Woman with a Pearl Necklace(Vrouw met parelsnoer)
c. 1662 - 1665
Oil on canvas
55 x 45 cm. (21 5/8 x 17 3/4 in.)
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Vermeer must have treasured this elegant fur-trimmed morning jacket since it appears conspicuously in five other paintings including a large-scaled version in the Mistress and Maid. We can reasonably assume that it is the very same item worn by both the seated woman in the Mistress and Maid and in the Lady Writing a Letter since the ermine-tipped black spots seem to be distributed in much the same manner, at least in the proportion below the woman's neck that we are allowed to see. In the present picture, however, both the trim and yellow silk are executed with a delicacy that can only be understood in front of the real picture.
By observing the fur trim we can comprehend how dissimilar was Vermeer's approach to painting from that of his fellow fijnschilders with whom his work is often associated. While they painted each individual hair of the fur trim with a truly microscopic attention to detail, Vermeer synthesizes the essence of its fluffy softens with imperceptible shifts in tone of thin layers of light gray paint and vagueness of contour.
Two similar jackets, both without the telltale spots of gray which indicate that it was ermine, are represented in the Concert (as a nondescript bluish green) and the Woman Holding a Balance (as a deep blue).
In the mid-1660s or after, such garments were depicted 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 or cat. Metsu often painted them bright red or a curious lime green.
In Vermeer' 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.
Mirrors appear four times in Vermeer's slim 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 certainly was familiar with Ripa's treatise since two of his allegorical paintings were no doubt 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 some scholars believe that the mirror points to a favorite theme in Dutch painting, the Vanitas. However, most modern scholars underline that the present work's pervasive serenity is more consonant with positive metaphorical associations traditionally connected with the mirror.
This drawn-back curtain appears to be similar to the one in Woman Holding a Balance painted in the same years of the present work. Its rich warm tone, different from the lemon hue of the girl's morning jacket, creates a rare but evocative dissonance that must be seen directly to be appreciated. Moreover, the two yellows visually link two sides of the painting dramatically divided by the gulf of white wall. The design of the window compares favorably to the one in the Girl Interrupted in her Music, the Music Lesson, the Woman with a Lute and the Woman with a Water Pitcher.
Many writers believe that the empty chairs which populate many of Vermeer's interiors were meant to allude to a male presence, perhaps a suitor, 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 which carefully shields the young woman from the viewer and binds her tightly to the rest of the composition.
Neutron autoradiography reveals that Vermeer once included a cittern sitting on the now-empty chair. Whether the musical instrument was painted out to alter the work's symbolic meaning or to simplify the composition cannot be determined. In many canvases, it appears that the artist wished to avoid overt didactic statements in favor of a more elusive form of visual poetry eliminating objects whose symbolic meaning would have been perhaps too readily understood by his contemporaries. The chair's design and Bordeaux upholstery appear identical to two chairs in The Art of Painting of some years later. The perfectly circular highlights on the shiny brass studs of the chair activate an almost physical sensation of depth to the mass of dark paint in the lower half of the composition which would have otherwise appeared flat and nondescript.
While few of Vermeer's women are beautiful by conventional standards, this young girl is perhaps one of the least agreeable. Her gaze appears somewhat sleepy (according to one writer, dreamy) and in all fairness her ski-jump nose does not qualify as one of the most memorable passages in the artist's work. Furthermore, her none-too-perfect physiognomy is barely alleviated by the full profile view. It is notable that much of the indubitable evocative presence of Vermeer's women, this one included, is not derived by the treatment of their faces or expression but rather by their countenance, their dress and the exceptional care with which they are painted. Although this work was certainly not intended as a portrait, the young girl shares, perhaps, some of the demeanor of the early Renaissance profile portraiture.
After the Renaissance, portrait painters avoided full profile portraits because this view tends to conceal the sitter's individuality. Such portraits appear self-sufficient even though the sitter is completely exposed to the gaze of the spectator. The three-quarter pose, which was overwhelmingly preferred during the Baroque era, reduced the barrier between sitter and viewer since full characterization and expression largely depend upon facial asymmetry.
The girl's pearl necklace, oversized drop pearl earring and stylish hairdo with a red ribbon indicate she belonged to the upper crust of Dutch society.
When Chinese porcelain, or kraakporselein, as the Dutch called it, reached Europe all who handled it were amazed. It made native products look hopelessly primitive. Their 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 kraakporseleincommerce 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 made their reputations chiefly on their ability to capture its luxurious appearance including one of the greatest still life painter of all time, Willem Kalf.
