The Essential Vermeer Glossary: D - I
Samuel van Hoogstraten
(1627 - 1678)
This glossary contains a number of the terms in this site which may not be clear to all readers. Some of these terms are also discussed as they relate to Vermeer's art. Each of the four sections of the glossary can be accessed from the menu top of each page of the glossary entries. In the near future, each word in the site's text which is listed in the glossary will be signaled by an icon that will link directly to that term.
An engraving of Samuel van Hoogstraten, Dutch painter and writer on art. Although Van Hoogstraten painted genre scenes in the style of De Hooch and Metsu and a few portraits, as a painter he is best known as a specialist in perspective and tromp l'oeil paintings. One of his "perspective boxes" which shows a painted world through a peep-hole, is in the National Gallery, London. Only in his early works can signs be found that he was a pupil of Rembrandt. Hoogstraten traveled to London, Vienna, and Rome, worked in Amsterdam and The Hague as well as his native Dordrecht. He was an etcher, poet, director of the mint at Dordrecht, and art theorist. His Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (Introduction to the Art of Painting, 1678) is an invaluable source for understanding Dutch 17th-century art theory and also contains one of the rare contemporary appraisals of Rembrandt's work.
- Diagonal Line
- Disegno vs. Colorito (drawing vs. color debate)
- Disks of Confusion
- "Dissolute" Self Portraits
- Dummy Board
Dead-color (in Dutch dood-verf), which is the equivalent of today's term "underpainting," is a more or less monochrome version of the final painting intended to give volume, suggest substance to form, fix the composition and distribute darks and lights with a good degree of accuracy. The lack of color used in the term "dead-color" probably explains the word "dead." In the 17th century, dead-coloring appears in various forms.
Dead-coloring was once so important in the painting process that it was mandatory in early days of Flemish painting. In 1546, one of the ‘s Hertogenbosch guild rules states, "7. item. All painters will be bound to work with good paints, and they will not make any paintings than on good dry oak planks or wainscot, being each color first dead-colored and this on a double ground…"
It was not uncommon in the busier 17th-century studios that assistants worked up numbers of paintings to the dead-coloring stage that only needed to be finished by the master. Maintaining an abundant stock of images on spec may have been a expedient to entice prospective buyers.
Click here for more information on dead-color.
As far as it is possible to understand, Vermeer used the dead-coloring methods common among Northern painters.
In the Woman Holding a Balance, the brown (raw umber and/or black) dead-color filled two functions: the broader areas of dark brown paint represented the masses of shadows with the light buff color of the ground serving as the lights. In the early Diana and her Companions, a carefully brushed underdrawing was followed by a monochrome dead-coloring in order to determine the essential forms of the composition. Some of the dead-coloring can be made out here and there through abraded paint layers.
It has been remarked that more than one passage in The Geographer appears unfinished and that this allows us to have a glimpse at Vermeer’s underpainting although it is not out of the question that early restoration may be partially responsible for the loss of the uppermost paint layers. The massive wooden window frame and the deep shadowed area of the carpet correspond rather closely to our idea of Vermeer's underpainting method. Neither of these two areas is defined according to the artist's habitual standard of precision. The darkest parts are all painted with the same semi-transparent dark gray pigment, most likely a mixture of raw umber and black. Here and there on the carpet's fore side we may observe that the initial accents of local color. Some of the decorative features have been painted with medium blue paint over the monochrome ground, most likely a mixture of natural ultramarine blue and a touch of lead white. It is probable that the blue areas would have been subsequently glazed with the same ultramarine, this time in a dense, transparent medium in order to deepen and enrich their color. Other parts of the decorative patterns have been brought up with a medium-toned earth color, which compared to the darkest underpaint seems to be a medium-dark yellow ochre. The upper folds of the carpet which catch the incoming light have been depicted with light-toned paint, here with the addition of ochre and there with ultramarine.
A detail is an individual or minute part of an item or particular. The etymology of the word involves cutting, as in nouns like "tailor" and "retail."
In modern art history, the study of detail is not just a specialty investigative tool, but a fundamental part of the discipline. "Just as a mycologist looks at spores, or an ornithologist at the markings on birds' breasts, or a dermatologist at tiny suspicious spots, so an art historian looks at details."1 Accordingly, art historians who concentrate on detail "are only doing what scientists are…doing: they are systematically dissecting or disassembling their objects into component parts..." in order to more fully understand their innermost workings. In the opinion of the art historian James Elkins, this model may also betray art history's desire to “become scientific, a desire that has long infected the humanities."
Art historians generally work with two types of details. The fist regards the details of a painting’s narrative, that is, of specific illusory objects or parts of objects which are represented in the pictured scene. Often, such details occupy only a minimum area of the painting’s surface but for the inquiring art historian have great consequence on the final reading of the work as a whole.For example, a tiny, barely noticeable floor tile with a Cupid scribbled upon it in Vermeer's Milkmaid, a picture which has been traditionally interpreted as a hymn to domestic virtue, may, according to one analysis, suggest covert amorous undertones. In this case, the amorous reading would be presumably strengthened by the nearby footwarmer which, according to one art historian, was at times associated with a lover's desire for constancy and caring but may likewise have carried sexual implication since most Dutchman would have known that the warmth of the coals moved under the skirt upwards towards the lady's private parts.
The second kind of detail regards an isolated area of the painting where the object of attention is not so much an illusory object, but the manner or means by which it is depicted. The most frequently analyzed details of this kind are brush handling, peculiar paint or surface qualities and stylistic components which might distinguish the technique of one painter from that of another. Various art historians have argued that "the fragment played a central role in Romantic aesthetics; it was taken to possess a greater immediacy than the whole, as well as a privileged relation to truth. Artworks were understood to have been muted by systems of academic conventions and skills, and by concepts such as balance, symmetry, composition, and especially decorum. Details were thought to be outside such systems"2 and thus capable of revealing the artist's innermost nature.
Some art historians object to dangers of considering detail as the key, or "the last word" "that is capable of unlocking and exhausting all the meaning of all that is painted around it."3 Jenkins postulates that the modern day "fascination with the detail can be nothing more or less than an attempt, sometimes not fully articulated, to escape the potentially rigid grip of iconographic interpretation"’ The French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman opines that the painting "is always considered to be a ciphered text, and the cipher, like a treasure-chest, or a skeleton hidden in a cupboard, is always there waiting to be found, somehow behind the painting, not enclosed within the material density of the paint: it will be the 'solution' to the enigma posed by the picture, its 'motive', or the 'admission' of its secret meaning. In most cases it will be an emblem, a portrait, or some allusion to the 'events' of narrative history; in short, what the historian will have the duty of making the painted work 'confess' or give up will be a symbol or a referent. This means acting as though the painted work had committed a crime, a single crime (when the fact is that the painted work, pretty as a picture and good as gold, has either committed no crime at all, or, by cunningly exploiting the black magic of sight, is getting away with hundreds of unseen ones)."4
See also, line.
Line, along with color, are considered the most basic elements of drawing. Different lines have different psychological impacts depending on variations in their length, direction and weight.
Diagonal lines suggest a feeling of movement or direction. Diagonal lines create a sensation of instability in relation to gravity, being neither vertical nor horizontal, but also because they are not related in a static way to the edges of the artist’s paper or canvas. They seem to tip in space. Since the periphery of the eye is sensitive to movement or to any diagonal, its calls for complete attention from the viewer which is why traffic signs designed to warn of hazards are diamond shaped use diagonals.
In a two dimensional composition, diagonal lines are also used to indicate depth, an illusion of perspective that pulls the viewer into the picture-creating an illusion of a space that one could move about within. Thus if a feeling of movement or speed is desired, or a feeling of activity, diagonal lines can be used. Baroque artists in particular made use of the diagonal line to introduce energy and movement in their works.
Although Vermeer’s designs are generally thought of as predominantly rectilinear, the artist made continual use of strong, clear diagonals in order to introduce a visual dynamism an confer the sense a sense of ongoing narrative development. One of the most effective use of diagonal lines can be found in the Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid. In this picture, a series of three implied diagonal lines superimpose themselves over the rectilinear compositional structure invigorating the narrative tension, wherein the mistress has cast aside a letter she has just received (see the letter and red wax seal on the floor in front of the table) and hastily writes as her maid patiently waits to deliver the letter as soon as it is finished.
In Florence, disegno ("drawing" or "design") was viewed as the sine qua non of the artistic endeavor, the primary means for making painting approximate nature. Disegno was fundamental for all areas of art in the Renaissance: painting, sculpture, and architecture. Although it is believed that the notion of drawing as the foundation for the art of painting and sculpture had been expressed at least as early as Petrarch,5 the art historical concept of disegno "originated partly in the workshop of sculptors and had direct reference to the plastic quality of a work. Giorgio Vasari, the foremost art critic of the Renaissance, gave the concept its universal form by lumping together all the visual arts as arti del disegno and by initiating the foundation of the Academy of Design (Accademia del Disegno) in Florence in 1562. In Vasari’s usage disegno points to the regular form or idea of things in artist’s mind, that is, disegno is understood primarily as the right proportion of the whole to its parts and of the parts to one another."6 Thus, disegno was considered the key to the entire imaginative process, the medium of the painter’s thought and its concrete expression.
On the other hand, in Venice, colorito, "coloring" was not only color but the fundamental means by which painted images could be charged with the look of life. Florentine color was frequently more vivid than the palette used in Venetian paintings; typically Venetian, however, was the process of layering and blending colors to achieve a glowing, natural richness. Rather than beginning with careful drawings where are contours are fixed with meticulous certainty, Venetian painters often worked out compositions directly on the canvas, using layered patches of colors and visible brushwork, rather than line, to evoke the sense of space and form. Venetian painters paid much closer attention to the effects on light than the Florentines and used this knowledge to create both movement and volume in composition.
This debate, which raged throughout the Early Renaissance (c.1400-90) and the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530) was argued over by many of the leading exponents of academic art, up until the 19th century. The debate between the two positions involved theorists as well as artists and regional rivalries as well as aesthetic concerns.
Roger De Piles (1635-1709), a French art critic who gave important contribution to aesthetics in his Dialogue sur le coloris ("Dialogue on colours"), broke with tradition and argued strenuously that color was not simply accidental ornamentation, but the main condition of an object’s visibility. Thus color, to de Piles, was part of the natural order of painting.
It is an attempt to assess the achievement of the major artists since Raphael, De Piles awarded marks out of twenty for each composition, design or drawing, colour, and expression, De Piles’ evaluations have been denigrated after the decline of Classicism, and his ranking is now considered his "most notorious contribution to criticism" even though his "decomposition of the overall quality of the work into four properties was revolutionary and ambitious at the time." After an examination of the historical correlation (1736-1960) between with prices achieved by their works at auction and the De Pile’s evaluation of a list of fifty-six major painters in his own time (with whose work he had acquainted himself as a connoisseur during his travels) the professor of economics Kathryn Graddy concluded that the critic’s "ratings have held up very well," better than those of other critics or "random judgments." In sum, "His [De Piles'] higher-rated artists achieved a greater return than his lower rated artists."7
De Piles' table of artists is reported below. Each painter was given marks from "0" to "18" in composition, drawing, color and expression which was intended to provide an overview of aesthetic appreciation that hinges upon the balance between color and design. The highest marks went to Raffaello Sanzio and Rubens, with a slight bias on color for Rubens, a slight bias on drawing for Raphael. Painters who scored very badly in anything but color were Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and remarkably Michelangelo Caravaggio with "16" on color and "0" (zero) on expression. Painters who fell far behind Rubens and Raphael but whose balance between color and design was perfect were Lucas van Leyden, Sebastian Bourdon, Albrecht Dürer. Rembrandt, who is considered one of the world's greatest draughtsmen, was given a desultory "6."
|Andrea del Sarto||12||16||9||8|
|Charles Le Brun||16||16||8||16|
|Daniele da Volterra||12||15||5||8|
|Abraham van Diepenbeeck||11||10||14||6|
|Giovanni da Udine||10||8||16||3|
|Leonardo da Vinci||15||16||4||14|
|Lucas van Leyden||8||6||6||4|
|Palma il Vecchio||5||6||16||0|
|Palma il Giovane||12||9||14||6|
|Perin del Vaga||15||16||7||6|
|Sebastiano del Piombo||8||13||16||7|
|Eustache Le Sueur||15||15||4||15|
In optics, a disk of confusion (also referred to as halation, blur circle, circle of confusion and circle of indistinctness) refers to the effect of non-converging, unfocused light rays that have entered a lens. When light waves don’t converge after passing through a lens, they produce a larger optical spot, instead of coming together at a single point, as in the case of a highlight.
