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Since it appears conspicuously in five other paintings, including a large-scale version in the Mistress and Maid, Vermeer must have treasured this elegant morning jacket. We can reasonably assume that it is the same item worn by both the seated woman in the Mistress and Maid and in A Lady Writing because the ermine-tipped black spots are distributed in much the same manner, at least in the area below the woman's neck. In the present picture, however, both the trim and satin are executed with a delicacy that can be appreciated only in front of the real picture.
By observing the treatment of the trim it becomes apparent how dissimilar Vermeer's approach to painting was from that of his the fijnschilderen, with whom his work is often associated. While they represented each individual hair with truly microscopic accuracy, Vermeer synthesizes the essence of its fluffy softness with imperceptible shifts in tone and cloud-like contours. Two similar jackets with a similar cut, both blue and without the telltale spots of ermine, are represented in the Concert and the Woman Holding a Balance.
In the mid-1660s or after, such garments were represnted in an enormous number of Dutch genre interiors, in a wide variety of colors. They were worn by middle and upper-class women and served as protection against the long gelid Dutch winters while performing household chores. The fur trim was once thought to be ermine although Dutch costume expert Marieke de Winkel states that even in the inventories of the wealthiest women this ermine is never mentioned. It was more likely to have been white squirrel, mouse or cat. Metsu often painted them bright red or lime green. Gerrit ter Borch painted them with mute purple, light yellow or blue.
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, Catharina.
Mirrors appear four times in Vermeer's oeuvre. A smaller one hangs in an analogous position in the Woman Holding a Balance. The mirror's black frame is presumably made of ebony, although Dutch artisans excelled in producing imitations of precious imported woods.
Mirrors have always been represented in a great number in Western paintings. Their powerful iconographic associations are numerous and frequently contradictory, ranging from the sense of sight to self-knowledge, pride or vanity. According to Cesare Ripa (Iconologia) the mirror is one of the attributes of Prudence, for with it she achieves self-knowledge. Vermeer was familiar with Ripa's treatise since two of his allegorical paintings were composed with it in hand. The Dutch artist and humanist Otto van Veen related the elements of truth and love to a mirror's reflection in his emblem "Cleer and Pure. "
On the other hand, a few scholars believe that the mirror points to a favorite theme in Dutch painting, the Vanitas. However, the work's pervasive serenity is more consonant with positive metaphorical associations.
This drawn-back curtain appears to be similar to that of the Woman Holding a Balance painted in the same years of the present work. Its warm tone, slightly different from the lemon hue of the girl's morning jacket, creates a rare dissonance that must be seen directly to be appreciated. Moreover, the two patches of yellows link the two sides of the painting that are divided by the empty gulf of the white wall. The structure of the window compares favorably to that of the Girl Interrupted in her Music, The Music Lesson, the Woman with a Lute and the Woman with a Water Pitcher.
The orthogonals of the window do not join at the same point as the orthogonal of the table right-hand edge. This inaccuracy is unusual for Vermeer.
Some writers believe that the empty chairs that populate Vermeer's interiors were meant to allude to a male presence, perhaps a suitor, just outside the picture. However, no historical evidence supports such a conjecture. A chair, in this case, just may have been a chair, or a compositional device meant to bind the figure tightly to the rest of the composition.
Neutron autoradiography has revealed that Vermeer had originally positioned a cittern on the now-empty chair, with its back side to the spectator. Whether it was painted out to alter the work's symbolic meaning or to simplify the composition cannot be determined. In various paintings the artist eliminated objects whose symbolic meaning would have been perhaps too readily understood by his contemporaries, wishing, perhaps, to avoid overt didactic statements in favor of a more elusive form of poetry. The chair's design and Bordeaux upholstery appear identical to those of the two chairs in The Art of Painting, painted some years later. The perfectly circular highlights on the shiny brass studs of the chair create an almost physical sensation of spatial distance to the mass of dark paint in the lower half of the composition, which otherwise would have appeared flat and uneventful.
