June 2, 1996
    Johannes Vermeer
    156–159, no. 13 and ill.
  • Washington D.C. November 24, 1999–February 6, 2000
    Johannes Vermeer: The Art of Painting
    National Gallery of Art
  • Kyoto January 30-April 4, 1999
    Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, Washington
    Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art
    no. 83 and ill.
  • Tokyo 1999
    Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, Washington
    Metropolitan Art Museum Metropolitan Art Museum
    no. 83 and ill.
  • Newark October 17, 2001–January 20, 2002
    Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt
    Newark Museum
    no. 108, fig. 108 (shown only in Denver)
  • Denver March 2–May 26, 2002
    Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt
    Denver Art Museum
    no. 108, fig. 108
  • Dublin October 1–December 31, 2003
    Love Letters: Dutch Genre painting in the Age of Vermeer
    National Gallery of Ireland
    no. 38, fig. 55 and ill. 181
  • Rotterdam October 23, 2004–January 9, 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century
    Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
    no. 69 and ill.
  • FrankfurtFebruary 10–May 1, 2005
    Senses and Sins: Dutch Painters of Daily Life in the Seventeenth Century
    Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie
    no. 69 and ill.
  • Pasadena November 7, 2008–February 16, 2009
    Vermeer's A Lady Writing from the National Gallery of Art
    Norton Simon Museum
  • Kyoto 25 June–16 October, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    Municipal Museum of Art
    no. 42 and ill.
  • Sendai October 27, 2011–December 12, 2011
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    Miyagi Museum of Art
    no. 42 and ill.
  • Tokyo December 23–March 14, 2012
    Communication: Visualizing Human Connection in the Age of Vermeer
    The Bunkamura Museum of Art
    no. 42 and ill.
  • Boston October 11, 2015–January 18, 2016
    Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer
    Museum of Fine Arts
    137, 151–52, 170, cat. no. 31 and ill.
  • Kansas City February 4–May 29, 2016
    Reflecting Class in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer.
    The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
  • Norfolk November 1-December 18, 2016
    A Lady Writing
    Chrysler Museum of Art
  • Paris February 22–May 22, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
    Musée du Louvre
  • Dublin June 1–September 17, 2017
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
    Musée du Louvre
  • Washington D.C. October 22, 2017–January 21, 2018
    Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
    Musée du Louvre
  • Washington D. C. October 8, 2022–January 8, 2023
    Vermeer's Secrets
    National Gallery of Art

(Click here to access a complete, sortable list of the exhibitions of Vermeer's paintings).

The painting in scale

(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).

Johannes Vermeer's A Lady Writing in scale

Portrayals of a "new woman"

Curiosity, Gerrit ter Borch

Curiosity (detail)
Gerrit ter Borch
c. 1660
Oil on canvas, 76 x 62 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Art historian Mariët Westermann pointed out that in the 17th century there was a sudden and unprecedented increase in first-person statements in the Dutch Republic. Diaries, journals, soul-searching poems, self-portraits and not the least, private letters and that "reading and writing have in common the capacity of independent thought associated with not only men but for the first time with the women who pose in Vermeer's painting. This mental ability is figured not merely by the theme of writing and reading or by averted gazes." However, it was not Vermeer who pioneered this way of representing the Dutch woman, but Gerrit ter Borch in a series of nuanced interiors where women began to receive the same intellectual and psychological regard that was hitherto afforded only to the male figure in the visual arts." Nonethless, Vermeer's elegant letter writer cannot be taken as the norm because, as Ann Jensen Adams pointed out, "a substantial proportion of 17th-century men and women were literate to some degree but fewer were able to compose a formal letter or craft letters in a fine hand."

Critics have often noted that women in Vermeer's paintings cannot be considered beauties in the conventional sense of the word. Their beauty derives from the way they are painted and from their elegant context. Lisa Vergara wrote that "the qualities that we attribute to Vermeer's work as a whole apply equally to the women they picture: paintings and personages share dignity, equilibrium, an exceptional vivid presence and abstract purity. The figures range from girlish to maternal, yet all are youthful, with high curved foreheads, features that evenly balance the individual and the classical, and simple believable postures. Their costuming—its coloring, shapes and associations—contributes so much to bodily construction and expression that the absence of nudes from Vermeer's oeuvre hardly seems surprising."

The "noblest emotions & desires"

Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, Samuel van Hoogstraten

A page from
Inleyding tot de Hooge
Schoole der Schilderkonst

Samuel van Hoogstraten
Rotterdam, 1678

To comprehend the artistic climate in which Vermeer worked, it is useful to consult prevalent art theory. In those times, it went without being questioned that history and the painting of human figures were the highest forms of art.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, who introduced the doctrine of the hierarchy of subjects to Dutch art theory in his Inleiding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkunst, wrote that the highest level (the third in his scheme) of painting was to show the noblest emotions and desires of rational human beings. In regards to portraiture: "Indeed, those portrait painters who make reasonable likenesses, and imitate eyes and noses and mouths all prettily, I would not wish to place...above the first grade, unless they make their faces overflow with the quality of the intellectual soul."

