Essential Vermeer 3.0
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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.

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The young girl

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665–1667
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 40 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Although this young girl is not as immediately appealing as the adolescent who posed for the Girl with a Pearl Earring, she emanates a moon-like beauty that becomes most reality appreciable only when observing the real painting.

The remarkably soft lighting and subtle handling of chiaroscural effects differ substantially from the technique Vermeer used for the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Notable in this painting is the lack of linear definition of the facial features and the blurry contour of her face which contrast with the crisp definition of the blue satin wrap.

According to John Michael Montias, "the girl's widely spaced eyes bears a sufficient resemblance to those of the young man with the beret in The Procuress to suggest she may have been the artist's daughter. Vermeer was married in April 1653. His oldest daughter, Maria, could not have been much older than thirteen in 1666–1667 or twenty in 1672–1674, the two widely separated dates that Wheelock and Blankert respectively assign to the Wrightsman head. If the head does represent Maria, the later date must be closer to the truth. It is hardly conceivable that Maria or her younger sister Elisabeth could have been portrayed in the Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is generally dated about 1665 when the older of the two sisters was less than twelve years old."

The young girl's wrap

Study of a Young Woman (detail), Johannes Vermeer

There are few examples in Vermeer's art where the shimmer of satin is so successfully captured. The material's crackling texture and razor-sharp, haphazard fold, "carelessly" draped over the girl's shoulder, provides a perfect foil for the ethereal softness of her skin and symmetry of her features. Her disarming adolescence leaves almost any reasonably sensitive viewer an impression of a human encounter that is unforgettable.

The silver-blue fabric appears to be some kind of heavy satin or silk. Small dots of light-toned paint are speckled here and there. It is difficult to tell if they were meant to imitate the pointillés produced by camera obscura vision or the fabric's course weave.

Many art historians believe that this picture might have been one of the three tronien "in antique dress" described as "uncommonly artful" and sold in the 1696 posthumous Amsterdam auction of 21 paintings by Vermeer. In Vermeer's possessions at the time of his death were listed another "two tronien in Turkish fashion," which although not mentioned as being done by Vermeer, nonetheless have been tentatively proposed as the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the present work. A bolt of some particularly flashy cloth artistically draped over the shoulder of any light-skinned Dutch girl was enough to qualify the resulting image as "antique." However, the oversized drop pearl earring was clearly a contemporary costume accessory, not a real pearl, but a contemporary imitation or artistic invention.

Some writers believe to have caught the artist off guard in regards to the hand to the lower left. Instead, this discreet, yet essential passage connects the face of the girl to the unseen anatomy beneath the silken material. And it informs the spectator that her forearm is leaning on something, perhaps the bottom of the picture frame. It is Vermeer's fascination with he sees rather than what he knows, as the Vermeer writer Lawrence Gowing first pointed out, that lends her wrist, and not her hand, the peculiar but fascinating form which it assumes on the picture plane.

The scarf hanging from the girl's head

Boy in a Turban Holding a Nosegay, Michiel Sweerts

Boy in a Turban Holding a Nosegay
Michiel Sweerts
Oil on canvas, 76.4 x 61.8 cm.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Like every other element in this canvas, the slender scarf that is attached to the young woman's hairdo is painted with greater delicacy than the corresponding that of the Girl with a Pearl Earring, very likely its pendant. The fact that it drapes much lower, completely out of the picture, lends the work a somewhat antique air, different from the more contemporary look of its counterpart. Perhaps, Vermeer drew inspiration for the color scheme from an extraordinary bust by Michael Sweerts, often linked to Vermeer in recent scholarship. Like Vermeer, Sweerts never bows to convention even when he works within apparently well-trodden genres and styles. The works of both painters are imbued with a nagging, uncommon ambiguity that is disconcerting as it is fascinating.

However, whether or not Vermeer ever had any real contact with Sweerts or had ever seen the Boy in a Turban Holding a Nosegay is a matter of speculation. It is possible that Vermeer arrived at this particular pictorial solution independently. Busts of exotic female figures set on dark backgrounds were far from rare in the Netherlands.