Most scholars have ignored the identity or eventual symbolic meaning of Vermeer's Chinese ginger jar wrapped in shadow on the extreme left. However, this 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. The reflection of an unseen window 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 as well. The decorative flower motifs match very closely. 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 has just donned on her pearl earrings and a fancy red star-shaped bow in her hair, She is captured at the moment when she tightens the ribbons of her pearl necklace. A water basin, (partially hidden), 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 genre 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 rare poetic dialogue between the young girl and the mirror upon which she gazes. This singular pictorial 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 is the renowned Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (see image left). Art historians have speculated that the Goldfinch was made as a sign board for some kind of commercial activity since the panel on which it is painted presents deep nail holes along the borders. Thus, it would have been visible to all. 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 see this Fabritius' masterpiece.
The extendable table which can be made out with great difficulty in reproductions-but evident when viewing the real painting, appears to be the same one that Vermeer employed in five other interiors. Varieties of such tables were represented many times in Dutch interior paintings of the time. It would have been an expensive luxury item but not out of reach of Vermeer's well-to-do mother-in-law, Maria Thins, in whose house Vermeer lived and worked during much of his artistic maturity.
Hidden in the deep shadows, the table's quite mass lends a noble stability to the composition. The profiles of the striking bulbous-form legs can be made out as their silhouette define the two small shapes of illuminated floor tiles.
The deep blue tablecloth massed over the extendable table is similar in fold and position to the one seen in Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance, a painting that has strong compositional ties to present work, although the former's muted blue coloring is not so vibrant as the latter's. Its meandering, sensual folds provide a counter point to the strict geometric layout of the composition. Its rather dull color may be a consequence of time. Neutron autoradiography, a technique which permits to see hidden layers of dark paint, reveals that it once covered less of the illuminated black and white tile floor under the table. Perhaps Vermeer felt that the staccato effect created by the multiple tiles distracted from the central dialogue between the woman and her image in the mirror.
- artistic collaboration
- theme & composition
- looking under Vermeer's painting
- Vermeer's debt to Gerrit ter Borch
- was Vermeer influenced by Chinese art?
- mirrors in art
- what kind of a man was Vermeer?
- the importance of contours in Vermeer's art
- the white-washed walls of Jacobus Vrel
- listen to period music
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
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. Vermeer: The Complete Works, New York, 1997)
Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings, New York, 2008)
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 in 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. In the flesh colors are 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 Wheelock)
- (?) 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. 36;
- Johannes Caudri, Amsterdam (before 1809);
- Caudri sale, Amsterdam, 6 September 1809, no. 42, (to Ths. Spaan);
- D. Teengs sale, Amsterdam, 24 April 1811, no. 73 (to Gruyter);
- Sale, Amsterdam, 26 March 1856, no. 93 (to Philip);
- Henry Grevedon, Paris (before 1860);
- Thoré-Bürger (Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré), Paris (c. 1860-68);
- Thoré-Bürger et al. sale, Brussels, 22 April 1868, no. 49 (to Sedelmeyer for Suermondt);
- Barthold Suermondt, Aachen (1868-74);
- acquired in 1874 as part of the Suermondt collection by the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (inv. 912B).
- Paris 1866
Exposition rétrospective tableaux anciens empruntés aux galeries particulières. Palais des Champs-Elysées.
not in cat. 5.
- Paris 1914
Hundred Masterpieces. A Selection from the Pictures by Old Masters. Sedelmeyer Gallery.
52, no. 24, and ill.
- Amsterdam 1950
120 Beroemde schilderrijen uit het Kaiser-Friederich-Museum te Berlijn. Rijksmuseum.
56, no. 112, and ill. 107.
- Washington D.C.
Nov. 12,1995 - Feb. 11, 1996
Johannes Vermeer. National Gallery of Art.
152-155, no. 12, repro.
- The Hague 1996 Mar. 1–June 2
Johannes Vermeer. Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis.
152-155, no. 12, repro.
- Madrid 19 February – 18 May, 2003
Vermeer y el interior holandés. Museo Nacional del Prado.
174-175, no. 36 and ill.
- Rome 11 November, 2008 – 15 February, 2009
Da Rembrandt a Vermeer. Valori civili nella pittura fiamminga e olandese del '600 Fondazione Roma. Museo del Corso.
104-105, no. 33 and ill.
- Tokyo 13 June - 17 September, 2012
From Renaissance to Rococo. Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.
The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
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 determined his themes independently, it is hardly out of 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. He had paid sixteen thousand guilders, an absolutely astronomical sum, to acquire land near Schiedam that brought with it the title of Lord of Spalant in 1669. 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 is almost certain to have had direct knowledge of it 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 strict 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 he explicit sensuality and extravagant color scheme present in Van Mieris' version.
