Details of Vermeer's Painting Technique

Girl with a Red Hat, Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Red Hat
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665–1667
Oil on panel, 23.2 x 18.1 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Painting with the Brush Handle

The Girl with a Red Hat occupies a unique place in the Vermeer's oeuvre. It is one of the only two works on a wood panel and it is extraordinarily original in both conception and execution.

Under the surface we now observe lies a male portrait by an unknown artist (although there is no reason why it should not be by Vermeer's hand) which can be seen in and x-ray image of the work. Just why Vermeer used such an unusual support has long been questioned. The answer might be a very simple: the artist wished to realize as rapidly as possible the seductive image which had grasped his imagination and had no time for the long a laborious chore or preparing a new panel from scratch. The harder and less absorbent surface of the painted panel accentuates flowing brushwork seen in the background and blue wrap but at the same time permits a very fine degree of detail in the rendering of the face.

Upon close examination, the paint handling of the Girl with a Red Hat is unusually audacious, but it is at the same time astoundingly efficient in describing the light, space and textural effects of the motif. Vermeer's technical confidence had reached such a level that, in order to render the shadows of the cravat, he simply removed the wet white paint with the tip of his brush handle exposing the brown ground beneath rather than applying the proper gray shade of paint to the panel.