Details of Vermeer's Painting Technique

The Procuress, Johannes Vermeer
The Procuress
Johannes Vermeer
1656
Oil on canvas, 143 x 130 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Tools of the Trade

Vermeer's early Procuress mediates between the his first history paintings and the better-known genre interior imagery of the artist's mature years. However, the recent restoration of this early canvas has revealed a startling use of color that could only have been guessed and anticipates the artist's brilliant genre scenes, the Officer and Laughing Girl and Milkmaid painted a few scant years later.

Groups of half-length ribald figures arranged behind carpet-covered tables, the so-called bordeeltjes, was one of the most common (and profitable)  motifs of the Utrecht  school. Vermeer's familiarity with this popular genre shows that the young artist was quick to adapt and renew established themes and compositions according to his own pictorial needs. This adaptive manner of working, in which the artist combined motifs from a wide range of pictorial sources, became characteristic of the painter’s evolution. As the painter and art historian Lawrence Gowing first pointed out, it would be "hard to find a single theme of any boldness in his work which is not based on precedents [in the works of Vermeer]t."

The elaborately decorated wine jug of The Procuress is true little treasure in Vermeer's oeuvre. With its light gray ground and the typical bright blue decorations (executed by Vermeer with pure lapis lazuli), it seems very likely that this jug had been imported from the Westerwald (Germany), a forested area near Cologne on the Rhine, famous for its pottery since the 16th century.

In no other painting—not even  the Milkmaiddo we find an object painted with such minute precision and intensity. In fact, laboratory analysis of the picture has revealed that in order to depict the jug's contours and geometric decorations, the young Vermeer employed a pair of compasses for the purpose. Both the piercing point  and the elliptical scratches used to initially define the jug’s contours and blue stripes are still visible in the paint layers under high magnification. Such an unembarrassed use of a mechanical tool testifies to the artist's willingness to adopt any and all means in order to heighten the mimetic quality of his work.  In the light of this finding, the camera obscura, which the artist  evidently "discovered" shortly after having finished The Procuress,  would become a fixed tool throughout the remainder of his career,  a sort of optical guide to painting, in effect, a logical extension of the painter’s curiosity and creative openness.

The Procuress, Johannes Vemreer