While none of Vermeer's women can be called conventional beauties, the young girl with a necklace is, perhaps, one of the least striking. Her sleepy gaze (according to one writer, "dreamy"), ski-jump nose and receding forehead do little to qualify her as one of the painting's most memorable passages. And although the painting was not intended as an individualized portrait, the fact that she is viewed in profile exacerbates the lack of empathy.
The profile view, in fact, was the preferred view for ancient coins with Roman and Byzantine emperors and renaissance portraits, probably because it projects an aura of timeless authority. Different from the impersonal patterning of the profile, the direct gaze reduces the barrier between the viewer and the sitter. Character and momentary moods are revealed via eye contact, volume and asymmetry (both anatomical and chiaroscural). Moreover, the profile prohibits the painter from creating a sense of physical weight or bulk, necessary to suggest the presence of the psyche. After the Renaissance, portrait painters avoided full profile portraits in favor of the three-quarter pose, which became overwhelmingly preferred during the Baroque era.
The poetic presence of Vermeer's women, including that of the present work, is conveyed not so much by the treatment of their physiognomy but through posture, dress, context and the exceptional care with which they are composed and painted.
The girl's pearl necklace, oversized drop pearl earrings and stylish hairdo with a red ribbon indicate she belonged to the upper crust of Dutch society. The star ribbons attached to her hairdo were fashionable at the time.
When Chinese porcelain, or kraakporselein as the Dutch called it, reached Europe, all those who handled it were amazed. It made native products look hopelessly primitive. The colors were both sharp and brilliant and the walls of the finest pieces were unbelievably transparent. The first Dutch shipments arrived in 1602 after Dutch traders had seized the Portuguese ship San Iago. Buyers flocked to Amsterdam from all of Europe and demand soon reached a feverish pitch. Fortunes were gambled to secure shipments from the Orient and kraakporselein commerce reaped enormous profits for VOC shareholders.
Kraakporselein soon became the subject of many Dutch paintings. It denoted luxury and far-off exotic worlds. Some still-life painters, including one of the greatest still-life painters of all time, Willem Kalf, made their reputations also on their ability to capture its luxurious appearance.
Most scholars have ignored the identity or eventual symbolic meaning of Vermeer's vase, which is probably a Chinese ginger jar. Chinese ginger jars, steeped in centuries of Chinese culture, were originally used to store rare commodities of the time such as salt, herbs, oil and ginger. They were called "ginger jars" because they often contained ginger when they were exported to the West.
Vermeer's rendition remains a tour de force of pictorial economy. While the jar's form and decorative pattern are barely indicated, its lustrous surface is rendered by the carefully placed staccato highlights that indicate an unseen window, which shows how much Vermeer was captivated by light. No porcelain goods were listed in Vermeer's death inventory.
This remarkable chair may be the same one that can be seen in The Geographer and in the Concert. This type of chair appears to have been of more or less local Delft manufacture and it is hardly possible to find similar upholstery in the paintings of masters who came from elsewhere. In the Municipal Museum at Delft, there are preserved six of the 41 chairs delivered in 1661 by Maximiliaan van der Gucht, the famous Delft tapestry weaver, to the town for the use of the members of the Town Council, "The Forty." Unfortunately, they are rarely on public display.
The demure young woman appears to be giving the finishing touches to her morning toilette. She is captured at the moment she tightens the yellow ribbons of her pearl necklace. A powder brush and a fine-toothed ivory comb lay on the table top. Although such objects would have recalled the Vanitas theme so dear to Dutch still-life painters, the mood of the painting is hardly critical towards the young woman's activity.
This startling expanse of stark white-washed wall sets the perfect stage for the poetic dialogue between the young girl and the mirror upon which she gazes. This constitutional solution is all the more significant if we remember that Vermeer had initially included a large wall map directly behind the girl, which recalls the figure/ground relationship in the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Just why Vermeer chose to alter so dramatically the initial compositional layout is unknown.