Vermeer's pearls

This young woman seems to be wearing a glass "drop earring" which has been varnished to look like an immense pearl. Such earrings were fashionable in Holland, and there are many examples of them in paintings by Van Mieris, Metsu and Ter Borch. Artificial pearls were invented by M. Jacquin in France around this time, thin spheres of glass filled with l'essence d'orient, a preparation made of white wax and silvery scales of a river fish called ablette, or bleak, but cultured pearls were also coming in from Venice.

Pearls are linked with vanity but also with virginity—a wide enough iconographic spectrum. In the 17th century, pearls were an important status symbol. In 1660 English diarist Samuel Pepys paid 4 1/2 pounds for a pearl necklace, and in 1666 he paid 80 pounds for another, which at the time amounted to about 45 and 800 guilders respectively (an average Dutch house might cost 1,000 guilders). At about the same time the traveling French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys had been shown a single-figure painting by Vermeer which had reputedly been paid 600 guilders and that he considered the price outrageous.

The largest know pearl with a perfect skin or "orient" had a circumference of 4 1/2 inches.

Vermeer & the "scholar portrait"

Portrait of Johan van Beverwijck (1594–1647) in his Study, Jan Olis

Portrait of Johan van
Beverwijck (1594–1647) in his Study

Jan Olis
Oil on panel, 25.7 x 20.5 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Although the intimate mood of this work is impressive, its compositional origin does not derive solely from conventional portraiture. Vermeer expert Walter Liedtke pointed out that Vermeer, "with his gift for creative synthesis, saw that a newly fashionable type of genre picture, which was evidently introduced by Gerrit ter Borch, could be modified expressively by adopting an arrangement familiar from Dutch and Flemish 'scholar portraits' such as Rubens' Caspar Gevartius (see Related Image no. 11), Van Dyck's Lucas van Uffel and Rembrandt's Portrait of a Scholar. The type was well known through prints and had been treated on small scale by several Dutch painters, as seen in Jan Olis's Portrait of Johan van Beverwijck in his Studio, of about 1640."

Vermeer's "still lifes"

Although we know not of a single still life painted by Vermeer, the informal still life grouping of the present work is considered among the artist's most delicate passages. Vermeer seems to have relegated his concerns about still life painting to the recess of the background wall in the form of a dark Vanitas. This anonymous work, which can barely be read today, very likely belonged to his mother-in-law Maria Thins. Most historians would concur that Vermeer would have never included in an arbitrary manner such a large element in his composition even though symbolic readings thus far proposed by art historians are not unanimous.

Vermeer may have shunned the still life genre altogether. According to Samuel van Hoogstraten, a painter and art theoretician who codified the hierarchical status of subject matter in painting, still life occupied the very bottom tier. He demeaned still-life painters as "the foot soldiers in the army of art." Although it might be admirable from a technical point of view, Van Hoogstraten held that still life did not require the artist to exercise his imagination the way history paintings or paintings of figures did.

Notwithstanding theoretical warnings, still life paintings far outstripped in number history paintings which Van Hoogstraten placed at the uppermost tier, history paintings, which he claimed revealed "the noblest actions and intentions of rational beings."

Lead-tin yellow: the queen of colors

A Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man, Jan Steen

A Young Woman playing a Harpsichord
to a Young Man
Jan Steen
c. 1659
Oil on oak, 42.3 x 33 cm.
National Gallery, London

If natural ultramarine blue may be considered the king of Vermeer's palette, lead-tin yellow would be justly called its queen. All of the yellow morning jackets were painted with lead-tin yellow and it was used as an admixture to modify the color of other paints. Lead-tin yellow is a thick grainy paint that brushes well and has great hiding power. It was one of the most common bright pigments being relatively inexpensive to produce as well.

Lead-tin yellow had several different names in the past. Italian manuscripts described a color, giallolino, which is identical to lead-tin yellow. The current name lead-tin yellow is self-explanatory. It is a result of heating a mixture of red lead and tin dioxide at about 650 C to 800 C. Warmer hues of yellow appear at the lower temperature, and more lemon-colored hues develop at the higher temperature. This pigment presents a fine uniform particle size with a strong opaque color, which makes it particularly suitable for paintings that demand precise execution. In the Netherlands, it was favored by flower painters as the base color for all yellow flowers. Due to its high lead content, lead-tin yellow is very poisonous. After 1750, it gradually disappeared, but there is no satisfactory explanation for this fact.