The pearl earring

Study of a Young Woman (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The drop pearl earring, although probably a work of the artist's imagination, is similar to that worn by the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Undisturbed by direct light, it nestles softly in the tender penumbra cast by the girl's oval face. On close inspection, it has been modeled with astounding economy: no trace of line defines its contour but rather, a few faint smudges of gray slightly lighter than the underlying brownish tone of neck.

In the 17th century pearls were an important status symbol. In 1660, Samuel Pepys (an English diarist) 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 (Pepys' wife feared he might not be able to distinguish real from fake pearls). At about the same time the traveling French art connoisseur Balthasar de Monconys had been shown a single-figure painting by Vermeer which had been paid 600 guilders. The Frenchman considered the price outrageous.

Like all rare and expensive natural products, a convincing alternative to the expensive pearl was sought. In Ancient Rome glass beads were coated with silver and then coated again with glass in an attempt to replicate the luster of pearls. Fake pearls were produced in Italy. In France, before the 15th century, hollow glass beads were dipped into acid to produce an iridescent surface. In the 17th century, an improved version was produced in France by a rosary maker in Paris, by the name of M. Jacquin. First, the interior of the beads was coated with a substance called essence d'orient, which was nothing but ground fish scales, to provide a nacreous appearance (it is said that Jacquin noticed that water containing scales from the ablette, or the bleak, produced reflections that resembled those produced by the nacre on a natural pearl). This mixture was then poured into the beads and then agitated so that its inside might be completely coated. These were filled with wax to provide solidity and weight. Before Jacquin's invention of essence d'orient, mercury was used to give clear-glass beads the luster of pearls.

The dark background

Cover of Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting

Dark backgrounds were widely used in portraiture to isolate the figure from distracting elements and enhance its three-dimensional effect. In fragment 232 of his Trattato, (Treatise on Painting), Leonardo da Vinci had noted that a dark background makes an object appear lighter and vice versa.

Vermeer exploited the same effect in the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring, perhaps a pendant to the present picture.

The young girl's "strange" hand

Study of a Young Woman (detail), Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting (detail)
c. 1662–1668
Oil on canvas, 120 x 100 cm.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In the later years of his career, Vermeer seems to have more than occasionally disregarded anatomical correctness altogether, while Robert Hale, the American painter and author of the first monograph dedicated to Vermeer in the United States, believes he was simply unable to achieve it. The bulbous hand of the seated artist in The Art of Painting is one of the most noted anatomical distortions in the artist's oeuvre. Lawrence Gowing, like Hale himself a painter, excused the artist for this and claimed that such distortions were deliberate.

In an oft-quoted passage of his influential interpretation of Vermeer's painting Gowing wrote: "In Vermeer we have to deal with something quite outside the painterly fullness of tone which was so often the burden of pictorial evolution between Masaccio and Rembrandt. His is an almost solitary indifference to the whole linear convention and its historic function of describing, enclosing, embracing the form it limits, a seemingly involuntary rejection of how the intelligence of painters has operated from the earliest times to our own day. Even now, when the photographer has taught us to recognize visual as against imagined continuity, and in doing so no doubt blunted our appreciation of Vermeer's strangeness, the feat remains as exceptional as it is apparently perverse, and to a degree which may not be easy for those unconcerned with the technical side of a painter’s business to measure. However firm the contour in these pictures, line as a vessel of understanding has been abandoned and with it the traditional apparatus of draftsmanship. In its place, apparently effortlessly, automatically, tone bears the whole weight of formal explanation."

But in other pictures, it is more difficult to accept Gowings's point of view. For example, the fingers and wrists of the figure of Allegory of Faith are so poorly defined that they look more like rubber gloves filled with water than real hands. The extended arm and claw-like hand of the seated figure in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid can be pardoned only because it was painted by Vermeer, and the arms and fingers of A Lady Seated at a Virginal are so unusually rendered that one prominent Dutch art historian appointed them "pig trotters." And concerning the present painting, we know the patch of flat of flesh tone represents the figure's wrist(?) only because we are so familiar with human anatomy.

What were 17th-century Dutch women like?