The most cited pictorial precedent for such a prominent display of a featureless wall is the renowned Goldfinch, by Carel Fabritius. Art historians have speculated that Fabritius' work was a signboard made for some kind of commercial activity because the panel on which it is painted bears deep nail holes along the borders. No doubt, the simplicity of the little bird against a pure white backdrop would have certainly struck Vermeer as much as it does to anyone today who has the fortune to seen Fabritius' masterpiece.
The Golden Age witnessed a profound evolution in the function of the home and its furnishing. Houses began to be filled with a great range of sophisticated goods: elaborately carved linen cupboards, tables of all sorts including extendable tables, tea tables and gaming tables to say nothing of imported Turkish carpets, Chinese porcelain, Venetian mirrors, Japanese lacquer-work and quilts from India. Local production, spurred by foreign competition, also soared in quality and variety far beyond anything seen before.
The extendable table in this painting is featured various times in Vermeer interiors, as was represented many times in Dutch painting of the time and would have been considered a luxury item. One painted example is clearly visible in A Man Weighing Gold (c. 1670) by Cornelis de Mann (detail left).
The Rijksmuseum possesses a similar table. The legs have a striking bulbous form. The remarkable bun-shaped feet later provided the Dutch name of this style of furniture—balpoot. In the 17th century, however, this type of table was known as a draw-leaf table because it could be extended by pulling out extra leaves. The frame below the tabletop is decorated with volutes. Under this, the legs are joined by a double Y-frame stretcher. A thin veneer of rosewood has been cemented to the oak. Some parts have been decorated with ebony. The table measures 78.5 x 125 x 84. cm.
Tables were very expensive in the seventeenth century. Many families made do with a few planks placed on two barrels.
The blue tablecloth massed over the extendable table is similar in fold and position to the one seen in Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance. Its meandering folds provide a visual counterpoint to the strict geometric layout of the composition. Its rather dull color—originally it may have been more intense—may be a consequence of fading. Neutron autoradiography, a technique that permits to see hidden layers of dark paint, reveals that it was once pulled back farther to the left revealing more of the black and white floor tiles below the table top. Perhaps Vermeer discovered that the jumble of illuminated tiles drew the spectator's attention away from the central dialogue of the woman and her image in the mirror.
Although not noticeable in most reproductions, the presence of a few barely visible black stripes along the very front of the skirt indicates that it was similar to a garment featured various times in Dutch genre painting. The same gray skirt appears, with its decorative stripes again barely noticeable, in Vermeer's Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. A similar garment is represented more advantageously in a number of elegant interior scenes painted by Gerard ter Borch, including A Lady Reading a Letter. Judging by its thick folds this garment was meant to protect women from the chilly Dutch winters while attending to their household duties.
Out of the iconography of Vanity Vermeer has fashioned an image of great purity and innocence, and he tenderly cherishes it as such. The moment of happiness of the painting is characterized by an almost complete absence of ego. The woman appears not so much to be admiring the pearls in the mirror as selflessly, even reverently, offering them up to the light: it is as if we were present at a marriage.
Edward A. Snow, A Study of Vermeer, 1979
Inscribed on tabletop: (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 fine, plain-weave, linen with a thread count of 21.6 x 15 per cm² The original tacking edges are still present. The top tacking edge is wider than the others and appears to have been folded double. Marks from the original strainer bars are evident along the top and right edges. The support has been lined and placed on a stretcher larger than the original strainer.
Over an off-white ground, black underpainting indicates the shadows of the woman's back. An ocher layer on top of the ground may cover the entire painting. It is not covered by any other paint layers in parts of the figure and the stained glass window The woman's yellow jacket is underpainted with white, followed by lead-tin yellow in the light parts and two layers of a black and yellow ocher mixture in the shadows.The flesh tints are composed of various mixtures of white, ocher, and black, well blended into one another. The pearl necklace was painted wet-in-wet white over a gray/ocher layer.
* 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).
(Click here to access all of Vermeer's paintings in scale).
In a death inventory of the English sculptor Jean Larson, who lived in the Hague, is listed "a head by Vermeer." Some critics believe it may have bee the Girl with a Pearl Earring.
In the early to mid-1660s Vermeer refined all the qualities of his mature style. In his orderly designs, Vermeer gave new life to familiar patterns of contemporary genre painting by closely studying the subtleties of appearance.