Arthur Wheelock, one of the most sensitive Vermeer experts, 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 taut. 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, exquisitely balanced composition we now see was not Vermeer's original concept. Neutron autoradiography has revealed that the artist made some critical changes in the composition. By extending the shape of the great folds of the bluish clothe 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, bright 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 absorbing her from into the rest of the composition and eliminating the direct line of her gaze towards the mirror. The map was very likely the same which appears in The Art of Painting.
According to Wheelock, 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 one 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 is closer in introspective spirit to the present work than Gerrit ter Borch's A Young Woman at her Toilette (see left). 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 had intruded into the privacy of the muted drama.
Before Ter Borch's work, scenes of women adorning themselves in front of mirrors had been interpreted as allusions to vanity, a mode of conduct that the viewer should avoid. Ter Borch, perhaps reflecting positive shift in Dutch attitudes towards women and private life of individuals, subtly transformed the subject by focusing on the simplicity and sincerity of female conduct.
Ter Borch had made an enormous contribution to the development of interior painting in the Netherlands and his works were avidly collected and elaborated upon by scores of artists. He is, perhaps, the only Dutch genre artist who rivals the depth of Vermeer's sympathetic treatment of women. Although Ter Borch may be capable of registering greater expressive nuance in the expressions of his women, his scenes lacks Vermeer's sense of pictorial design and above all, the sense of three-dimensional space which becomes an extension of the figure's interior life.
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 seems 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 popular 18th-century style known as chinoiserie, speculated that some of the inferable atmosphere of Vermeer's paintings may have been influenced by oriental works of art.
Even Marcel Proust evoked the Orient to describe the beauty of Vermeer painting in his famous passage concerning a tiny passage of Vermeer's View of Delft in his À la recherche du temps perdu. 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 uraemia 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."
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 glass makers 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 art 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 (see left) 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.
Although Vermeer the artist freely exploited innovative themes and painting techniques from his colleagues, no historical evidence has survived which directly concerns the artist's persona or how he may have interacted with his fellow artists or clients. Certainly, the outward appearance of his painting would suppose a quiet, balanced and contemplative gentleman even though we are warned that 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. However, circumstantial evidence suggests Vermeer's personality indeed did not stray too far from the figure we deduce from his art: he was even-tempered, confident, controlled and likely graced with above-average social skills.
Vermeer was repeatedly elected headsman of the Guild of St Luke (the association which protected and furthered the interests of Delft's artists and artisans). Such a job would have necessitated marked diplomatic qualities as well as esteem and trust on the part of the guild's heterogeneous members. Art historians have repeatedly underlined that he 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. There is not a single shred of evidence that suggests he ever fell out with her. Furthermore, Vermeer secured and maintained a vital relationship with a rich Delft patron, Pieter van Ruijven, who had purchased more than half of the his entire output. The same patron granted Vermeer a highly unusual and copious sum of money in his last testament. 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, a popular motif of Dutch "bohemian-type artists" toiling away in their 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 that piqued the curiosity of both readers and viewers while humanizing their otherwise mystifying profession to the public. They allowed viewers to picture the personalities residing behind the brushstrokes.
Tales of the reclusive artist working were common in biographies of Renaissance artists' lives. Dutch artistic literature of the 17th century was rife with interesting, often comical anecdotes about artists' personal lives and working methods. More likely, Vermeer aspired to leave an image of himself as the supremely accomplished artist, a genius with a divine gift as conceived in the Italian Renaissance. The aspiration to guarantee himself a place in history can be no better exemplified 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. 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 canvas 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 been dramatically 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 in order to guarantee the sharpest and most comprehensible image possible. This is especially true with subjects 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 about edges and what results pictorially true.
However, there exists another painter who delighted in painting simple white-washed walls although his place in art history is presently negligible. Jacobus Vrel, a charmingly idiosyncratic minor-master, had traditionally been confused with both Vermeer and De Hooch so much that some of his canvases bear signatures which had been altered to read as those of the two renowned painters. Vrel's treatment is highly unusual for the Dutch school in that he rejected detailed descriptions in favor of a broad depiction, remarkable for its controlled simplicity.
One would suppose that the provincial autodidacte Vrel must have taken the lead from greater Vermeer or De Hooch. However, Vrel's only dated painting, from 1654, suggests that, rather than following, he anticipated the Delft artists' interest in domestic themes and light effects. The date on his Interior with a Woman at a Window is 1654, and proves that he dated paintings four years before any known dates on De Hooch's Delft-style interiors or courtyards. Art historians generally date Vermeer's first interiors where a white-washed wall comes into play from about 1657. Equally vexing is the fact that Vrel painted a series of simple town views which cannot fail to suggest the unpretentiousness and anonymity of Vermeer's Little Street.
Since we know nothing of Vrel's life, any contact or influence between the two is completely conjectural.