The Wrightsman (Study of a Young Woman) and the Mauritshuis (Girl with a Pearl Earring) paintings are almost identical in size and are close in composition: the figures are similarly posed against dark backgrounds, and each wears a pearl earring and an elegant scarf that falls behind her head. The models may or may have not been Vermeer's daughters, but neither picture was painted as a portrait. The paintings are studies of expression, physical types, and visual qualities such as the behavior of light. Whether the two canvases were conceived as pendants, which would have been exceptional for tronien, is quite uncertain but cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Walter Liedtke, Vermeer and the School of Delft, 2001

The signature

Facsimile signature of Johannes Vermeer's Study of a Young Woman

Signed upper left: IVMeer [IVM in monogram]

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

Study of a Young Woman (detail of signature), Johannes Vermeer


Albert Blankert, Vermeer: 1632–1675, 1975

c. 1667–1668
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. 1665–1667
Wayne Franits, Vermeer, 2015

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

The painting in its frame

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

Johannes Vermeer's Study of a Young Woman 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. 38, 39 or 40 [tronien];
  • Jan Luchtmans, Rotterdam (in 1816);
  • Luchtmans sale, Rotterdam, 20 April, 1816, no. 92;
  • Auguste Marie Raymond, prince d'Arenberg, Brussels (by 1829-d.1833);
  • Arenberg family, Brussels and Schloss Meppen, Germany (1833–1945);
  • Engelbert-Marie, 9th duc d'Arenberg, Brussels, Schloss Meppen and Schloss Nordkirchen, Germany (1945-d.1949);
  • his son, Engelbert-Charles, 10th duc d'Arenberg (1949–1955);
  • sold through Germain Seligman to Wrightsman);
  • Mr and Mrs Charles Wrightsman, New York (1955–1979);
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr and Mrs Charles Wrightsman, in memory of Theodore Rousseau Jr., 1979 (acc. no. 1979.396.1).


  • Düsseldorf August 1904
    Kunsthistorische Ausstellung
    Location unknown
    no. 398, lent by Herzog von Arenberg, Brussels
  • The Hague June 25–September 5, 1966
    In het licht van Vermeer
    no. VI, lent by Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Wrightsman, New York and Palm Beach
  • Paris September 24–November 28, 1966
    Dans la lumière de Vermeer.
    Musée de l'Orangerie

    no. VII, lent by Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Wrightsman, New York and Palm Beach
  • New York March 8–May 27, 2001
    Vermeer and the Delft School
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 75
  • New York September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008
    The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no catalogue
  • New York October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009
    The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    online catalogue
  • New York September 9–November 29, 2009
    Vermeer's Masterpiece "The Milkmaid"
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    no. 9 and ill.

(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 Study of a Young Woman in scale
Vermeer's life Pieter van Ruijven and his wife Maria Knuijt leave 500 guilders to Vermeer in their last will and testament. This kind of a bequest is very unusual and testifies a close relationship between Vermeer and Van Ruijven that went beyond the usual patron/painter one. It would seem that in his life-time the rich Delft burger had bought a sizable share of Vermeer's artistic output.
Dutch painting

Rembrandt paints The Jewish Bride.

Adriaen van Ostade paints The Physician in His Study.

c. 1665 Gerrit Dou painted Woman at the Clavichord and a Self-Portrait in which he resembled Rembrandt.

European painting & architecture

Bernini finishes high altar, Saint Peter's, Rome (begun 1656).

Murillo: Rest on the Flight into Egypt.

Nicolas Poussin, French painter, dies. Known as the founder of French Classicism, he spent most of his career in Rome which he reached at age 30 in 1624. His Greco-Romanism work includes The Death of Chione and The Abduction of the Sabine Women.

Compagnie Saint-Gobain is founded by royal decree to make mirrors for France's Louis XIV. It will become Europe's largest glass-maker.

Francesco Borromini completes Rome's Church of San Andrea delle Fratte.


Molière: Don Giovanni.

Sep 22, Moliere's L'amour Medecin, premiered in Paris.


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society begins publication.

Science & philosophy

Giovanni Cassini determines rotations of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus.