Pieter de Hooch paints Young Woman Weighing Gold
Jan Steen: paints The Christening Feast.
Frans Hals, one of the most fashionable portraitists of his time and now in his late sixties, paints two of his most significant group portraits, the Regents and Regentesses of the Old Men's Alshouse at Haarlem. Owing to his dire poverty he will be given a small allowance by the town of Haarlem.
|European painting & architecture||
Nicola Poussin paints Apollo and Daphne
John Vanbrugh, Eng. architect and dramatist, is born.
Christopher Wren: Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.
Francisco de Zurbaran, Spanish painter, dies.
The French horn becomes an orchestral instrument.
Oratorio: Christmas Oratorio by Heinrich Schütz at Dresden.
William Shakespeare - the second impression of the Third Folio, which added seven plays to the thirty-six of the First Folio and the Second: Pericles, Prince of Tyre and six works from the Shakespeare Apocrypha.
Thomas Killigrew and the King's Company stage Killigrew's The Parson's Wedding with an all-female cast. Killigrew attempts a similar all-female production of his play Thomaso, though the project is never realized.
|Science & philosophy||
Robert Hooke discovers the Great Red Spot (an extremely persistent storm) on Jupiter and uses it to determine the period of Jupiter's rotation, which is astonishingly less than ten hours despite Jupiter's great size.
Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, calculates the orbit of a comet and finds that it is a parabola (not a circle, ellipse, or line as expected in various earlier theories).
Descartes' Traité de l'homme et de la formation de foetus (treatise on man and the formation of the fetus), printed posthumously, describes animals as purely mechanical beings; that is, there is no "vital force" that makes animals different from other material objects.
Christiaan Huygens proposes that the length of a pendulum with a period of one second should be the standard unit for length.
Aug 29, Adriaen Pieck/Gerrit de Ferry patented a wooden firespout in Amsterdam.
New Amsterdam handed over by Peter Stuyvesant to the English, who renames the city New York
Amsterdam passes a regulation banning the sale of "rotten, spoiled, or defective spinach, cucumbers, and carrots, ears of corn, radishes, or other fruits [vegetables] because pride could not be taken in or from such things."
Slavery is introduced into the Caribbean island of Montserrat and will not be abolished until 1834.
The Black Death kills 24,000 in old Amsterdam while the English are taking Nieuw Amsterdam. The plague spreads to Brussels and throughout much of Flanders, and in December it kills two Frenchmen in London's Drury Lane. Men who put the dead into the deadcarts keep their pipes lit in the belief, now widespread, that tobacco smokers will somehow be spared.
Samuel Pepys buys forks for his household, but most Englishmen continue to eat with their fingers and will continue to do so until early in the next century lest they be considered effete or, in the opinion of some clergymen, even sacrilegious. A man going out to dinner has for centuries brought his own spoon and knife, the spoon being folded into the pocket and the knife carried in a scabbard attached to the belt; more men now carry folding forks as well.
The Kronenbourg Brewery founded in Alsace will continue into the 21st century to produce beer.
Although Vermeer could have chosen his themes independently, it is hardly out of the question that he had a sort of loose collaboration with his patron Pieter van Ruijven, a rich Delft patrician. In fact, John Michael Montias believes that Van Ruijven and Vermeer had entertained far more than a simple painter/client relationship.
Van Ruijven, like Vermeer, was ambitious. In 1669, he had paid sixteen thousand guilders, an astronomical sum, to acquire land near Schiedam that brought with it the title of Lord of Spalant. His acquisition may be considered as a 17th-century case of "social rising." Van Ruijven may have enabled Vermeer's experimental working mode by keeping the painter on something of a retainer. There was a precedent for such arrangements in the competitive Dutch market. Van Ruijven almost certainly had direct knowledge of this arrangement from Pieter Spierincx, a distant cousin, who had sealed the right of first refusal the work's of Gerrit Dou, the most sought-after painter of the time.