Under normal conditions disks of confusion are not seen with the human eye because "it quickly shifts focus to the object being momentarily considered, so that most persons are unaware that the...eye is focused on a single plane at any given instant. If the eye did not shift focus as quickly as it does one might be able to notice circles of confusion forming on the retina, but experimentation shows that the out-of-focus image formed on the retina is useless for picture-making purposes even if one is aware of its existence."8
Art historians have equated certain globular highlights of light toned paint found in many of Vermeer’s paintings with circles of confusion that the artist presumably have observed through a camera obscura. These painterly interpretations are called "pointillés." Vermeer made extensive use of pointillés in the Milkmaid although they appear, somewhat rudimental, for the first time scattered in the hair of the Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, on the satin bodice and on the knobby surface of the foreground Turkish carpet. The View of Delft also presents a profusion of pointillés, many of which, however, would not have registered by a real camera obscura in natural conditions, above all, those that occur within deep shadows such as the undersides of the boats moored on the scene’s quay. Pointillés are also very noticeable in the late Lacemaker where they shimmer on the foreground still life. It must be assumed that once Vermeer had understood how the disks of confusion are produced by the camera obscura and how to imitate them with paint, he employed them with considerable artistic license in order to enhance the effect of light as it plays upon natural surface.
Although Dutch painters experimented with a number of tehcnqiues to represent highlights, which are key to creating the illusion of light conditions (usually intense), shiny surface textures and, only Vermeer adopted circular highlight in a methodical manner. Perhaps the only other instance in which such are highlights occur in Dutch painting can be noticed are those on a pair of slippers in the foreground of Gabriel Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter.
This highly peculiar optical phenomena in Vermeer’s painting was systematically investigated Charles Seymour ("Dark Chamber and Light-Filled Room: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura," Art Bulletin 46, 1964) and Daniel A. Fink ("Vermeer's Use of the Camera Obscura: A Comparative Study," The Art Bulletin 53, 1971). Both writers experimented with actual camera obscuras focused on mock-Vermeer still lifes in attempts to replicate the effects seen in Vermeer’s paintings.
drawn from the abstract of:
Ingred Cartwright, "Hoe schilder hoe wilder: Dissolute self-portraits in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Art", dissertation, University of Maryland, 2007. <http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/7720/1/umi-umd-4997.pdf>
In the seventeenth century, Dutch and Flemish artists presented a strange new face to the public in their self-portraits. Rather than assuming the traditional guise of the learned gentleman artist that was fostered by Renaissance topoi, many painters presented themselves in a more unseemly light. Dropping the noble robes of the pictor doctus, they smoked, drank, and chased women. Dutch and Flemish artists explored a new mode of self-expression in dissolute self-portraits, embracing the many behaviors that art theorists and the culture at large disparaged.
Dissolute self-portraits stand apart from what was expected of a conventional self-portrait, yet they were nonetheless appreciated and valued in Dutch culture and in the art market.
Dissolute self-portraits also reflect and respond to a larger trend regarding artistic identity in the seventeenth century, notably, the stereotype "hoe schilder hoe wilder"["the more of a painter, the wilder he is,"a reference that reappears throughout the century, both in print and in paint] that posited Dutch and Flemish artists as intrinsically unruly characters prone to prodigality and dissolution. Artists embraced this special identity, which in turn granted them certain freedoms from social norms and a license to misbehave. In self-portraits, artists emphasized their dissolute nature by associating themselves with themes like the Five Senses and the Prodigal Son in the tavern.
One of the most effective manners for 17th-century Dutch painters for achieving pictorial depth within domestic settings was the so-called doorkijkje, or see-through doorway which permits the spectator to view something outside the pictured room, whether it be another room, a series of rooms, a hallway, a street, a canal, a courtyard or a garden. The doorkijkje offers the painter and opportunity to create a more complicated architectural space and contemporarily expand narrative.
Nicolaes Maes painted six versions of an idle servant eavesdropping on an encounter between a man and a maidservant glimpsed through an open door. Other examples of the doorkijkje device can be found in Emmanuel De Witte’s Interior with a Woman at the Virginals c. 1660 and Samuel van Hoogstraten's View of a Corridor, 1662 and The Slippers by the same (see image left).
However, no Dutch artist made use of this device more than Pieter de Hooch in both interior and exterior scenes. In the Courtyard of a House in Delft, we see it in the sequence of full light on the foreground bricks, contrasting the quieter shade of the covered tiled passageway, and the open door to the sunlit street beyond. The art historian Martha Hollander found that among more than 160 paintings attributed to De Hooch, only twelve do not exhibit this technique of a doorkijkje revealing secondary and tertiary views to other rooms, courtyards or the street beyond.9
It has been pointed out that the 20th century, the Italian film director Luchino Visconti, somewhat as 17th-century Dutch painters were centuries before, was particularly fond of framing his actors through doorways doors in art and film or, on the contrary, by blocking our view onto another character we would like to see; so deliberately withholding information."10
In all, Vermeer painted three doorkijkje motifs: the early Maid Asleep, the Love Letter and lost work described in a 1696 auction catalogue as "In which a gentleman is washing his hands in a perspectival room with figures, artful and rare..." The picture fetched 95 guilders, making it one of the highest priced works of the auction.
It is generally believed that Vermeer drew directly from doorkijkje paintings of Nicolaes Maes for his Maid Asleep while the complicated compositional structure of his late Love Letter can be traced to Van Hoogstraten’s The Slippers or Pieter de Hooch’s Couple with a Parrot. Although there is obviously no way to envision the lost doorkijkje, after the Maid Asleep Vermeer never again opened a view on another room beyond that in which the scene is set.
Doorsien is a Dutch word that literally means "plunge through." Dutch painters were particularly interested in views into the distance, which they called doorsien. Doorsiens not only enhance the sense of depth in a picture but also helped the artist structure complex scenes with large numbers of figures, convincingly situating them on different planes.The Dutch painter and art theorist Karel van Mander even criticized Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel because it was lacking in sufficient depth. In his influential Schilder-boeck (Painter book) of 1604, Van Mander wrote:
Our composition should enjoy a fine quality, for the delight of our sense, if we there allow a view [insien] or vista [doorsien] with small background figures and a distant landscape, into which the eyes can plunge. We should take care sometimes to place our figures in the middle of the foreground, and let one see over them for many miles.
"Although Van Mander used the term doorsien to refer to vistas or views in general, he uses perspect to indicate the more specific context of an architectural setting in which, for example, a receding passageway or colonnade is viewed through an archway. He distinguishes perspecten from the natural opening provided by rocks and trees in landscapes but notes that they have the same effect."11
Pencil, pen, ink, charcoal or other similar mediums on paper or other support, tending toward a linear quality rather than mass, and also with a tendency toward black-and-white, rather than color.
It seems somewhat surprising that not even a single preparatory or finished drawing by Vermeer has survived. One would expect that such meticulously balanced compositions and problematic perspectives could be most efficiently resolved through preparatory drawings which would allow the artist to easily correct any errors. There were many ways to transfer drawings efficiently and accurately to canvas.
Only scant traces have remained of the initial drawing methods on Vermeer's canvases although evidence seems to suggest that it was deliberate and controlled.
It was once thought that Vermeer revealed some of his own working procedures, including his drawing methods, in the Art of Painting. On a toned canvas the artists represented in Vermeer's picture has laid in the contours of the model in white paint or chalk and has begun to paint in various shades of blue the laurel leaves. However, there exist many discrepancies between real working habits seen in representations of painters' studios of 17th-century and those illustrated in the Art of Painting. While some of the indications given by the Art of Painting of the painter's technique may be factual, others may have a more symbolic function and in any case they do not seem to correspond closely to what were most likely Vermeer's own methods.
See also trompe l’oeil.
Dummy boards (the actual term is a 19th -century invention) are life-size, flat, figures painted on wooden panels and shaped in outline to resemble figures of servants, soldiers, children, and animals. On the other side, dummy boards are fitted with a wooden support that allows them to stand upright in corners, doorways and on stairways to surprise visitors. The taste for illusionistic painted figures as a form of house decoration probably originated in the trompe l’oeil, or life-like interior scenes painted by Dutch artists in the early 17th century. Dummy boards continued to be produced well into the 19th century. Many later dummy boards were made by professional sign painters.
Dummy boards belong to a wide range of trompe l’oeil devices that were immensely popular in the 17th-century Netherlands. A number or artists tried their hands these “eye foolers” (oogenbedriegers), and their works were also in great demand aboard. Cornelius Gijsbrechts, who would become one of the most innovative trompe-l’oeil painters in Europe moved to Stockholm in 1672, where he lived for a few years, and then went on to seek his fortune again in Germany. In 1675 he probably resided in Breslau (presently Wroclaw in Poland). The painter and art writer Samuel van Hoogstraten is noted to have kept many such eye foolers strewn around his house. According to Arnold Houbraken, another Dutch art writer, one could find them practically every where one looked:12
Here an apple, pear or lemon in a dish rack, three a slipper in the corner of the room or under a chair. There were also dried, salted fish on a nail behind the door, and these were so deceptively painted that one could easily mistake them for the actual dried plaice.
Boy Sleeping in a High Chair
Oil on panel, 96 x 75.7 cm.
Houbraken credited Cornelius Bisshop with being "the first, if not the best, to paint all manners of images on wood in life-like colours and then cut them out so that they would be placed in a corner or doorway. Houbraken though that Bisschp's were “the most natural and witty and inventive examples'" and he claims to have "seen some that, when in position, deceive the eye and cause people to greet them as though they were real." The esteemed portrait painter Johannes Verspronck also painted one of the first dummy boards, Boy in his Highchair (see image above left) which is both signed and dated (1654).
Dummy boards are a good resource for understanding constume.
An easel is an upright frame for displaying or supporting a canvas while the painter is at work. Easels are made of wood and have various designs. The most common in Vermeer’s time was the tripod easel which had three legs. Variations include crossbars to make the easel more stable. The height of the movable front cross bar could be adjusted by means of pegs inserted in regularly staggered hole along the two front legs. This feature allowed the painter to work comfortable with both small and large canvases while seated and standing. Most paintings which represent artists in their studios show them working while seated. In an early painting by Rembrandt of an artist at work, perhaps a self portrait, the lower, fixed support bar bears two indentations where the artist presumably rest his feet while working. Typically, the tripod easel is fully adjustable to accommodate for different angles. Furthermore, when they are collapsed, this type of easel becomes very slim and can be fit in small spaces around the studio.
It is only around 1600 that the Dutch word ezel, meaning donkey, begins to appear in written sources used in the secondary sense of a stand for supporting paintings. By mid-century, English and German had adopted this use of the Dutch word as well, and the easel painting was well on its way to becoming the quintessential modern work of art.13
An easel painting is a painting which is small enough to be comfortably executed on an easel. Easel painting became pre-eminent in the 16th century and has remained so. It is likely that easel paintings were known to the ancient Egyptians, and the 1st-century-ad Roman scholar Pliny the Elder refers to a large panel placed on an easel; it was not until the 13th century, however, that easel paintings became relatively common, finally superseding in popularity the mural, or wall painting. The term implies not only physical aspects but also inherent concepts that are very different from those associated with wall paintings or those intended for a fixed position or an architectural scheme.