Peter Chamberlen, court physician to Charles 11, invents midwifery forceps

Pierre de Fermat, French mathematician, dies. His equation xn + yn = zn is called Fermat's Last Theorem and remained unproven for many years. The history of its resolution and final proof by Andrew Wiles is told by Amir D. Aczel in his 1996 book Fermat's Last Theorem. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Singh was published in 1997. In 1905 Paul Wolfskehl, a German mathematician, bequeathed a reward of 100,000 marks to whoever could find a proof to Fermat's "last theorem." It stumped mathematicians until 1993, when Andrew John Wiles made a breakthrough.

Francis Grimaldi: Physicomathesis de lumine (posth.) explains diffraction of light.

Isaac Newton experiments on gravitation; invents differential calculus.

Robert Hooke's Micrographia, with illustrations of objects viewed through a microscope, is published. The book greatly influences both scientists and educated laypeople. In it, Hooke describes cells (viewed in sections of cork) for the first time. Fundamentally, it is the first book dealing with observations through a microscope, comparing light to waves in water.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat dies at Castres January 12 at age 63, having (with the late Blaise Pascal) founded the probability theory. His remains will be reburied in the family vault at Toulouse.


English naval forces defeat a Dutch fleet off Lowestoft June 3 as a Second Anglo-Dutch war begins, 11 years after the end of the first such war. General George Monck, 1st duke of Albemarle, commands the English fleet, Charles II bestows a knighthood on Irish-born pirate Robert Holmes, 42, and promotes him to acting rear admiral, giving him command of the new third-rate battleship Defiance, but the Dutch block the entrance to the Thames in October.

Feb 6, Anne Stuart, queen of England (1702–1714), is born.

At least 68,000 Londoners died of the plague in this year.

University of Kiel is founded.

The second war between England and the United Provinces breaks out. It will last until 1667 and devastate the art market.

Mar 11, A new legal code was approved for the Dutch and English towns, guaranteeing religious observances unhindered.

Nov 7, The London Gazette, the oldest surviving journal, is first published.

Ceylon becomes important trade centre for the VOC.

Vermeer's life

The Concert presents a very similar deep spatial recession similar to the earlier Music Lesson. Vermeer's interest in the accurate portrayal of three dimensional perspective to create such an effect was shared by other interior genre painters of the time, however, only Vermeer seems to have fully and consciously understood the expressive function of perspective. The two paintings' underlying theme of music between male and female company is also analogous although few critics believe they were conceived as a pendant.

In the paintings of the 1660s the painted surfaces are smoother and less tactile, the lighting schemes tend to be less bold. These pictures convey and impalpable air of reticence and introspection, unique among genre painters with the possible exception of Gerrit ter Borch.

Dutch painting Frans Hals, eminent Dutch portrait painter, dies. It was formerly believed that he died in the Oudemannenhuis almshouse in Haarlem which was later became the Frans Halsmuseum.
European painting & architecture

François Mansart, French architect, dies.

Apr 9, 1st public art exhibition (Palais Royale, Paris).

Music Dec 5, Francesco Antonio Nicola Scarlatti, composer, is born.
Literature Le Misanthrope by Molière is palyed at the Palais-Royal, Paris.
Science & philosophy

Laws of gravity established by Cambridge University mathematics professor Isaac Newton, 23, state that the attraction exerted by gravity between any two bodies is directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Newton has returned to his native Woolsthorpe because the plague at Cambridge has closed Trinity College, where he is a fellow; he has observed the fall of an apple in an orchard at Woolsthorpe and calculates that at a distance of one foot the attraction between two objects is 100 times stronger than at 10 feet. Although he does not fully comprehend the nature of gravity, he concludes that the force exerted on the apple is the same as that exerted on Earth by the moon.

Calculusis invented by Isaac Newton will prove to be one of the most effective tool for scientific investigation ever produced by mathematics.

Nov 14, Samuel Pepys reported the on first blood transfusion, which was between dogs.

The plague decimates London and Isaac Newton moved to the country. He had already discovered the binomial theorem at Cambridge and was offered the post of professor of mathematics. Newton formulates his law of universal gravitation.

A French Academy of Sciences (Académie Royale des Sciences) founded by Louis XIV at Paris seeks to rival London's 4-year-old Royal Society. Jean Baptiste Colbert has persuaded the king to begin subsidizing scientists. Christiaan Huygens, along with 19 other scientists, is elected as a founding member. After the French Revolution, the Royale is dropped and the character of the academy changes. It later becomes the Institut de France.