Moreover, Van Ruijven's wife, Maria de Knuijt, had brought the far greater share of money to the marriage than he, and her taste must have been taken into account. Indeed, the domestic scenes of Vermeer's compositions may have been designed to appeal to a woman's gaze at least as much as to a man's. According to the art historian Lisa Vergara, as a "supporter of the Orthodox wing of the Reformed church, De Knuijt might have found particularly appealing the chaste dignity that informs Vermeer's interpretations of femininity."
With such a backdrop, Vermeer, Van Ruijven and his wife may have discussed art not only in general terms, but in relationship to Vermeer's compositions, many of which they would have acquired for their own home.
A woman at her toilette was a popular theme among Dutch genre painters in the 1650s and 1660s. A likely iconographic prototype for Vermeer's work is the Young Woman before a Mirror (c. 1662) by Frans van Mieris. However, Vermeer seems to have purged his composition of explicit sensuality and extravagant color scheme present in Van Mieris' version.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. pointed out that in the present work the artist "minimized the apparent physical activity of the figure, portraying her at the moment she has the ribbons pulled tautly. Her thoughts may be inward, but they are expressed through her gaze, which reaches across the white wall of the room to the mirror next to the window. The whole space between her and the side wall of the room thus becomes activated with her presence. It is a subtle yet daring composition, one that succeeds because of Vermeer's acute sensitivity to the placement of objects and to the importance of spaces between these objects."
The essential composition we now see was not Vermeer's original concept. Neutron autoradiography has revealed that the artist made critical changes in the composition. By extending the shape of the great folds of the slate-blue tablecloth of the still life he eliminated a number of black and white floor tiles and more of the table's complicated structure. As a result, the viewer's attention is now drawn to the upper part of the composition. Another important modification was the exclusion of a musical instrument, most likely a cittern, which lay propped up diagonally on the foreground chair.
However, the most startling alteration was the exclusion of a large wall map that surrounded the standing girl, which absorbed her presence and obfuscated the line of her gaze towards the mirror. The map was very likely the same which appears in The Art of Painting.
According to Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the "map, representing the physical world, and the musical instrument, referring to sensual love, would have given a context for interpreting the mirror and the pearls negatively rather than positively. Indeed, the sensual, earthy connotations are similar to those associated with 'Vrouw Wereld.' The Vrouw Wereld (the Lady World) was a well-known allegorical figure dating back to medieval times who personifies worldly pleasures and transience." By removing the map and musical instrument, Wheelock proposes that Vermeer transformed the image into a poetic statement, evoking the ideals of purity and truth.
From technical evidence, Vermeer seems to have restretched the original canvas over a smaller frame reducing its dimensions to tighten the composition. Subsequent restorers, noting that the painted composition extended over the edges of the stretcher, enlarged the format to what they thought were its original dimensions.
Although Vermeer could have drawn on a number of Dutch paintings of women absorbed by their own beauty, none are so intimate as Gerrit ter Borch's A Young Woman at her Toilette. In Vermeer's work, the young lady puts her last touches on her morning toilette fastening her pearl necklace while Ter Borch's figure ties her chemise. Both gaze into a mirror unaware of their surroundings making the spectator feel as if he were an intruder.
Previous to Ter Borch's work, the theme of women adorning themselves in front of mirrors had been conceived as warnings against vanity. Ter Borch, perhaps reflecting a positive shift in Dutch attitudes towards women and the private lives of individuals, transformed the subject by focusing on the simplicity and sincerity of female conduct. Ter Borch's half sister Gesina was the model for the central figure.
Ter Borch made an enormous contribution to the development of interior painting in the Netherlands and his work was avidly collected, and emulated by many artists. He is, perhaps, the only Dutch genre artist who was able to rival Vermeer in the depth and sympathetic treatment of ordinary women. Nonetheless, although Ter Borch may been more capable of registering the nuances of female physiognomy than Vermeer, his scenes lacks the sense of design and, above all, the sense of three-dimensional space that in Vermeer's paintings extend the figure's interior life.
The VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie), also known as the Dutch East India Company, was the world's largest trading company in the 17th century. It all started with spices from Asia—pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and many more. Their aromas and tastes completely transformed ordinary European bread, cakes, and stews. These flavorings came from halfway around the world on hundreds of ships carrying thousands of Dutch mariners over millions of miles of dangerous ocean routes. In Asia, these 17th-century adventurers struck trade agreements with local rulers and became familiar with the people and customs of China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Many stayed on. Some became spectacularly wealthy. Yet the human cost of the first global capitalist enterprise was sometimes high.*
Those who sailed back to Amsterdam found ready markets for the Asian luxuries packed in their ships. The desire for these amazing objects—to see them, feel them, own them—spread throughout Europe. Gossamer-thin Indian cotton made Dutch wool look drab. A Chinese porcelain cup felt weightless compared to a European stoneware mug. Displaying and wearing treasures made by Asian artists became the rage. As Dutch trade grew, so did Amsterdam. It flourished as the largest, most dynamic city in 17th-century Europe, a center for the arts and sciences. VOC journeys to Asia were long, complicated, and risky—but often highly lucrative. Through these voyages, the Dutch developed a vast network in Asia, establishing more than 600 trading centers, from Persia to Japan. Some of them were a simple shack on a beach. Others were fortified cities. They set up their Asian capital at Batavia (now Jakarta). Dutch merchants bought cotton textiles in India and bartered them for other goods elsewhere in Asia. Most VOC profits came from this inter-Asian trade. The Dutch also brought Asian luxuries—lacquer, porcelains, silks and cottons—back to Europe to sell there.*
It is known that among the vast quantities of exotic Chinese imports, oriental drawings also found their way to Europe in the time of Vermeer, but they appear to have had negligible influence on Dutch painting. Imitations of the Chinese mannerisms seem to have been limited to Delft ceramic painters who copied and elaborated upon imported porcelain for local markets. Nonetheless, early Vermeer writers, who were closer to the 18th-century style known as chinoiserie, speculated that the ineffable atmosphere of Vermeer's paintings may have been influenced by oriental art.*
In the À la recherche du temps perdu Marcel Proust evoked the Orient to describe the beauty of Vermeer painting in his famous passage about a tiny passage of Vermeer's View of Delft. He wrote about the last day in the life of a fictitious French writer and art lover, Bergotte: "The circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uremia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer's View of Delft (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself."* "Drom tulips to delftware: How Asian imports transformed Dutch life," https://www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/tulips-delftware-asian-imports-transformed-dutch-life/ (Gardinder Museum)
Mirrors in art carry a broad variety of meanings and associations.
The oracle of Apollo at Delphi demanded of the ancient Greek "know thyself," and mirrors have often been used as symbols of wisdom and self-knowledge. But the mirror can just as easily imply vanity, an unhealthy amount of self-regard. The danger of over admiring one's mirror image is encapsulated in the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who had fallen in love with his reflection in a pool.
In the ancient world, mirrors were made of highly polished metal, usually copper. The Romans are usually credited with developing glass mirrors, but these were not widely used until c. 1500 when convex mirrors were produced in Germany. Venetian glassmakers developed the kind of flat, silvered mirrors we know today. In those times, no other civilization produced the glass mirror. Renaissance painters are known to have extensively utilized mirrors to examine reality more objectively.
In ancient art, the mirror is often associated with the world of women and does not necessarily carry any symbolic value, although it was an attribute of the Roman goddess Venus.
In Christian art, the mirror came to represent the eternal purity of the Virgin Mary. The mirror in the visual arts can have other positive meanings. The allegorical figures of Prudence and Truth were often imagined carrying mirrors.
From the Renaissance on, Vanity and Deception were the connotations the mirror carried most often rather than Truth and Prudence. A work by Vermeer's contemporary Paulus Moreelse typifies this distrust as an allegory of Lasciviousness or Vanity: just as the mirror is dishonest, a carrier of pure illusion, so this girl's beauty is an illusion, as transitory and shallow as her reflection in the glass.