Easel painting is therefore associated with the increased secular use of art from the 16th century and with the identification of paintings as objects of worth in their own right. The rise of easel painting involved a subtle assertion of the independence of the art of painting and the profession of painter. The status afforded to painting in the writings of, for example, Leonardo da Vinci and Giorgio Vasari reflects these developments and anticipates the increased social and intellectual status of the individual artist. Being highly transportable, easel paintings were easy to buy and sell, easel painting facilitated the growth of the art market.
"Almost all our knowledge about the ownership of easel paintings in the seventeenth-century Netherlands comes from information gathered upon death or in anticipation of death in probate inventories. As far as those inventories are concerned, one painting is pretty much like the next and one painting’s front is pretty much like its back. That is to say, in the inventories of all but the wealthiest seventeenth-century Dutch collectors, paintings are usually listed without reference even to subject matter–simply as ‘a panel’, ‘a painting’, ‘two paintings with ebony frames’, as if the notary were looking at them from behind. Sometimes minimal indications of genre are given, such as ‘a portrait’, ‘a landscape’, or ‘a pot of flowers’, but attributions to specific artists are very rare.‘Work by the dozen [dosijn werk]’ is the expression used to designate paintings of especially poor quality. And many of these inventoried paintings were indeed sold by the dozen, i.e., in lots on the auction block."14
"One particular kind of visual description is also the oldest type of writing about art in the West. Called ekphrasis, it was created by the Greeks. The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present. In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer. For most readers of famous Greek and Latin texts, it did not matter whether the subject was actual or imagined. The texts were studied to form habits of thinking and writing, not as art historical evidence.
"In the second half of the 18th century, ekphrastic writing suddenly appeared in a new context. Travelers and would-be travelers provided a growing public eager for vivid descriptions of works of art. Without any way of publishing accurate reproductions, appearances had to be conveyed through words alone. William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater, to name three great 19th-century writers in English, published grand set-pieces of ekphrasis about older as well as contemporary art. For them, the fact that the object existed mattered a great deal. The goal of these Victorian writers was to make the reader feel like a participant in the visual experience. The more convincingly this was done, the more effective the writing was judged to be."15
A picture associated with a motto, usually moralizing in tone. An example is a popular print showing King Midas, unable to eat because his touch turns everything to gold, accompanied by the words "both rich and poor." For the new subject matter of 17th-century realism—landscape, still life and genre—an established metaphorical tradition such as the Bible and classical literature used in history painting was lacking. "To make up for it, artists started to make use of the popular emblematical literature. The first emblems were published in Italy in the early 16th century. Their composition was a literary genre among humanists: by finding apt combinations of image and text they could show off their metaphorical inventiveness and wit. The genre spread quickly and became immensely popular. In Holland it was soon employed by Calvinist moralists like Johan de Brune who realized the didactic value of a concrete image explained by concise text."16
The Dutch were exceptionally literate and religious and moral commitment were central to Dutch literature. It is said that the works of the didactic poet Jacob Cats were in every Dutch home, alongside the Bible. Essentially, the aim of the emblem was to make morality more attractive. Emblematic meanings as well as motifs derived from emblem books frequently appear in Dutch paintings. However, it must be remembered that even though connections between emblem books and painting are generally accepted, there exist no text of the period which specifically associates paintings with didactic intention.
The Emblem Project Utrecht website currently includes 27 Dutch love emblem books, religious as well as profane. Each book has a full transcriptions, page facsimiles and indexes, as well as extended search options. Links to sources and parallels, translations and annotation are being added.
Scholars have related various paintings of Vermeer to existing prints in contemporary emblem books which were accompanied by mottoes. While much knowledge has been gained by investigating these associations, important questions remain unanswered. One example of the difficulty in interpreting emblematic meaning may seen in the Woman Standing at a Virginal. In 1967, Eddy de Jongh ("On Balance" in Vermeer Studies, 1998) proposed an interpretation of the picture in relation to one such emblem with the motto "A lover ought to love only one" in Otto van Veen's emblem book of 1608, Amorum Emblemata. In Vermeer's picture, a painting representing a Cupid holds aloft a card can be closely related to Van Veen's print. However, in the Van Veen's print, the Cupid stands with one foot on another card with multiple numbers which is missing in Vermeer's representation. De Jongh wrote: "Although the card of the painted amor is blank and the card with the other ciphers is missing is itself missing, there can be no doubt that Vermeer had been inspired by the very same notion when he painted the woman at the virginal." However, about 20 years later De Jongh readdressed the issue: "I restate the hypothesis that Vermeer was thinking of Van Veen's meaning when he conceived his painting. This hypothesis, however, does not solve very much. For even if the emblematic meaning of any passage may be correctly identified, the crucial question is: how did the painter intend the inserted moral to function?"17
"The familiar premium that contemporary Western society places on artistic originality is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. Among the concepts Renaissance artists most valued were imitation and emulation. Although Renaissance artists did develop unique, recognizable styles, convention, in terms of both subject matter and representational practices, predominated."18 Imitation and emulation, (Latin; imitatio and aemulatio) both abandoned in modern studio practices, were key concepts in artistic training. Only when the artist had learned to imitate, then emulate, could he finally invent.
Until the mid 18th century, imitation was considered the first, and absolutely indispensable step to becoming a fully developed artist. Imitation was largely based on the concept of classical rhetoric. By imitating (copying) prints, drawings and paintings of the great Italian masters of the Cinquecento (exceedingly little painting had survived from the Greek and Roman times) fledging artists contemporarily stored up knowledge and trained the mind and hand. Emulation was also know to the ancients, Virgil had supposedly emulated Homer "in the race of honour."
Even the greatest artists copied and imitated the work of their colleagues. Leonardo da Vinci filled his sketchbooks with of well-known sculptures and frescoes while Michelangelo spent days sketching artworks in churches around Florence and Rome. Philip IV gave Rubens extraordinary permission to make scale copies of Titian paintings in the Royal collection that had to be taken off the walls and brought to a temporary studio set up for Rubens.
The limits of imitation were often debated. The Dutch art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten raccounts that "Rubens was once reproached for borrowing whole figures from the Italians to which he even sent draftsmen to Italy to bring back examples. Rubens supposedly responded top this criticism by saying, ‘They are free to do the same, if they wee any advantage in it', thereby suggesting that not everyone was capable of benefiting from imitation."19 The Dutch referred to imitation, both in the sense of stealing and benign borrowing with the same term, rapen. Good rapen consisted in borrowing from various sources—Seneca oft quoted phrase recommended artists to draw from numerous sources as bees take honey from a host of flowers—the fusing them together with one's own genius in a manner that none of the borrowings were evident. Karel van Mander, playing upon the double meaning of the word rapen as both "borrowing" and "turnip," wrote that "what is stolen must be welded, molded in the mind as though it were stewed in a pot, and prepared and served with the sauce of ingenuity if it is to prove flavourful."20
Once the artist in training had acquired sufficient technical means through imitation, he could move on to emulation which was considered improving on the works of established and recognized masters. It was firmly believed that only by knowing the strengths of the previous masters could a painter successfully complete and surpass them. Emulation, therefore, was not the mere slavish imitation of exemplary work of past masters: the artist must strive to emulate their powers of invention. Thus, emulation was considered was a key to artistic process progress.
"Tiepolo, for example, was known as a great emulator of Veronese—as was his Venetian predecessor Sebastiano Ricci. What did that mean in terms of his own "original"artistic production? Tiepolo never copied Veronese per se, but many compositions of his depend on Veronese for narrative structure, figure types, color, etc. What made him a great emulator, someone never accused of being a mere imitator as was Ricci, was that Veronese was a point of departure, a creative spark that Tiepolo fanned with his own manner and energy. He needed Veronese, in a way, as a place to begin, but it was never where he ended."21
However, there was less agreement as to whether one might emulate only one or more masters. "Having first practiced drawing for a while…’ Cennino Cellini (c. 1370-1440) recommended young artists to …"take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best things which you can find done by the hands of the great masters. And if you are in a place where many good masters have been, so much the better for you. But I give you this advice; take the best one every time, and the one who has the greatest reputation." Cennini, however, warned against imitating more than one master because the practitioner’s mind would become "distracted"and "you would not get either right."
Today, cutting edge art institutions discourage both imitation and emulation. Students rarely make copies whether they past or contemporary masters. On the other hand, since modern (ambitious) figurative painters, who work in relative isolation, are rarely concerned with complex narratives or compositions, they tend to emulate only the technical features of great artists of the past. The most frequently emulated artists range from John Singer Sargeant, to William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Diego Velazquez and at times, Rembrandt van Rijn.
Woodcut, engraving and etching were the principal methods of making prints before the invention of photography. To make an engraving, a plate, usually of copper, is cut with a burin (a sharp gouging tool). The plate is put in a press and ink rolled onto it. The ink is retained in the cuts and transferred to the paper.
Some of the paintings, such as the Netherlandish landscape, are connected with specific engravings by other artists.
The advantage of etching over engraving is that the lines can be made with something of the freedom of drawing.
Not even a single engraving, etching or even drawing by Vermeer's hand have survived nor does there exist any historical evidence that they had ever existed.
Italian - "Ogni pittore dipinge sè"
Dutch - "zoo de man was, was zyn werk"
"Ogni pittore dipinge sè" is a Tuscan proverb which can be found for the first time in Italian literature between 1477 and 1479. The proverb does not seem to have existed in the Middle Ages although Marsilio Ficino, Thomas Aquinas and Cicero have all addressed the issue of the artist's reflection in his work. In reference to "every painter paints himself" modern scholars employ the term "automimesis."
"Every painter paints himself" refers not to deliberate self portraiture but to the artist who creates himself involuntarily in his work. At least from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, it was associated with natural inclination or inborn talent, and had implications that were generally positive. The specific proverb is attributed to various figures including Michelangelo and Gerolamo Savonarola. Dürer may well have taken it quite literally, as his portrait of Emperor Maximilian I is said to bear the artist’s superimposed features.22 Leonardo, however, was the most articulate in addressing this proverb: "the soul," wrote Leonardo, "predetermines for the artist’s hand the shape of a man on canvas."23
And one says that every painter paints himself. He does not indeed paint himself as man because he produces images of lions, horses, men and women which are not identical with himself, but he paints himself as painter, that is according to his concept (concetto). And although there are different fantasies and figures of the painters who are painting, they are nevertheless all [done] according to his concept.
In the Netherlands, the equivalent phrase "zoo de man was, was zyn werk" appears, again, as a positive statement about the artist’s natural abilities and is found in the writings of leading Dutch biographers and theorists including Karel Van Mander and Cornelis de Bie. Draughtsman and engraver Jan de Bisschop echoed the idea when he stated that "each man often times paints his own manners and activities."24
Likewise, the Dutch Renaissance man and art lover Constantijn Huygens, wrote that a portrait was "a summary of the whole man, of his body as well as his spirit."The concept was even applied to the brushstrokes used to create portraits, something that poet Jan Vos (1610-1667) noted when he wrote of one painter: "But to my distress, as loose as your painting are you."25
Art historians have long remarked that Vermeer is one of the most self-effacing painters of all times. The artist-art historian Lawrence Gowing summarized the problem of comprehending the Vermeer and his work when he wrote: "What kind of man was Vermeer? Here is the ambiguity. We may examine the pictures from corner to corner and still be uncertain. It seems as if he was of a god-like detachment, more balanced, more civilized, more accomplished, and more immune from the infection of his time than any painter before or since"
Marianne Berardi, "Netherlandish Artists (1600-1800)." In Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney. Greenwood Press, 2002. <http://gem.greenwood.com/wse/wsePrint.jsp?id=id467>
Nearly 250 women artists, amateur and professional, were recorded in the Low Countries (present-day Holland and Belgium) between the mid-sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries. A small number were well known in their native Holland or Flanders, although they never enjoyed international distinction. These artists include such figures as genre/portrait painter Judith Leyster and watercolorist Margaretha de Heer. An even smaller group, including still life specialists Maria van Oosterwyck and Rachel Ruysch, won international artistic recognition. Their accomplishments were discussed in the major biographies of Netherlandish painters by Arnold Houbraken and Johan van Gool, and their work attracted the patronage of European nobility.