Sep 2, The Great Fire of London, started at Pudding Lane, began to demolish about four-fifths of London when in the house of King Charles II's baker, Thomas Farrinor, forgets to extinguish his oven. The flames raged uncontrollably for the next few days, helped along by the wind, as well as by warehouses full of oil and other flammable substances. Approximately 13,200 houses, 90 churches and 50 livery company halls burn down or explode. But the fire claimed only 16 lives, and it actually helped impede the spread of the deadly Black Plague, as most of the disease-carrying rats were killed in the fire.

Because almost all European paper is made from recycled cloth rags, which are becoming increasingly scarce as more and more books and other materials are printed, the English Parliament bans burial in cotton or linen cloth so as to preserve the cloth for paper manufacture.

Vermeer's life

Vermeer's name is mentioned in a poem by Arnold Bon in Dirck van Bleyswijck's Beschryvinge der Stadt Delft (Description of the City of Delft) published in 1667. It is the most significant and direct reference to Vermeer's art to be found. The poem written by Arnold Bon, Bleyswyck's publisher, was composed in the honor of Carel Fabritius who had died in the famous ammunitions explosion. Vermeer's name is lauded in the poem's last stanza.

Thus did this Phoenix, to our loss, expire,
In the midst and at the height of his powers,
But happily there arose out of the fire
Vermeer, who masterfully trod in his path.

Maria Thins empowers Vermeer to collect various debts owed to her and to reinvest the money according to his will and discretion. Vermeer's mother-on-law evidently maintained her moral and financial support of Vermeer and his family.

Another of Vermeer's children is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft.

Dutch painting Gabriel Metsu, ecclectic Dutch painter, dies.
European painting & architecture

Francesco Borromini, Italian sculptor and architect, dies. Borromini designed the San Ivo della Sapienza church in Rome.

Alonso Cano, Spanish painter and architect, dies.

Music German composer-organist-harpsichordist Johann Jakob Froberger dies at Héricourt, France. His keyboard suites will be published in 1693, arranged in the order that will become standard: allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue.

Paradise Lost is written by John Milton, who has been blind since 1652 but has dictated to his daughters the 10-volume work on the fall of man, Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven. Milton's Adam questions the angel Raphael about celestial mechanics, Raphael replies with some vague hints and then says that "the rest from Man or Angel the great Architect did wisely conceal and not divulge His secrets to be scann'd by them who ought rather admire." The work enjoys sales of 1,300 copies in 18 months and will be enlarged to 12 volumes in 1684, the year of Milton's death; Annus Mirabilis by John Dryden is about the Dutch War and last year's Great Fire.

Nov 7, Jean Racine's Andromaque, premiered in Paris.

Science & philosophy National Observatory, Paris, founded
History Pope Alexander VII dies. Giulio Rospigliosi becomes Pope Clement IX.

c. 1667 In France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, the fork begins to achieve popularity as an eating implement. Formerly, only knives and spoons had been used.

Jun 18, The Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and threatened London. They burned 3 ships and capture the English flagship.

Jun 21, The Peace of Breda endsthe Second Anglo-Dutch War (1664–1667) and sees the Dutch cede New Amsterdam (on Manhattan Island) to the English in exchange for the island of Surinam.

De Verstandige Kok (The Sensible Cook) is published for the first time. Geared towards middle- and upper middle-class families, the book advises a regular and balanced diet, including fresh meat at least once a week, frequent servings of bread and cheese, stew, fresh vegetables and salads. While simple dishes, such as porridge, pancakes and soup with bread are eaten by all classes, studies reveal that only the affluent have regular access to fresh vegetables during the period; the less wealthy depend on dried peas and beans.

What were 17th-century Dutch women like?

Double Portrait of Isaac Massa <br />and, Beatrix van der Laen

Double Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (detail)
Frans Hals
c. 1622
Oil on canvas, 140 x 166.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Even though the United Provinces boasted the most vigorous and well-distributed wealth in Europe, the differences between social classes were nonetheless frightening. At the bottom of the social ladder, women lived in a perpetual state of undernourishment. Life was a daily struggle with disease, tragic living and working conditions as well as the dangers of perpetual maternity. Living conditions were so strenuous that few were overweight and the average height was about 1.54 meters.

