Details: Vermeer's Painting Technique

A LAdy Seated at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer
A Lady Seated at a Virginal
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670-1675
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 45.5 cm.
National Gallery, London

Brushwork

Even thought Vermeer's late works have been judged somewhat negatively in respects to his earlier paintings, they feature some of the most exquisite details of his oeuvre. The artist’s extraordinary power of pictorial invention and level of technical proficiency can be clearly seen in the rendering of the illuminated side of the marbled virginal of the late A Lady Standing at a Virginal. This flat, unassuming slab of marble appears so convincing that it is surprising to note the absolute economy of means by which it has been achieved.

Vermeer first laid down adjacent rectangles of smooth, virtually unmodulated paint, warm brown above, and a dark gray below. Once dry, he mixed two fluid grays, one lighter and the other darker,   and applied them over the dry background tones with quick, jagged brushstrokes in order to imitate the marble veining. The brush handling is so daring and but suggestive that it recalls the anarchic spontaneity of Ito Jakuchu's ink drawings of birds and vegetables, but at the same time, miraculously evokes the visual impression of veined marble. One author has compared this passage to Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.

In order to represent the pale, diagonal shadow cast by the bow of the viola onto the virginal’s flat surface,  Vermeer first  prepared a medium gray transparent tone and thinly applied it over the marble taking care to let the color of the underlying paint to transpire. Likely, the artist used a badger brush to smooth out the gray shadow and remove any sign of brushwork lest it destroy the illusion of transparency. The wonderfully vibrant shadow that results brings into relation the viola's bow and the surface of marbled surface and informs the viewer of the source of light which illuminates the scene.

Lady Seated at a Virginal (detail), Johannes Vermeer