Unlike Italy, France, and Spain, where artwork was almost exclusively made-to-order for the very wealthy, in seventeenth-century Holland, art became a portable commodity affordable to the middle class. This development encouraged a diversity of subjects and techniques, and consequently Dutch painters were the first Europeans to develop fully the genres of still life, seascape, townscape, landscape, and scenes from everyday life.
Women artists, however, tended to avoid certain subjects. Unable to study anatomy from the nude, most could not acquire enough proficiency to compose groups of human figures in action, as was necessary for painting successful historical or religious subjects. Seascapes or town views were seldom popular subjects, perhaps because women needed chaperones to study them. With the exception of wax modeling and silhouette cutting, few women produced much sculpture.
Although there were exceptions, the majority of Netherlandish women painters practiced still life and/or portraiture. For women artists of the north, the portrait tradition seems to have peaked not in the golden age of painting but in the century preceding it with Levina Teerlinc (Bruges, c. 1520-1576) and Caterina van Hemessen (1528-after 1587, Antwerp).
The term "figurative" is often used simply to mean that an image contains recognizable images (i.e., that it is not abstract or non-objective). Since this usage does not distinguish between literal and figurative, it is considerably less precise.
The relationship of the picture surface (ground) to the images on the picture plane (figure). The figure is the space occupied by forms (e.g., a person in a portrait) (also known as the "positive" space); the ground is the "empty" or unoccupied space around the person in the portrait (also known as the "negative" space) The ground is also commonly called the " background." In art since the early 20th century, this division of the picture plane has been seriously challenged, to the point where there is no longer a distinction of figure/ground, but rather one continuous surface and space, with no "positive" or "'negative" space, just one, interwoven space.
Vermeer's awareness of the expressive power of the relationship between figure and ground, positive and negative shape, has no equal in European easel painting. In the single-figure paintings of the mid 1660s he precisely determined the form of negative shapes which surround the standing women in order to restrict any sense of physical movement. The figures are imbued with a sense of stability and permanence which comparative genre painters were rarely even aware of. What perhaps is even more astounding is that the attention which he affords to the formal relationship of figure and ground never interferes with the naturalistic reading of the painting or feels contrived.
Lawrence Gowing (Vermeer, 1952) certainly had the play of negative and positive shapes in mind when he wrote, "Nothing else evokes the impression, certainly no printed reproduction, nothing but the canvas itself: we see, large and plain, a mosaic of shapes which bear equally on one another. They are clasped together by their nature, holding each other to every other in its natural embrace. We see a surface which has the absolute embedded flatness of inlay, of tarsia. And in an instant we recognize its shapes as emblems which carry in their stillness the force of the real world."
Although in the 17th century the term fijnschilder was used to differentiate between a painter practicing refined techniques and one who, for instance, is a house painter, in the 19th century it became associated with Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris, Sr. and Adriaen van der Werff—all among the most successful painters of the Dutch Baroque. These painters were identifiable by their "fine" manner, exquisite techniques, and extreme attention to detail resulting in works with smooth surfaces completely lacking painterly brush strokes. The application of paint contrasts with the textures and style of other Dutch painters, such as Frans Hals and Dou's teacher Rembrandt van Rijn who worked prevalently in the ruwe (rough) mode.
Dou painted in the smooth, precise style that his teacher Rembrandt had employed in his Leiden years. Unlike Rembrandt, however, Dou remained loyal to this exquisite manner of painting. Thanks to influential pupils such as Quirijn Brekelenkamp, Gabriel Metsu, Godfried Schalcken and Van Mieris, this polished style of painting became a specialty of Leiden artists.
In the style of the fijnschilders—minutely proportioned subjects with bright colors, a shiny finish, and precise attention to detail—Van Mieris painted on wood or copper panels rarely larger than fifteen square inches. He represented common incidents in the lives of the lower working class as well as the habits and customs of the wealthy. His paintings were highly acclaimed in his lifetime and earned Van Mieris a great deal of money. Unfortunately, he wasted his fortune through alcoholism and poor management of his finances. Although contemporaries recognized Van Mieris as one of the leading Dutch artists of the 1600s, his paintings, like those of Dour, fell into relative obscurity after the end of the 19th century and only on the late 20th century has his work begun to be reevaluated.
Although Vermeer was certainly influenced by the themes and compositions of the fijnschilders, his concept of pictorial rendering is fundamentally divergent from theirs. Vermeer never seem to have been seriously lured by the microscopic detail which had made the fijnschilders work prized throughout Europe. His stark strictly organized interiors contrast with the essentially picturesque character Dou's and Van Mieris' work and seem almost barren in comparison. Although Vermeer shares their interest in the representation of texture and the activity of light, he subtly suggests rather than describes those qualities. Moreover, Vermeer's use narrative is less defined leaving room for the observer's imagination to come into play. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. correctly points out that Vermeer's paintings are essentially "poetic" rather than "narrative."
The contents of the following entry are drawn from:
Paul Taylor, " Flatness in Dutch Art: Theory and Practice", Oud Holland, 121 (2008), pp. 153-184.
“Vlak” (in modern Dutch-English dictionaries translated as "flat" or "level") was a key term in the aesthetics of 17th-century Holland. However, flatness suggested not a flatness of the paints themselves on the support of the artwork, but rather a visual flatness, an impression that the objects depicted have no or little relief. This kind of flatness is clearly visible in Dutch drawings of the time, where divisions between light and shade are abrupt. The modeling from light to shade is not continuous but minimized to a few essential tones. This technique, usually discussed in Dutch art treatises in relation to drawing rather than painting, lends an immediate force and liveliness to the image.
The history of flatness in Dutch painting can be traced back over a hundred years to Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck first published in 1604, but it was also discussed by Samuel van Hoogstraten, Willem Goeree and Gérard de Lairesse, the latter of whom, deprecated its abuse. The use of the flat shadow technique was not confined to the Netherlands. It stands in contrast with the sfumato developed in the first half of the 16th century and perfected by artist such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione and Correggio.
In Van Hoogstraten’s Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst of 1678, there is a revealing passage on the use of flat shadows in regards to drawing.
But whether you begin or end with the shadows, you should split them up in your mind into lesser and greater, and depict each in a flat manner, according to its darkness; for by working them too much, and melting them in, all your work would turn to copper; and you would even lose the capacity to judge it. Don’t allow yourself to be bothered by small modulations [kantigheden] in a soft shadow, nor by the fact that, when viewed from close by, a darker one can be seen in the middle of it; because the force will be all the greater if you hold it at arm’s length, and you will get used to comparing parts with one another; and in the end you will find this method of working of more use than you would ever have dared imagine; whereas otherwise, if you fiddle about with trying to smooth everything sweetly away, you run the risk of getting lost entirely; as has happened to many a noble soul, through a tendency to sweeten and reinforce their work continuously with depths and highlights.
Van Hoogstraten thought drawing should be built out of crisp contrasts, in which light and shade were clearly articulated, both between and within themselves.
Willem Goeree wrote that one should lay down shadows "uniformly flat, whether through hatchings, shadings…" in order to that one "can clearly see what figure or shape such shadows have as a general mass; and that their sides do not disappear in a hazy smoke or indeterminate sponginess…"
On the other hand, the Dutch painter and art theoretician Gérard de Lairesse, in a chapter of his ’s Groot Schilderboek devoted to the topic of light and shade, contends that the most perfect form of lighting in a painting is diffused or indirect light, gemeen licht. The Dutch painter-gone-blind and art writer criticized numerous Dutch painters, which he calls Zonschilders, "Sunpainters," for their practice of painting their subjects as if they were in broad sunlight.
It isn’t flat, they say: by which they mean, that it isn’t sunny, nor clear and sharp in the shadows, as it normally is when they depict things in their sunlight. Flat, flat, they say to their pupils, or disciples, in a soft voice, so that strangers cannot hear: as if it were a secret, unknown to art itself. They say that the good Philemon was so enamoured of things which had flat lights and shades, that he only painted pictures with sun or moonshine.
Painting flesh, in Dutch "Koleur der Naakten," has always been and, among figurative painters, still is considered one of the most demanding and potentially rewarding tasks for the artist. Gérard de Lairesse, the Dutch artist and theoretician, wrote in his Groot Schilderboek, "Having extensively and carefully studied this matter I find there is so much to say about it [painting flesh] that it is impossible to fit in one chapter." Painting flesh was not only difficult, it was important. Willem Beur, an artist and art writer of Vermeer’s time, wrote, "Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions."
Painting flesh is difficult for many reasons. "The appearance of skin to obtain information about age, health or emotional state of another human being. Therefore, flaws in the representation of skin will easily be noticed. Secondly, skin is by its very nature a very complex substance. Skin colour seems monochrome, yet is actually composed of many subtle nuances, just like the texture of skin seems even, but at a close look, seamlessly joins soft and rough, wrinkled and smooth zones; skin moreover is neither opaque nor translucent, but both, which creates complex shadows and interreflections. Last but not least, skin can appear different in each individual person, depending on gender, race etc."26
The Allegory of Painting
Frans van Mieris
Oil on copper, 5 x 3 1/2 in.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angles
One of the great difficulties of painting is determining the local color of the flesh, its numerous nuances and the rendering its natural translucency. The Great Masters learned to describe this translucency using not so much different colored paints set side by side but successive translucent layers of paint carefully superimposed on one another. Wax museum artists later found that adding a layer of translucent material to the outer layer of mannequins makes them appear more lifelike.
Flesh colors do not seem to belong to the basic color wheel with which contemporary painters sometimes consult and it varies greatly from individual and from area to area of the same individual. Areas that receive more blood, like the cheeks and nose, are likely to be redder and more saturated, while areas that contain veins close to the surface of the skin may be desaturated or take on a blue cast. Painters learned to exploit the optical effect called the turbid medium effect to create the subtle blues and greens of natural flesh by superimposing light translucent pink paint over darker layers of warm brown underpainting.
Nonetheless, the great part of painters of the past used few pigments to render flesh. In Frans van Mieris' Allegory of Painting (see image left), we see that the conspicuously displayed palette shows only seven pigments which might be considered the standard 17th-century Dutch palette for depicting a variety of skin tones. Sometimes, not only the basic pigments are represented on palettes, but mixtures of different pigments which will serve to depict various shades of illuminated and shadowed parts of flesh are also represented. Similar, restricted palates are seen in many other paintings. In general, paint mixtures used to represent male flesh contained more yellow while for fair female flesh (the illuminated parts) white lead and a touch of vermilion was sufficient.
"This idea that nature, although it is deficient in every other respect, deserves to be followed by the colourist, is an important concept in Lairesse’s art theory. Much of his criticism of other painters is based on the claim that their colouring, or their treatment of light and shade, is unnatural. And indeed in the last of the three chapters on flesh painting in the Groot Schilderboek, Lairesse gives us some interesting criticisms of the unnatural colours of Rubens and Rembrandt. He there describes Rubens’ style of colouring as ‘a coarse gaudiness’, ‘een rauwe bontigheid’, and writes that Rembrandt, while trying to attain mellowness, ‘murwheid’, had fallen into ripeness and rottenness, ‘de ryp en rottigheid’. Whether or not we agree with the value judgments implied in these criticisms, they do make an accurate observation, namely, that the overall hue of Rembrandt’s nudes is more uniform than that of Rubens’ nudes, and that there is a certain calming, smoky softness to the Dutchman’s painted skin which the more energetic, alert flesh painting of the Fleming does not share. Lairesse was surely right to say that the painters of his time were less interested in ‘following nature’ than in developing the traditions for depicting skin which they had inherited from their predecessors."27
In truth, we cannot say that Vermeer assigned the same importance to the rendering of human flesh, or for that matter, human physiognomy as did his fellow genre painters even though none of his paintings can be considered portraits according to the 17th-century meaning of the term. Certainly, his flesh colors are technically simpler and far less nuanced than those of the undisputed masters of this facet of painting, Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.