Rich women were much better off and hardly moderate in their consumption. Women rarely worked enough to offset their daily intake of calories. They avoided strenuous activities and rarely carried out heavy domestic chores which were delegated to their servants even though they habitually accompanied their servants to the markets. Their diet included large amounts of meat, fish, fruit, sweets and abundant amounts of imported wines and gastronomical delicacies. They had more money and more time to care for their own appearances even though a considerable number of the formal portraits clearly show that women of the upper classes were generally corpulent, but, at least in the second half of the seventeenth century, exquisitely dressed. Affluent women had an average height of about 1.59 meters.

An unequivocal point to be made is that Dutch women were notably better off than women in the rest of Europe. This is upheld by eye-witness reports including numerous foreign observers who were both delighted and abhorred by what they had experienced.

From a legal point of view, Dutch women enjoyed conspicuous advantages over their European counterparts. Dutch women could inherit and bequeath property in their own right. If they were wronged during their marriage, they had legal recourse. Vermeer's mother-in-law was able to obtain a conspicuous part of her husband's money after years of physical and moral mistreatment. Adultery, unusual abuse or willful desertion could bring "separation of table and bed" effectively annulling the union.

Truth or cosmetics?

Young Girl with a Guitar, Gerrit van Honthorst

Young Girl with a Guitar (detail)
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on canvas, 82 x 58 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

While it is true that none of the women who posed for Vermeer are conventional beauties, they are not without their own special charm. But how much did effort did Vermeer and other artists make effort to improve the appearance of their models?

As Eddy de Jongh pointed out, "Just how drastically cosmetic interventions were applied is hard to say, but it is a fair assumption that not every painted face with regular features, and not every painted peach skin was an accurate depiction of the original. The mere fact that the vast majority of faces in 17th-century paintings are smooth and unblemished is enough to make us suspicious, given the prevalence of smallpox epidemics at the time. Smallpox was a dreaded disease against which all remedies were helpless, and those who survived it were generally left disfigured by pockmarks. Among women of the higher classes, in particular, pockmarks are known to have aroused feelings of shame."

In any case, the use of cosmetics in the 17th century by wealthy middle and upper-class women (and men)—both for nurturing and decorative effects—is out of the question. Their popularity is evident in numerous surviving recipes by apothecaries and quacks, as well as in the frequent depiction of powder brushes, small bottles or boxes for oils, crèmes or perfumes in the popular "Lady at her toilet" scenes. Even though the Dutch drew heavily from the fashionable French court of Louis XIV to enhance their lifestyle, Dutch women were, and still are, famous for their clear, soft complexions, which some believe owes to the moist air of the Netherlands.

A pale complexion seems to have been universally desired, as it indicated wealth. Besides avoiding sunburns and daily washings with warm water and soap mixed with herbs and spices, makeup was used to make the skin appear as fair as possible. Among the recipes to lighten the color of the skin, ladies would apply a mixture of powdered white chalk or white lead with the whites of egg and vinegar. While the use of talk is harmless, ceruse, which also used, is very harmful because it is made of poisonous lead. A lady could also wash herself with her own urine or with a decoction of the lemon rinds. A late 17th-century recommendation was to rub the face with poppy seed oil and then use a white powder made of calcinated bone.

It is impossible to know if the bright red lips seen in many portraits were natural, artificially contrived with makeup or fruit of the client's imagination and the artist's skill. A number of rouge pigments were available. Tinctures made of boiled crabs sandalwood, brazilwood, carnation, cloves or cardamoms would provide a safe rouge. On the other hand vermilion, a very poisonous red pigment derived from mercury and a standard pigment on the palette of every painter, was used. Cochineal, which was also used by painters, could be found in both warm and cold red tones.

Painting faces

Clothing the Naked, Michael Sweerts

Clothing the Naked
Michael Sweerts
c. 1660–1661
Oil on canvas, 81.9 x 114.3 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Although Michael Sweerts was disregarded by contemporary chroniclers of painting, and upon his death, his name and works were quickly forgotten, modern art scholarship has linked his achievements with Vermeer.