Some painters artfully made use of the mirror to show us something that we would otherwise not be able to see; the reflection of an object or person outside the scope of the painting perhaps. Vermeer showed both the girl's hidden face as well as the artist's easel set at a distance from the scene which unfolds in The Music Lesson. In the Woman with a Pearl Necklace and the Woman Holding a Balance, the viewer can see nothing but a sliver of light, presumably reflected from the illuminated figure.
Mirrors have been potent props in allegories, and are often identified as attributes of various gods and saints, virtues, senses, and vices. When Vermeer used mirrors as props in his own work he was no doubt fully aware that one of the principal function of art as defined by contemporary art theorists was to faithfully mirror nature.
No historical evidence has survived that directly concerns Vermeer's persona, or how he may have interacted with his clients or fellow artists. Certainly, the outward appearance of his painting would suppose a balanced and contemplative gentleman, even though there were many cases in which the world depicted by an artist had little or nothing to do with his known character or personal circumstances. Circumstantial evidence would seem to suggest that Vermeer's personality did not stray too far from what we might deduce from his art: he was even-tempered, confident, controlled and likely graced with above-average social skills. It is presumed that the only surviving effigy of Vermeer is the background figure in his early bordello scene, The Procuress.
Vermeer was repeatedly elected headsman of the Guild of St. Luke (the association which furthered the interests of Delft's artists and artisans). No doubt, this job demanded diplomatic qualities as well as the esteem and trust of the guild's heterogeneous members. Art historians have repeatedly underlined that Vermeer was able not only to live and prosper but to positively relate with his domineering Catholic mother-in-law during the years of his artistic activity. No evidence suggests he ever fell out with her. Furthermore, the artist was able to secure and maintain a vital relationship with a rich Delft patron, Pieter van Ruijven, who had purchased more than half of his entire artistic output. Van Ruiven's wife granted Vermeer a copious sum of money in her last testament, an unusual, if not unique occurrence. In any case, it is doubtful that Vermeer filled the bill of the eccentric artist, then as now, in vogue among the public.
Not all artists aspired to the same level of social acceptance as Vermeer. In fact, as the art historian Ingrid A. Cartwright informs us, the popular motif of Dutch "bohemian-type artists" toiling away in disheveled studios proves that many painters had dropped their noble robes of the pictor doctus and had embraced behaviors that art theorists and the culture at large disparaged. Writers from the second half of the 15th century onward made frequent mentions of artist's eccentricities, foibles and oddities which were equated with nonconformity, individuality and creative superiority. Biographers reported artists' personal oddities while humanizing their otherwise mystifying profession, allowing viewers to picture the personalities residing behind the brushstrokes.
More likely, Vermeer aspired to bequeath an image of himself as the supremely accomplished artist, a genius guided by divine grace, as conceived in the Italian Renaissance. The aspiration to guarantee himself a place in history nowhere better exemplified in visual terms than in his ambitions Art of Painting, a painted hymn to his profession and extraordinary talent.
The problem of rendering the quality of edges is a crucial aspect of pictorial representation. As the American painter and author of the first Vermeer monograph published in America wrote, primitive painters almost universally made, as amateurs still make, their edges too sharp. As a consequence, whatever the merit of their work may be, they tend to appear hard and dry. Leonardo da Vinci was perhaps the first painter to study edges systematically and employ simultaneously hard and soft ones. Many of his followers, and still more the school of Correggio, tended to paint their edges almost uniformly soft.
The best 17th-century Dutch painters studied their edges attentively, and so one thinks less of the hardness or softness of their work than is the case viewing Great Masters of other nations. Their good paintings simply look right in this respect. Vermeer was notably successful in creating something so like the aspect of nature that the spectator takes the edges for granted. It is likely that Vermeer studied at close quarters the works of Gerrit ter Borch, who perhaps, more than any other painter in history, understood the necessity of varying contour to accurately evoke a natural sense of form, space and light in painting.
In the present work by Vermeer, there is a notable variety of contours. The back edge of the girl's yellow jacket is surprisingly blurred. The naked eye would not have seen it that way. But the painting conveys the idea of incomparable softness of the fabric and roundness of the form. Had Vermeer opted for a sharp contour, the figure of the girl would have appeared flattened and closer, almost attached, to the background wall.