Study of a Young Woman (detail)
Oil on canvas, 44.5 x 40 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
From a technical point of view, Vermeer’s faces appear to be adequately depicted in comparison to those of his contemporaries. A few, however, are decidedly are under par. While in the worst cases (Woman with a Lute) this may depend on the degradation of those paint layers most vulnerable to damage such as glazes and final touches applied during the final stages of the painting process, or by overzealous restoration, the artist seemed not to have been allured by the challenge of complex coloring of flesh tones which was the raison d'etre of Dutch portraitists and for which painters like Rembrandt and Frans Hals had become the most sought-after painters of their times. Never once do we encounter those healthy, full-blooded youths and fair little faces which populate Dutch genre painting. In most cases Vermeer’s coloring of flesh is conventional with no more indulgence than a bit of extra red in the lips and cheeks. However, Vermeer did later his palette for the flesh tones depending on the intensity of light and the overall coloring of the composition.
Perhaps, the two best renderings of flesh colors in Vermeer's oeuvre can be observed in the Girl with a Red Hat and the Study of a Young Woman in New York. In these two works, the handling of flesh tones is as subtle as it is unobtrusive.
It is likely that the particularly finessed flesh colors of the Study of a Young Woman (see image left) are preserved far better than the more famous counterpart Girl with a Pearl Earring whose coloring appears slightly "washed-out" from a technical point of view.
Curiously, Vermeer experimented with a unusual technique for painting flesh that had been abandoned for centuries wherein green earth, a dull green, was used as the basic component for the shadows. Unfortunately, the fine warm glazes which once were applied over the underlayers of green in the deepest shadows have degraded or been removed by restorations and now appears quite unnatural (see the Lady Standing a the Virginals). It is likely that the best conserved of this group of late works is the radiant Girl with a Red Hat.
Although Vermeer’s women resonate with spirituality, it is drawn less from how their faces are depicted rather than by their posture and the obsessive care with which the overall composition is crafted.
Still Life, The National Gallery of Art. <http://www.nga.gov/kids/DTP6stillife.pdf>
The Dutch prized flowers and lower paintings; by the early seventeenth century, both were a national passion. Flowers were appreciated for beauty and fragrance and not simply for their value as medicine, herbs, or dyestuffs. Exotic new species from around the globe were avidly sought by botanists and gardeners.
Paintings immortalized these treasures and made them available to study—and they gave sunny pleasure even in winter. Viewers could see—almost touch and smell—the blossoms.
The Dutch were entranced most of all by flowering bulbs, especially tulips. After arriving in the Netherlands, probably in the 1570s, tulips remained a luxurious rarity cheaper varieties turned the urban middle classes into avid collectors. The Dutch interest in tulips was also popularized around Europe, as visitors to the Netherlands were taken with these exotic flowers and with Dutch gardening prowess in general. At the same time, a futures market was established. Buyers contracted to purchase as-yet-ungrown bulbs at a set price, allowing bulbs to be traded at any time of the year.
On paper, the same bulb could quickly change hands many times over. Speculation drove prices upward. The price of a Semper Augustus was 1,000 guilders in 1623, twice that in 1625, and up to 5,000 guilders in 1637. The average price of a bulb that year was 800 guilders, twice what a master carpenter made annually. A single tulip bulb could command as much as a fine house with a garden.
A rising interest in botany and a passion for flowers led to an increase in painted floral still lifes at the end of the 1500s in both the Netherlands and Germany. Bosschaert was the first great Dutch specialist in fruit and flower painting and the head of a family of artists. He established a tradition that influenced an entire generation of fruit and flower painters in the Netherlands.
With the exception of those of the patterns of the tapestries and furniture upholstery which are featured in his compositions, not even a single flower, the quintessential symbol of the Netherlands, appears in Vermeer's oeuvre.
In two-dimensional images, the center of interest visually and/or subject-wise; tends to be used more in traditional, representational art than in modern and contemporary art, where the picture surface (picture plane) tends to have more of an overall importance, rather than one important area.
The area of the picture space nearest to the viewer, immediately behind the picture plane, is known as the foreground. An understanding of perspective developed in the early 15th century allowing painters to divide space behind the picture plane into foreground, middleground and background.
In the foreground, the figures and objects appear larger than those in the middle- or background because of their apparent proximity. They are painted with greater detail than things farther away, since only at close range would such detail be visible.
Lawrence Gowing (Vermeer, 1950) was, perhaps, the first to note the importance of the dramatic play between foreground and background elements in Vermeer's compositions. "In only three of the twenty-six interiors that we have is the space between the painter and the sitter at all uninterrupted. In five of the others passage is considerably encumbered, in eight more the heavy objects interposed amount to something like a barrier and in the remaining ten they are veritable fortifications."
Foreshortening is the diminishing of the dimensions of an object or figure in order to depict it in a correct spatial relationship. In realistic depiction, foreshortening is necessary because although lines and planes that are perpendicular to the observer's line of vision (central visual ray), and the extremities of which are equidistant from the eye, will be seen at their full size, when they are revolved away from the observer they will seem increasingly shorter. Thus for example, a figure's arm outstretched toward the observer must be foreshortened--the dimension of lines, contours and angles adjusted--in order that it not appear hugely out of proportion. The term foreshortening is applied to the depiction of a single object, figure or part of an object or figure, whereas the term perspective refers to the depiction of an entire scene.
Of the different types of perspective, foreshortening was the first to be mastered: as the vase paintings reveal, the first experiments with the technique were made in sixth century B.C. in ancient Greece while its principles were fully understood by the fifth.
One of the great Renaissance paintings of the 15th century, Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1470-80, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) is probably the most celebrated example of foreshortening in all Renaissance art. It depicts the corpse of Jesus on a marble slab, watched over by the weeping Virgin Mary and Saint John. "A sketcher or painter is likely to shorten objects slightly differently from a camera. This is because, while a camera never lies, an artist may not wish to replicate the full brutal effect of foreshortening. Instead, he will often reduce the relative dimensions of the nearer part of the object (in the case of The Lamentation, the feet) so as to make a slightly less aggressive assault on the viewer's eye and incorporate the truncated image more harmoniously into the overall composition. Indeed, this is exactly what Mantegna did in The Lamentation. He deliberately reduced the size of Jesus's feet so as not to block our view of the body. Whereas, if a photograph was taken from the same angle, the feet would have been so big that they would have obscured our view of the legs and torso."28
Dutch painters such as Rembrandt and Frans Hals often took advantage of the dramatic effect of foreshortening to enliven the otherwise static poses of their portraits. Vermeer too applied foreshortening with various degrees of success in his early works although one feels he is not entirely comfortable with its implementation.
One of the most successful examples of foreshortening in Vermeer's work can be, oddly enough, in one of his first compositions, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The foreshortening of Mary's slightly tilted head is so effortlessly achieved that it comes to a surprise see how the artist seems to struggle with the problem of the milkmaid's arm (The Milkmaid) painted some years later. Particularly idiosyncratic treatments of foreshortening can be seen in the artist's bulbous hand in the Art of Painting and the writing hand of the mistress in Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid. More conventional solutions can be observed in The Geographer and Woman Holding A Water Pitcher.
The constituent elements of a work of art independent of meaning (e.g., the color, composition, medium or size of a flag, rather than its emotional or national significance). Formal elements are primary features which are not a matter of semantic significance—including color, dimensions, line, mass, medium, scale, shape, space, texture, value, and their corollaries—and secondary features which are the relations of the primary features with one another—including balance, contrast, dominance, harmony, movement, proportion, proximity, rhythm, similarity, unity, and variety.
In painting, line and form are closely related. The division between the two is often blurred, depending upon how the painter defines each. While line is mainly used to define edges, whether in two dimensions or three, form defines the shape of an object as a whole, or the shape of regions within it.
In art theory, formalism is the concept that a work's artistic value is entirely determined by its form—the way it is made, its purely visual aspects, and its medium. Formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than realism, context, and content. In visual art, formalism is a concept that posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance. Formalism is an approach to understanding art.
In 1890, the Post-impressionist painter Maurice Denis wrote in his article "Definition of Neo-Traditionism" that a painting was "essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order." Denis argued that the painting or sculpture or drawing itself, not the subject of the artistic work, gave pleasure to the mind. Denis' emphasis on the form of a work led the Bloomsbury writer Clive Bell to write in his 1914 book, Art, that there was a distinction between a thing's actual form and its "significant form."' For Bell, recognition of a work of art as representational of a thing was less important than capturing the 'significant form', or true inner nature, of a thing. Bell pushed for an art that used the techniques of an artistic medium to capture the essence of a thing (its "significant form") rather than its mere outward appearance.
In the early 20th century, the formalist art movement began to see in Vermeer's quietist interiors a comfortable precedent for their own formalist agenda. The artist's subject matter was unceremoniously dispensed with: the bony picture frames, box-like spinets, maps and floor tiles, which had once been taken for what they seemed to be, became so many rectangles, splotches of color and diagonal lines of a formalist discourse, a dry run for Mondrian and handy proof of the universal validity formalist art theory.
In a revolutionary monograph, whose echoes are still heard today, the American painter Philip L. Hale wrote "It may be said that Vermeer's vision was as impersonal as that of any painter who has ever lived." Vermeer, like all great rediscovered painters, was declared to have "anticipated" an art movement of his own. And as other forgotten masters before him, he received the honorary title of "the first modern painter." Since then, Vermeer had become a "painter's painter", and for Hale, "the supreme painter." He wrote that while " were giants...such as Velásquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, who did very wonderful things,...none of these ever conceived of arriving a tone by an exquisitely just relation of colour values—the essence of contemporary painting that is really good. (...) We of today particularly admire Vermeer because he has attacked what seem to us significant problems or motives, and has solved them, on the whole, as we like to see them solved. (...) By and large, Vermeer has more great painting qualities and fewer defects than any other painter of any time or place."29
Vermeer’s women, who formerly bespoke of independence and wholesomeness, were transformed into aesthetic components of a "rectangular-arabesque" abstract compositional scheme. The impersonal Vermeer lasted all the way to mid century when Erich Gombrich wrote in the historic The History of Art that Vermeer painted still lifes with people. Debunked as a maker of l’art pour l’homme, Vermeer was promoted to the stature as a maker of l’art pour l’arte.
One of the weak points of the formalist approach—if one holds that the artist’s intentions have something to do with the art he produces—is that there exists not a shred of historical evidence that suggests that Vermeer or, for that matter, Dutch painters in general, though shapes, lines forms and color had per se any value. No one dared disparage subject matter at the expense of pure aesthetics. Painting was discussed uniquely as narrative and/or artful construction:painting was essentially a fictive three-dimensional space filled with people and objects and not a planimetric organization of formal elements independent from subject matter.
"Formal analysis is a specific type of visual description. Unlike ekphrasis, it is not meant to evoke the work in the reader’s mind. Instead it is an explanation of visual structure, of the ways in which certain visual elements have been arranged and function within a composition. Strictly speaking, subject is not considered and neither is historical or cultural context. The purest formal analysis is limited to what the viewer sees. Because it explains how the eye is led through a work, this kind of description provides a solid foundation for other types of analysis. It is always a useful exercise, even when it is not intended as an end in itself.
"The British art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) played an important role in developing the language of formal analysis we use in English today. Inspired by modern art, Fry set out to escape the interpretative writing of Victorians like Ruskin. He wanted to describe what the viewer saw, independent of the subject of the work or its emotional impact. Relying in part upon late 19th- and early 20th-century studies of visual perception, Fry hoped to bring scientific rigor to the analysis of art. If all viewers responded to visual stimuli in the same way, he reasoned, then the essential features of a viewer’s response to a work could be analyzed in absolute – rather than subjective or interpretative – terms. This approach reflected Fry’s study of the natural sciences as an undergraduate. Even more important were his studies as a painter, which made him especially aware of the importance of how things had been made."30
Fugitive pigments are non-permanent pigments that lighten in a relatively short time when exposed to light. Fugitive pigments are present in types of paint, markers, inks etc., which are used for temporary applications. Fugitive inks, which washed away when soaked in water, were sometimes used deliberately to prevent postage stamps being removed from envelopes by soaking, and reused (e.g., the Queen Victoria Lilac and Green Issue).