The conservator Melanie Gifford found that two different preparations of lead-tin yellow were used in the yellow jacket of A Lady Writing. Vermeer seems to have first modeled the strong lights with a coarser variety of lead-tin yellow and then refined the modeling and chiaroscuro with a finer one. Melanie Gifford of the National Gallery points out that Vermeer "textured the underpaint by using granular pigments and strongly marked brush handling. These textured passages of underpaint were used in the final image, where they draw the viewer's attention. The lightest passages are literally the most light-catching parts of the painting."

Vermeer mixed lead-tin yellow with various shades of blue to obtain greens of great delicacy. The green trompe l'œil curtain in the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window was made by combining lead-tin yellow and azurite. The same combination occurs in the green shutter in The Little Street.

Evoking form & space with paint

When compared to the startling range of paints available today in any art supply store, the 17th-century Dutch painter had to make do with a paltry few. Especially scarce were the so-called strong colors, or bright colors. Even the finest paints of those times cannot compare in brilliancy to the modern cadmium reds or yellows to say nothing of a dazzling array of artificially manufactured greens and violets that were introduced towards the end of the 19th century.

In order to expand the visual effects of their pictures and to enhance color intensity, 17th-century artists like Vermeer had learned to exploit not only contrast in tone and color temperature but the natural consistency, coarseness and transparency of paint. A vital role was also played by brushwork.

Painters knew that different paint consistencies evoke different kinds of space. Heavy impasto seems to advance toward the viewer and becomes "more real" while thin, transparent paint tends to recede and evoke atmosphere rather than substance. Thus, the bright passages of a painting, which generally corresponded to the most important parts of the composition, were executed in thick coarse impasto. Oppositely, the areas of shadows were done with thin paint in order to evoke the immaterial nature of shadow itself. By actively counterposing areas of impasto with thin paint, the picture's surface becomes more stimulating than if it had been painted with a continuous layer of homogeneous paint.

Such a juxtaposition can be noted in the Lady Writing. The yellow satin sleeves are built up with a coarse but pure lead-tin yellow. Brushwork, which defines the patterns of tuck and fold of the fabric is clearly visible. The combined effect of the impasto paint and the irregularities caused by the brush create a sparkling effect to which the eye is naturally drawn, augmenting the material presence of the garment. Instead, the deep gray of the background wall is painted with unmodulated paint so thinly that it leaves the brown underground peer through here and there.

Dutch light

The play of light on a Delft antique shop window

The play of light on a Delft antique shop window

Although the dim illumination of the present picture reminds us of the difficulties faced by the painter who worked there, with respect, for example, to southern European artists who enjoyed sunlight nearly all year around.

Perhaps, it is precisely because light was such a scarce commodity in the Netherlands that Dutch painters devoted so much of their talents to rendering its innumerable activities. Certainly, of all its practitioners, Vermeer was the Dutch artist who made light itself one of the principal subjects of his art.

Dutch weather was, and still is, characterized by heavy rain, intermittent drizzle and cloudy skies much of the year. Even on the sunniest days, rapidly passing clouds can dramatically change indoors light within minutes, if not seconds. While the fickleness of northern light probably affected the activities or humors of the working population to some degree, it must conditioned the painter more deeply. By force, the Dutch artist was constrained to develop his powers of observation and visual memory beyond those of his southern counterparts.

Were Vermeer's compositions really balanced ?

Vermeer writers have recurrently singled out Vermeer's works for their compositional refineries and exquisite aesthetic balance. In a recent paper, the art historian Paul Taylor argued that the concept of aesthetic balance, which is a fundamental precept of 20th-century pictorial art, was simply not available to the 17th-century Dutch artist. Taylor's objection rests on the fact that "contemporary art theoretical texts written in Dutch provide no evidence that 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists tried to achieve an overall balance of design." "In fact, I do not know of any use of the idea of compositional balance in any art theoretical text in any language before the 19th century: the earliest instance of the concept's employment that I have been able to find is in the work of John Ruskin."

How then, did Vermeer organize his compositions if not according to aesthetic criteria? Taylor argues that Gérard de Lairesse, an accomplished history painter and most influential art writer of the time, maintained that composition, or ordinantie, "was not a matter of patiently balancing the different shapes and contours of a scene until they pleased the eye. Composition was first and foremost the attempt to tell a story clearly and logically." Particularly relevant to Vermeer's essential mode on organizing the appearance of his interiors was de Lairesse's warning that the meaning and emotional power of a painting would be swamped by the extraneous details.

Another concept which de Lairesse associated with composition was "probability," in Dutch, waarschynelykheid. "Probability is the most important thing to bear in mind when composing a picture." He adds that "one must make it evident not only in the general disposition, but also in each particular object, and attentively reject things which are in conflict with it."

EV 3.0 Newsletter ✉