The difficulty in understanding how to portray edges is caused by the fact that we do not normally see blurred edges in nature since our eyes are constantly focusing and refocusing to guarantee the sharpest and most comprehensible image possible. This is especially true with objects as close to the viewer as those in the paintings of Vermeer. The painter must subvert, as it were, what he normally sees in favor of what he knows will be more efficient in painting.
Although Vermeer's plain white-washed walls are often taken for granted as chronicle, they constitute a tour de force of painting technique and are crucial in creating the atmosphere of his interiors. Generally, Vermeer's treatment of the white-washed-wall motif is linked to Carel Fabritius and, of course, Pieter de Hooch.
However, there exists another painter who delighted in painting simple walls: Jacobus Vrel, a charmingly idiosyncratic minor-master whose place in art history is slightly more than negligible. The works of Vrel have been traditionally been confused with those of Vermeer and De Hooch. Some of his canvases bear signatures that had been altered to read "Vermeer" or "De Hooch." Vrel's technique is unusual for the Dutch school in that he rejected finicky detail in favor of a broad depiction, remarkable for its controlled simplicity.
One might easily suppose that the provincial autodidacte Vrel must have taken the lead from Vermeer or De Hooch. However, his only dated painting, from 1654, suggests that rather than following, he anticipated the two Delft artists' interest in domestic themes and light effects. His Interior with a Woman at a Window, dated 1654, proves it was made four years before any known Delft-style interiors or courtyards by De Hooch. Art historians generally date Vermeer's first interiors from about 1657. Equally vexing is the fact that Vrel depicted a series of simple town views that cannot fail to suggest the unpretentiousness of Vermeer's Little Street.
Since we know nothing of Vrel's life, any contact or influence between the two is completely conjectural.
The woman donning a pearl necklace in Vermeer's picture is presumably putting the final touches on her morning toilette. On the table lies a powder brush and a fine comb. An unidentifiable box behind these objects may be associated with her morning activity, perhaps, a container for her necklace or cosmetics.
In the 17th century, men and women cared about their appearance. In an age when men conceived that a woman's "first merit is that of beauty" (and many women no doubt thought the same) women of the upper classes took great care to present their body and face in the most attractive manner. The ideal woman should have a fair complexion, a round or oval face with a well-proportioned nose. Large, moist dark eyes, a high forehead, and a small double chin were appreciated. The mouth should be small, but with full lips. Blond hair was also considered beautiful so some women dyed their hair.
To conform to the current ideal of beauty, which not every woman was blessed with, women utilized cosmetics and various practices that today would be considered repelling or even dangerous. Various books and pamphlets circulated with recipes and advice on how to improve one's appearance. In onse such nbook, already published in 1608, a chapter was entitled Delights for Ladies to Adorn Their Persons, Tables, Closets, and Distillatories: With Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters.
To redden lips and cheeks vermilion, an orange-red pigment derived from mercury found on the palette of many artists found, was employed, no doubt with unhealthy effects. Luckily, some women also harmless substances to color their cheeks, such as like red ocher or a tincture of boiled crabs. Facial hair was removed and sometimes eyebrows plucked. In the later 16th century, white lead was revived as a way of attaining a pale complexion, which was a sign of well-being and wealth (poor women had to work outdoors so they were suntanned). The dangers of lead carbonate were unknown, but instead was believed to "be effective in the treatment of certain skin pathologies, capable of eroding the growths and imperfections of the skin, removing stains, and polishing, cleaning, and bleaching the face." The use of lead carbonate produced quite opposite effects, including hair loss, inflamed eyes, damaged teeth, and even blackened skin. Lead poisoning could also lead to death. It was also believed lighten skin could be gotten by bathing the skin in one's own urine. To soften skin, a French chemist recommended women to wash "with rosewater mixed with wine, else make a decoction of the rinds of lemon."
Judging by the face of Vermeer's young lady, it would seem that she did use cosmetics, she used them with parsimony.