While permanent pigments are usually used for paintings, painters have made work wholly or partially with fugitive pigments for a number of reasons: ignorance regarding the volatility of the pigments; being more concerned with the appearance of colors available only with fugitive pigments than with permanence, or the desire to have a painting change in appearance over time.
It is believed that the curious bluish tone of the foliage in The Little Street is due to the fact that the yellow lake, which mixed together with a blue creates a natural green tone, has faded with time. One of the names given to a common yellow lake was "schijtgeel" or "fading yellow" as it is called. As almost every other painters of the time, Vermeer used, red madder, a ruby red pigment noted for its brilliancy and transparency, but fugitive when applied in very thin layers. Madder is an organic pigment derived from the roots of the madder plant. Vermeer glazed (see glaze - glazing and Vermeer's palette for an in-depth study of artist's pigments). The rather dull appearance of some of the flesh tones in Vermeer's faces may be due to the fact that red madder has faded.
Another example of a glaze which has in time faded in Vermeer's painting can be found in the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Presently, the picture's background appears uneven and spotted. During the 1994-1995 restoration, however, it became clear that this defect had been caused by the degraded pigment of a peculiar glaze used by Vermeer. It was ascertained that the background was originally meant to have a deep greenish tone which can no longer been seen. Vermeer had glazed a very transparent layer of indigo mixed with weld over the dark black underpainting. Indigo and weld are both pigments of organic origin. Indigo is deep blue dyestuff derived from the indigo plant, weld is a natural yellow dyestuff obtained from the flowers of the wouw or woude plant as it was called in Dutch. Mixed together with a rich binding medium (linseed oil) they form a transparent greenish tone that was evidently to add depth and a jewel-like luster to the background. Weld was widely used for dying silk since it was one of the purest and yellow shades available but was equally valuable to the artist. It seems that Vermeer used indigo by Vermeer only rarely.
This is a 19th-century French term used in an art-historical context to describe a type of subject matter for painting. Such pictures were collected in the Netherlands in the 17th century and many artists specialized in their production. Genre pictures showed both peasant life (as in the work of Adriaen Brouwer, Adriaen van Ostade and David Teniers) and bourgeois urban life (as in Ter Borch, Metsu and Vermeer). "Contemporary writers, who must have witnessed the spectacular rise of genre, did not find a name for it - which testifies the curious inability of classical theory to deal with a new phenomena when it does not fit into the High Tradition. Only later, when thought was no longer dominated by classical theory, did the word genre come into use; it was probably the eighteenth-century writer and critic Denis Diderot who introduced the word - to designate the paintings of his contemporaries Chardin and Grueze. Earlier writers just called the pictures after what they saw represented: a merry company, a brothel, a peasant scene, or whatever - and invariably classified them as second-rate art."31
Genre paintings generally present a situation, which through the introduction of key symbols, is reversed into a moral example.32 "Unlike history painting, a genre picture does not generally refer to a written text. Its relation...is to a different area - to the popular, often crude and simplistic, metaphorical interpretation of the world. Genre pictures, therefore, have a different structure from history painting, and that structure is one of their major characteristics. "33 Thus the moral example presented in genre painting was usually more accessible to ordinary people. This comprehensibility was greatly enhanced by the fact that they were often presented in context of daily life that the public could easily recognize.
During the 17th century, genre paintings were occasionally referred to by the general term beeldeken— meaning "painting with little figures"—but were more commonly categorized according to their specific subject matter. Koortegardjes, for example, portray soldiers at rest or play, while conversaties feature fashionable young men and women eating, drinking and playing musical instruments together. In addition to these popular subjects, genre paintings also frequently depict taverns, kitchens, open-air markets, and festive occasions such as weddings, births, or holidays.
In Amsterdam and Delft, the generic term for groups of upper-class ladies and gentleman in modern dress, was gesehschap (company) while in Antwerp, conversatie (conversation). Other more terms emerged such as moderns beelden (modern figures), geselschap stuck (company piece), kamer or kamergesigt (room, or view into rooms) and signoren en juifrouwen (gentlemen and young ladies) were also used. In the southern Netherlands, along with the generic term conversatie, a la mode stuck and kamer and its diminutive kamerken were not unknown. In both Antwerp and Amsterdam one occasionally encounters dancing scenes (danserij) or dancers. In Delft, conversatie was less common.*
John Michael Montias, "How Notaries and Other Scribes Recorded Works of Art in Seventeenth-Century Sales and
Inventories", in Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 30, No. 3/4 (2003), pp. 230-231.
Most scholars believe that Vermeer derived the majority of his themes and compositions from existing genre models. Lawrence Gowing, the author of one of the most penetrating studies of the artist (Vermeer, London, 1952 and 1970), clearly states: "it would be hard to find a theme of any boldness in his work which is not based on a precedent; inquiry multiplies the evidence that the majority of his figure motifs were directly derivative." Albert Blankert, as well, has furnished ample evidence of the fact that Vermeer derived most of his genre subjects from well-established iconographic traditions. Although Vermeer seems to have systematically drew upon fellow genre painters such as Gerrit ter Borch, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Dou, his closest ties are with Pieter De Hooch.
Vermeer, however, was the only genre painter who was able to confer the sense of moral seriousness and dignity associated with history painting. Perhaps he had become aware that genre painting could adequately replace history painting, for in composition and design they posed many the same problems.
The concept of gesture in drawing or painting is two fold: it describes the visible characteristics of the action of a figure; and it embodies the intangible "essence" of a figure or object. The action line of a figure is often a graphic undulating line, which follows the movement of the entire body of the figure being drawn or painted. The term gestural is an extension of this idea to describe a type of painting which is characterized by brushstrokes with a gestural quality, that is, flowing, curved, undulating lines or forms.
Some great painters of Vermeer's time, including Rembrandt, Velásquez and Hals brought brushwork to a level of virtuosity which has, perhaps, never since been rivaled. Although each of these painters possessed a deeply personal manner of handling the paint brush, in their later years, their works remained solidly naturalistic. The brushwork of these artists seems to evoke in the observer's body the physical presence of the form and gesture of their paintings' subjects well as their optical appearance. "...our reception of these lines and brushstrokes...is influenced by the fact that the movements we observe are... echoed in our own bodies in the sense that we latently participate in these movements. "34 However, this kind of brushwork, whose movements seems to be almost unconsciously executed, was acquired through years of great self-discipline and intensive practice in the first part of their careers, years in which in which they had specialized in a conventional highly finished rendering of reality.
In comparison to the three artists just mentioned, Vermeer cannot be said to have ever explored the venue of gesture brushwork, even in his earlier works where his brush work was at its loosest. Although Vermeer's is far more evident than the brushwork of the fijnschilders with whom he shared many compositional, representational and thematic concerns, one never senses that the function of Vermeer's brushwork was intended to be in itself expressive. Rather than reflecting emotional states of the artist, Vermeer's brushwork aims at suggesting (rather than describing) visual and textural qualities of what is being represented. In his later years, he developed a curious calligraphic style which at times frees itself from a purely descriptive function.
Vermeer's very lack of overt gestural expressiveness has been interpreted by Lawrence Gowing, and others, as "inversely expressive."
"The lack of facility in dealing with human issues, which emerges side by side with, the elemental clarity of vision which is its counterpart, is the fundamental factor in the formation of his style. The lack itself is a common one. Vermeer' s distinction is that, with the passivity characteristic of his thought, he accepted this part of his nature as a basis of the expressive content of his style. The instinctive seriousness of his assent to the requirements of his temperament is the sign of his genius. The lack of facility corresponds to a depth of feeling; his diffidence in dealing with the aspect of humanity is the measure of the meaning, which he attaches to it. The virtue in an artist is often like a bare nerve; sensitiveness may not only qualify but disable. In this Vermeer's development reveals, in microcosm, a situation in which more than one later painter has found himself."
In the simplest terms, glazing consists of brushing a transparent layer of paint on top of a thoroughly dried layer of opaque paint. The two separate layers of paint are optically not physically mixed. The lower monochromatic layer essentially determines form and distribution of light while the upper layer, the glaze, determines in great part, if not exclusively, its color. The underpainting on which the glaze is applied is normally monochromatic but it may also contain some color. For example, subtle greens may be achieved by glazing a transparent yellow over blue-based underpainting. The visual effect of glazing is roughly analogous to placing a sheet of colored acetate over a monochrome photograph. Certain glazes can create to a striking "shine through," ‘gem-like" or "stained glass" effect that is not obtainable by direct application of opaque paints, no matter how bright the latter might be. Generally, glazing is most effective with inherently transparent pigments, commonly referred to as lakes. Although glazing was principally used to remedy the painful lack of strong colors, it was also used as a means to economize when working with expensive pigments like natural ultramarine. A blue drapery could be underpainted in cheap smalt and/or black and then glazed with the brilliant ultramarine blue. Glazing is one of the trickiest techniques to mange in oil painting.
Obviously, the specifics of the glazing technique are much harder to pin down. Moreover, like any other technique, different schools and different painters developed variations in regards to the types of underground, pigments and medium used to achieve specific optical effects and handling characteristics of the glaze paint. There are historical descriptions for some glazing recipes but there must have been many more that did not find their way into writing. Glazing is not always easy to distinguish by direct observation, especially in painting executed more than 300 years ago which have been subject the effects of time, multiple restorations and in may cases, repainting.
"Glazing has had a long history and, before Van Eyck, was used mainly to substitute precious materials with paint. Medieval painters for instance, used glazes on metal foil or leaf to imitate the translucent splendor of gemstones, stained glass windows and enamel. Likewise, written sources provide ample evidence of the importance of glazing in relation to the art of making Ersatz. They show for example, that oil was specially prepared to make it more translucent and glossy when ground with certain pigments. Varnishes made with drying oils also need to be studied as an important part of this history of imitation. Next to their protective function, they were employed to give the shine and brilliance of enamel and precious stones to objects made out of paint. When yellow colorants were added, varnishes could even be employed to imitate gold on silver leaf or tin foil. From the 1420s onwards, Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries no longer produced works characterized by Ersatz, but instead used glazes and opaque paint to represent, with meticulous skill, translucent glow and reflective luster."35
According to Max Doerner, (The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting, 1934) Rembrandt had extensively employed glazing. Doerner assumed that Rembrandt first painted a monochrome underpainting which served as a sort of "pictorial skeleton" on which a number of transparent glazes were superimposed to determine the final effect of the painting. Doener's theory had been so popular as to give birth to a "glazing myth" which has survived till today. Through modern scientific analysis, however, it has now been demonstrated that Rembrandt worked principally with opaque and semi-opaque layers of paint glazing only in relatively restricted areas according to general usage.
Most art historians probably tend to overstate Vermeer's use of glazing and do not distinguish between glazing used as a corrective measure—very light layer of paint meant to alter only slightly the underlying paint layer which for one reason or another had not come up to the painter's expectations—and true glazing which, instead, aims to create a very specific and otherwise unachievable pictorial effect. This difference might not seem a fundamental one but the idea that Vermeer built up his paintings in a series of successive glazes is incorrect. An oil painting cannot be created by a series of successive glazes as if they were water color washes. The bulk of painting in the 17th century was executed with opaque and semi-opaque layers of pigment.
An excellent, yet conventional, use of glazing may be observed in Vermeer' Girl with a Red Hat. The plumed hat was first modeled in opaque vermilion (a brilliant, opaque red with a strong orange overtone) and black. The shadowed areas of the hat were then deepened by a glaze of red madder (a highly transparent ruby red derived from the madder plant) and a small amount of black after which a small amount of pure red madder was glazed over the illuminated areas giving the hat its exceptional light and its typically glowing red tone.
“Golden Age” is a historical term given by the ancient Greeks (Greek: Χρυσόν Γένος Chryson Genos) and Romans to the earliest period in time when human beings were peaceful and innocent and warfare did not exist. After the Golden Age came the Silver Age when mankind fell into moral decay. The Silver Age was followed by the bronze Age when warfare dominated the whole world. The last age, the Iron Age, was an age of sin and hard labour. By extension "Golden Age" denotes a period of primordial peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity.