Sweerts had sojourned some years in Rome absorbing the lessons of Caravaggism but his works are never aggressive. His characters, caught in a moment of reflection, have a stillness, distance and melancholy which evokes something of Vermeer's finest works. He is also one of the few painters who depicted the lower classes individuals with a dignity paramount to that reserved for powerful upper-class portraiture. Like Vermeer, his variegated styles suggest different identities and have long confused art historians.

From a formal point of view, Sweerts was always able to think in the broadest of pictorial terms avoiding finicky, descriptive detail so popular in genre painting of the time. The monumentality of the figures and pitch-black background of the Clothing the Naked bring to mind Vermeer's Mistress and Maid, while the Young Boy with a Nose Gay has often been conjectured as a direct source for Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. Sweerts' ability to capture the sheen of fine exotic silks with a minimum of fuss would seem to have appealed to the serious Vermeer.

Oddly, Sweerts' own career is almost as obscure as Vermeer's and little is known of his personal life. He began his career as a history painter but is most appreciated for his exquisite depictions of individual people.

Vermeer & Michael Sweerts

Old Man in Oriental Garb, Jan Lievens

Old Man in Oriental Garb
Jan Lievens
Oil on canvas, 135 x 101 cm.
Schloss Sanssouci, Berlin

Although to the modern eye, the Study of a Young Woman would seem a portrait, a Dutch 17th-century observer would have immediately thought of it as a tronie, an obsolete term that refers to a type of picture made familiar by Rembrandt and his followers. Some hold that the genre was inspired by some of the grotesque heads drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.

Despite the fact that tronien were often strongly individualized, they were most admired for the painter's ability to capture one particular psychological state or pictorial qualities. Most were based upon living models, including the artists themselves, relatives or colleagues. However, they were not intended as formal portraits but were kept on spec in the artist's studio ready to stimulate the appetite of a potential buyer. An old man, a comely young woman, a "Turk," or a dashing soldier were all standard tronie subjects. Artists favored garments that looked particularly exotic which would offer an opportunity to show off painterly technique, one of the strongest calling cards of the professional artist. They also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings.

Judging by the number of tronien mentioned in inventories, this was an extremely popular genre that accommodated the desires of both the artist and his client.

Portrait or tronie?

Study of a Young Woman (detail), Johannes Vermeer

Although the present picture has been historically overshadowed by its likely pendant, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, it is nevertheless an expressive and technical, albeit understated, tour de force. The modeling of the young girl's face is so subtle that it is difficult to find a comparable image in Dutch painting of the time. The blurred, painterly modeling creates form by registering shifts in tone rather than by the sharp modeling favored by European history painters whereby line plays a major part in defining each the figure's features. A detail of the eye demonstrates how vague yet utterly "sincere" is the description of the model's lunar physiognomy.

Vermeer employed a particularly limited palette for the depiction of the flesh tones in the present work. By those times, the pigments needed to depict flesh, considered by art theorists as the highest achievements of the artist, had been largely codified in "recipe" books although there did exist variations from nation to nation and school to school. Wilem Beurs describes in his De Groote Waereld in 't Kleen Geschilder (1692) thirteen mixture composed of nine pigments required to paint people of all different ages and genders as well as of distinct emotions.

Pictura (An Allegory of Painting), Frans van Mieris

Pictura (An Allegory of Painting) (detail)
Frans van Mieris
Oil on copper, 5 x 3 1/2 in.
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angles

The detail of The Art of Painting by Frans van Mieris, painted about five years before Vermeer's work, illustrates the typically restricted Dutch palette set out for depicting flesh. From top to bottom we can make out white lead, yellow ocher, vermilion, red madder, raw sienna or red ocher (?), umber and black.

Although the pigments of Vermeer's faces have not been specifically analyzed, it would seem that the artist used principally white lead modified by a hint of vermilion, a bright red with a decidedly orange overtone, to depict the principal passages of the strongly illuminated passages, excluding the conventional yellow ocher. This simple mixture works well with the famous glowing milk-white incarnates of Dutch women.

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