The term was later used to describe the flourishing of Spanish literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth century as well as of the Netherlands ( Gouden Eeuw) which began in 1580 and ends in 1650, 1680 or 1710, according to different points of view. Some historians spoke of the Golden Age, however, only in reference to the province of Holland. The Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga reserved the term for the eighteenth century when the Dutch upper-class lived on the gold they had inherited from their ancestors. In general, the term referred to a period of unprecedented wealth, political and economic power and exceptional cultural growth.
It is believed that the migration of skilled craftsmen and rich merchants from Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp to the North stimulated the initial growth of the Netherlands, followed by a significant influxes of non-native refugees who had previously fled from religious persecution, particularly Sephardi Jews from Portugal and Spain, and later Huguenots from France. Cheap energy sources, from windmills and from peat, easily transported by canal to the cities, also contributed to the growth of trade, industry, the arts and the sciences during this period. The invention of the sawmill enabled the construction of a massive fleet of ships for worldwide trading and for military defense of the republic's economic interests.
Although the contemporaries were well aware of a period of bloom, the term Golden Age was first used when Bakhuizen van den Brink, a literary critic, philosopher and historian, gave a lecture about a historical phenomena in 1823. By the 1990s, the term had lost the term had lost much of its original meaning and discarded by many historians.
Today the term is liberally bestowed when any period in question has ended and is compared with what followed in the specific field discussed, including the “Golden age of Alpinism,” “Golden Age of American Animation,” "Golden Age of Comics,” "Golden Age of Science Fiction,” "Golden Age of Hollywood,” "Golden Age of Hip Hop" and even "Golden Age of Piracy" or "Golden Age of Pornography.”
A grisaille (in French, "gray") is a painting which has been executed in monochrome (i.e. one color) or in a very limited range of color, but in which the forms are defined by variations of tone. Grisaille painting was particularly popular for the outsides of the shutters of polyptychs in Northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was also chosen quite deliberately chosen for aesthetic reasons, in order to create a specific visual effect. Traditionally, when part of a large decorative scheme in fresco or oils, or if incorporated into an altarpiece, a grisaille composition was often modeled to resemble sculpture, either relief or statuary.
A grisaille may be executed for its own sake, as underpainting for an oil painting (in preparation for glazing layers of colour over it), or as a model for an engraver to work from. "Rubens and his school sometimes use monochrome techniques in sketching compositions for engravers. Full coloring of a subject makes many more demands of an artist, and working in grisaille was often chosen as being quicker and cheaper, although the effect was sometimes deliberately chosen for aesthetic reasons. Grisaille paintings resemble the drawings, normally in monochrome, that artists from the Renaissance on were trained to produce; like drawings they can also betray the hand of a less talented assistant more easily than a fully colored painting.
From 1620 until his death, the Dutch painter Adriaen van de Venne made numerous grisailles and engravings of genre subjects, featuring peasants, beggars, thieves and fools as illustrations of current proverbs and sayings, mostly by Jacob Cats. These works were frequently accompanied by painted motto that provides a humorous or ironic commentary on the scene. Van de Venne was famous during his lifetime, and remained popular throughout the 18th century after his death.
Ground is a coating material applied to a support, such as canvas or panel, to make it ready for painting. Grounding, or priming as it is also called today, must produce a smooth surface that can be easily painted upon. It must be hard but not brittle (which causes cracking) and it must be porous enough to allow the oil paint to adhere permanently but not too absorbent as to suck out the oil from the layers of oil paint and cause it to detach. If oil paint is applied directly to canvas with no ground, paint soaks into and spreads on the support. Furthermore, the fabrics of the support is eroded by the acid of oil. Painters generally first sealed the canvas before grounding with a layer of animal skin glue or casein called "size."
Dutch painters generally used the double ground, a ground prepared with two different layers material. Double grounds spread from the northern Netherlands and Flanders to France, England and Scandinavia. In the Netherlands they were more frequent in Utrecht and Amsterdam than in Haarlem, where they never caught on, and light or whitish grounds remained popular much longer. The pigmentation of lower grounds varied, even within the oeuvre of a single painter. Double grounds in the northern Netherlands often consisted of chalk or ochre (red or yellow) which were subsequently covered with a thin coat of light gray producing the so-called Raleigh scattering effect. Artists sometimes scraped up the residue paint that deposited at the bottom of the receptacle which held turpentine for cleaning brushes to use as a cheap alternative to more costly pigments.
Most traditional grounds were colored. Painters were aware that the tone of the ground strongly influences the perception of the tone and hue of the pigments which were applied over it. Thus, the final overall tone of the picture was effected, especially in the shadows where thin layers of transparent paint were generally used. Dark toned canvases greatly aid the rendering of the depiction of shadows but require repeated layers of light-colored paint to represent the illuminated areas, which unfortunately may alter in time due to the fact that the transparency of some paints, including white-lead which was often used in light passages, augments in time.
The landscape painter Constable favored beige or mid-brown grounds. In The Valley of the Stour, with Dedham in the Distance, he left the reddish-brown ground uncovered in places such as the banks of the river. A colored ground gives an overall warmer and darker effect than a white ground.
In the first half of the 19th century, is was noticed in artists' manuals that artists were increasingly using lighter grounds. The Pre-Raphaelites were amongst the artists opting for white-primed canvas and if they reworked a section of a composition they would simply lay over the unsatisfactory passage more white as a local ground. Many Impressionist paintings were done on white grounds in order to maximize color intensity.
Today, most artists employ commercially prepared acrylic gesso works as both a size and a ground whether they will paint with oil or acrylic paint. Acrylic gesso fills in holes of the canvas and creates a strong, flexible barrier between the paint and the canvas. Because acrylics do not affect the integrity of the raw canvas or board, some acrylic painters even eliminate the use of an acrylic gesso ground. However, most acrylic paintings are done on acrylic gesso grounds.
Vermeer generally used light colored grounds composed of chalk (a filler), linseed oil, white-lead and various combinations of pigments. For example, the ground of the Woman Holding a Balance contains chalk, white-lead, black and an earth pigment, most likely brown umber. The ground mixture was applied with a palette knife in one or two layers. The grounded canvas had a warm buff tone that can be seen in various areas of the painting where little or no paint was applied. Although it would seem that Vermeer prepared his canvas in the conventional manner in his studio, it has been recently advanced that he may have purchased commercially prepared canvases.
It has often been pointed out that even though the Dutch had waged war against Spain for generations before peace was finally settled in 1648 (Peace of Münster), Dutch painters seldom represented actual real land battle scenes. However there was a huge market for the so-called guard room scenes, or, koortegardje. Koortegardje scenes typically represented soldiers drinking, resting and gambling. Officers and men amuse themselves between duties, smoking, gambling and womanizing, with contemporary humor playing an important part. This particular type of genre painting also includes scenes of soldiers in barrack-rooms, sharing their booty, fighting each other or hearing the pleas of or harassing innocent citizens. Dutch Republic, like other nations, relied heavily upon foreign-born mercenaries who were often drawn from the lower echelons of society. Despite the fact that they were poorly paid they played a pivotal role in the latter phases of the war against Spain.
Certain aspects of Dutch koortegardje pictures must have been true to life. Rather than fighting, the overwhelming part of the common soldier’s life was spent idling away time in the garrison located along the country’s frontier. The profusion of prostitutes in koortegardje scenes must reflect faithfully one of the most ubiquitous aspects of military life. There are no lack of edicts which were meant to prohibit the entrance to military quarters by prostitutes, who as well, inevitably accompanied moving armies in droves. However, it is likely that the fine garments (during this period soldiers wore their own clothing since uniforms did not exist), the shiny weapons and armor seen in so many koortegardje, could have been affordable the great part of common soldiers who earned paltry wages. According to the art historian Wayne Franits, koortegardje paintings were essentially constructs that exaggerate and distort certain aspects of military life, thus articulating the prejudices of wealthy collectors whose contact with the actual, professional army must have been minimal.36
The term "koortegardje" is a bastardizaion of the French phrase corps de garde. Koortegardje enjoyed their greatest popularity during the 1620s and 1630s, perhaps as a result of Dutch preoccupation with the ongoing war with Spain. Most koortegardje were painted between 1628 and 1664 in Amsterdam.
The painters Pieter Codde, Jacob Duck, Willem Duyster, Simon Kick and Anthonie Palamedesz devoted much of their works to this motif. Perhaps Gerard ter Borch created the most refined versions of guard room scenes.
Guilds were associations of people engaged in the same trade or business. In Italy they were known as Arti, and it was necessary to belong to one to obtain work in any town. The guilds had their own chapels and in their devotional activities they often resembled confraternities. The guilds of painters was called the Guild of Saint Luke, named after the patron saint of painters. Guilds remained active in some parts of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, but their importance diminished in direct relationship to the rise in importance of other professional associations, such as the Pictura in the Hague in the 17th century and, above all, the Academies. The primary aims of the guilds were to regulates the commerce and training of painters and artisans and to provide for their welfare in later part of their lives.
As every other Dutch painter, Vermeer was required to undergo a four or six year apprenticeship with a master painter who belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke. In these years, the young apprentice was thoroughly instructed in the art and craft of painting with little or no book learning, and upon his admission to the guild, was permitted to sign and sell his own paintings as well as those of his fellow painters. Recently, some scholars have come to believe Vermeer left Delft in order to study either in Amsterdam or Utrecht. Vermeer was required to pay an entrance fee of six guilders when he was admitted to the Guild of Saint Luke in 1653 (December). Normally, new admittees into the guild whose father had been members, as was the case with Vermeer, were required to pay three guilders, provided that they had trained for two years with a master of the guild. According to Van de Veen (1996) the only plausible explanation for the higher admission fee is that Vermeer's training had occurred outside of Delft.
"In 1632 Europe was filled with coins of varying values, issued by governments of varying degrees of trustworthiness. To make it worse each system had different ratios of the numbers of coins of one denomination that made up the next. About the only sure thing was that no one used a decimal system. For a modern reader all this is compounded by the changes in the relative costs of different things.
"Money in the 17th century was primarily based on silver coins with gold used for larger transactions and smaller coins minted from copper, brass or tin.
"In addition to the mish mash of national currencies, there were two international currencies, a gold one and a silver one with a fairly well defined rate of exchange between them. These were struck to a generally consistent weight by numerous states and coins from different states were thus generally interchangeable."37
The Dutch guilder (sgn: ƒ or fl.) was the currency of the Netherlands from the 17th century until 2002, when it was replaced by the euro. The Dutch name gulden was a Middle Dutch adjective meaning "golden", and the name indicates the coin was originally made of gold. One guilder was equal to 20 stuivers, and 16 pennings were equal to a stuiver. Other currencies were the Leeuwendaalder which was worth 2 and the Rijksdaalder worth 2.5 Guilders. In the 17th century, coins were much softer than they are today and were also clipped by thieves. The real value of a coin was determined by the weight of its precious metal rather than its face value. Thus, a diligent household periodically weighed all its coins ( as the woman in Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance) to establish their effective worth.
Ordinary craftsmen's wages are estimated to have been from 1.2 to 1.5 guilders a day. A register artist of the St Luke guild might have been able to earn anywhere between 1,000 and 2,250 guilders a year from the sale of his paintings, above or between 2.2 to five times as much as a master carpenter's wage.38 Painter who did not work within the structure of the guild earned considerably less. A small Dutch house might be worth from 500 to 1,000 guilders. In Amsterdam in 1664, the annual salary of a school master was 405 guilders, and a clerk 380. Dutch wages were the highest in Europe, some 20% above the equivalent in England, and lured skilled labor from surrounding counties.] But while salaries rose for most Dutch works during the 17th century wages for building workers and unskilled workers, stagnated.
Vermeer lived in a time, also known as the silver century, when silver had become available in enormous quantities. All over the globe, business transactions were done in silver. Although the practical use of silver was confined to decorative purposes, silver had become the universal measure of wealth. Principle suppliers of silver were Japan and South America. The Chinese accumulated huge amounts of silver since they were not interested in making transactions with European goods but accepted silver payments for the porcelain, silk clothing and other exotic goods they produced and had become the rage in Europe. Furthermore, in China, one unit of gold could be bought for six units of silver instead of the twelve in Europe.
Although there were some silver mines in Germany and Austria, the great bulk of silver which reached the ports of Amsterdam and London came from Spanish mines in Peru. Much of it came from the desolate boom town of Petosí. Founded in 1546 as a mining town, it soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming one of the largest cities in the Americas and the world with a population exceeding 200,000 people. In Spanish there is still a saying, valer un potosí, "to be worth a potosí" (that is, "a fortune"). It is believed that the considerable inflation in the 16th century was due to the vast influx of gold and silver from the Spanish looting of the new world.
Money appears two times, once a gold coin which is being flipped into the open palm of a young prostitute by a swashbuckling cavalier in the early Procuress and the second tim in the measured Woman Holding a Balance. Using the five coins on the table of Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance as a starting point, the historian Timothy Brook39opened a window out of Vermeer's painting onto the globalization of the world. Brook has conjectured that the large silver coin near the four stacked gold coins is a ducat and not a guilder. There were various types of silver coins in circulation but the most common was the ducat. In Europe, two silver ducats were worth one gold ducat.
Most simply understood, the halftones are part of the illuminated side of an object neither in the highlight or in the shadow. They are lit side of the shadow edge but only receiving light obliquely rather than directly. Painters always understand half-tones as lighter than anything in the shadow. The correct depiction of half-tone create a natural sensation of light fall and volume. Half-tones in the depiction of flesh are particularly demanding. Some painters are of the belief that half-tones are a rule cool, the warmer colors are in the shadows and in a lesser degree in the lights. However, warm and cool, when modeling a form with a single local color, are so relative that this scheme is generally of little use in actual studio practice.
"The illusion of form is the domain of halftones. The shadows can be simplified and unified, as to some degree the lights, but the halftones must be gradated in order for the image to be read as a turning form. Unless something is flat, like a piece of paper, there will be some changes in value to indicate its girth. Generally, the smaller the range of halftones there is in an object the quicker the turn can be described."40
Haptic means "relating to or based on the sense of touch." Since its application in art writing is almost always about space, texture and/or volume, it is most typically used as an adjective for sculpture. It is less often used of painting (most often as a variation of painterly).
For the origin of highlights in painting, see "Luster," "Sparkle," "Glimmer," "Glitter," "Splendor" and Highlights.
Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest (detail)
Anthony van Dyck
Oil on oak, 37.5 x 32.5 cm.
National Gallery, London
A highlight is the bright spot of light that appears on shiny objects when light shines on them. Highlights were as important for painters of the 17th century as they are in 3D computer graphics, as they provide a strong visual cue for the shape of an object and its location with respect to light sources in the scene. The correct understanding of the nature of natural highlights and the techniques for representing them is of utmost importance to the illusionist painter. If a highlight is not painted properly, the observer will be unable to apprehend the material and/or texture of the underlying object and the direction and intensity of light. Many painters can be identified by their handling of highlights alone.
Highlight inform direction the light is coming in from and how shiny or dull the surface of the object is. A shiny surface is represented by specular highlights that are very light in comparison to the neighboring values and have sharp, well-defined edges like metal or catchlights in the eyes. A dull object, like cotton fabric, will be represented by highlights that are just a bit lighter in value and it’s hard to tell exactly where they blend into the next value of light.
Although highlights can be applied wet-in-wet, the strongest strong highlights are best superimposed over dry paint. Particularly suggestive are strong highlights laid in with heavy impasto and a quick touch. This technique makes the painted highlight "stand up" above the underlying object and seems even brighter than the tone of the highlight itself since it cast a small shadow to one of its sides. This manner of painting highlights is usually employed to render the catch lights of eyes (see detail image left), the highlights of shiny metal and jewels.
Dutch painters had become particularly adept in painting of highlights and had largely codified the color, value and painterly touch for the highlights of every conceivable man-made and natural objects. A faint touch of ultramarine added to white lends satin or birds’ feathers as gossamer softness while a bit of lead-tin yellow was added to the highlights of deep green foliage.
A history painting is one which has a serious narrative, or includes exemplars of actions which are intended to have didactic overtones. In this sense the word "history" relates to the Italian istoria, meaning narrative or story (and not the accurate or documentary description of actual events). History paintings are often large in scale. Their subjects can be taken from the Bible, from mythology or other forms of secular literature, from historical events; or they can be allegories. Noble themes are seen as being particularly worthy of depiction.
History painting was viewed as the most important of the genres from about the 16th century, and the climax of an academic painter's training. It was the equivalent of Epic or Tragedy in literature.
"In the Netherlands, history painting, which was once the pinnacle of pictorial art, gradually became a minority art. Most young painters opted for the specialist career in one of the categories of painting that were menaced by realism. This was also, of course, a result of the economic situation within which they had to find a living as professional painters."41
Although history painting had once been the dominant mode in all of Europe, in the Netherlands it was largely replaced, at least numerically, by still life, landscape and genre painting. Nonetheless, art writers and ambitious painters continued to advocate the classicist principles, which were at the foundation of history painting, throughout the 17th century until it asserted itself once again as a driving cultural force in the visual arts in the latter decades. Classicist theory, however, was not dogmatically adhered to in the Netherlands even by those who promoted it most strenuously. Karl van Mander (1548 - 1606) and later Gérard de Lairesse wrote about history painting extensively.
Van Mander, who had exhorted painters to depict "memorable histories," painted some peasant scenes. Samuel van Hoogstraten, another Dutch theorist and painter, painted genre and trompe l'œil works, the latter of which has more to do with pictorial trickery than the search for uplifting content, even though he was awarded a medal by the Holy Roman Emperor for his efforts. Cesar van Everdingen, who was sometimes referred to as one of the Haarlem Classicists or Haarlem Academics, repeatedly depicted courtesans playing musical instruments or combing their hair.
De Lairesse, who opposed joint artistic efforts because it demeaned the role of the painter to the status of a mere specialist, is know to have employed Johannes Glauber to fill in landscape background in some of his works. Moreover, de Lairesse, like many figurative Dutch painters, was unable to repress his Dutch colleagues' quintessential fascination for the depictions of specific textures, especially fine satins, practically a hallmark of Dutch painting.
Whether Vermeer's initial impulse to be a history painter was stimulated by his artistic training, his conversion to Catholicism, or the hope of realizing prestigious princely or civic commissions in the nearby Hague, he abruptly altered his subject matter and style of painting a few years after being admitted to the guild. In any case, Vermeer was perhaps the only genre painter who was able to confer the moral seriousness and dignity associated with history painting to his representations of modern life.
Other than the Diana and her Companions and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Vermeer is known to have painted a third history painting, the Jupiter, Venus and Mercury and a Visit to the Tomb. The art historian Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. has attributed to Vermeer a youthful copy of a Saint Praxedis originally painted by the Italian painter Felice Ficherelli. This attribution has not been accepted by many in the Dutch art history community.
"Dutch artists and theorists often used the term houding to encompass the many pictorial tactics that might make a compelling mimetic painting. Vermeer's combination of spatial coherence, pleasing but unobtrusive surface design, and harmonious coloring that went into the production of a lifelike pictorial world amounted to good houding."42
Although the term has bread some confusion among modern scholars, the art historian Paul Taylor describes houding as " a means of creating a sense of space in a picture. The artist must be careful not to allow the elements in a painting to be-come 'packed together'; depth should be expressed lucidly and spatial relations should be clearly legible. If the artist succeeds in 'placing each thing, without con-fusion, separate and well apart from the objects which are next to and around it', then an illusionistic space will be opened up in which the eye can roam: 'as if [each object] were accessible with one's feet'. Viewers are given the sense that they can stroll through a picture, walk round the table in some dining-room or saunter off down a riverside path."43
A contemporary definition by the Dutch art writer Willem Goeree of houding is as follows:
Houding is that which binds everything together in a drawing or a painting, which makes things mover to the front or the back, from the foreground to the middle ground and hence to the background to stand in its proper place without appearing farther away or closer, and without seeming lighter or darker than its distance warrants; so that everything stands out, without confusion, from things that adjoin and surround it, and has an unambiguous position through the proper use of size and color, and light and shadow, and so that the eye can naturally perceive the intervening space, that distance between bodies which is left open and empty, both near and far, as though one might go there on foot, and everything stands in its proper space therein.
According to the art historian Paul Taylor, "Samuel van Hoogstraten, Gérard de Lairesse and Joachim von Sandrart seem to have agreed with Goeree that 'houding' was an art vocabulary of the Golden Age. Hoogstraten and Lairesse both devoted chapters of their books on painting to the term's elucidation, and Sandrart claimed that to bring about proper houding in a work was 'a very necessary rule.'"
for further information on houding, consult:
Paul Taylor, "The Concept of Houding in Dutch Art Theory", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 55 (1992), pp. 210-232.
Hue is the first dimension of color. It is the quality by which we can distinguish one color from another. Hue is synonymous with color. The three primary colors (red, yellow and blue) are hues. Black and white are not hues. Primary colors cannot be related to one another on the basis of a common denominator, for this, they are perceived as absolute values.
Theoretically, all hues can be mixed from red, yellow and blue. Some 19th-century English watercolorists painted with only these three colors and were able to achieve naturalistic effects. However, even though primary colors in oil paints can be mixed to produce secondary colors, they usually generate hues of inferior brilliance and it is impossible to recreate some of the most useful colors on the artist’s palette such raw umber or burnt sienna. Other than their particular hues, traditional pigments possess physical characteristics which make them extremely desirable for a variety of reasons. The extraordinary depth of common black pigments cannot be approximated by any mixture of primary or secondary colors.
"Some say that the primary colors, seen individually or together, are less expressive than the secondary colors. There may be some element of truth in this, but the whole truth concerning color is never easy to pin down. There are some persons who profess a strong dislike for contrast of primaries and other bright hues. Perhaps the blatant use of colors in the omnipresent signs and advertisements has prejudiced them against straightforward, undiminished hues."44 In Vermeer’s time, these exceptionally strong hues were part of the painter’s "magic."
The secondary hues are green (blue plus yellow), orange (red plus yellow) and violet (red plus blue).Vermeer based most of his color harmonies on the primary and neutral colors. Except in his very early works, oranges and purples are not found. While significant areas of green are more common they generally play a supportive role to the dominant color harmony. Secondary colors derive their character from the fact that they are intuitively perceived as hybrid. They possess a vibrating duality which primary colors do not.
Iconographic analysis is used to establish the meaning of a particular work at a particular time. To identify the subject of an altarpiece as a Madonna and Child, however, explains nothing about the use of the altarpiece, how it fit into the surrounding culture, its economic import, or what it may reveal about social and political issues of the period. These questions apply most naturally to the study of objects from the past, but the same methods can be applied to contemporary art. What matters is the way the context is described and what kinds of relationships are established between it and the work or works being studied. This type of analysis is richest when it creates a web of very specific connections. To juxtapose a few generalizations about a historical context with a work from the period without suggesting any particular relationships between the two does not reveal very much.
Like so many kinds of writing about art, historical analysis became the subject of sustained investigation during the 19th century by scholars writing in German. Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) wrote the first major studies of art as an aspect of culture in his books about the Italian Renaissance, published during the 1860s. The idea that art should be considered primarily in terms of the economic structure that produced it rather than aesthetics was explored by Karl Marx (1818-1883).
The influence on art of culture in its broadest definition, including politics, religion, and social conventions, as well as popular imagery and magical or irrational beliefs, became the subject of systematic study by Aby Warburg (1866-1929) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Warburg (1866–1929) and his followers Fritz Saxl (1890–1948) and Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968) elaborated the practice of identification and classification of motifs in images to using iconography as a means to understanding meaning. Panofsky codified an influential approach to iconography in his 1939 Studies in Iconology, where he defined it as "the branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to form," although the distinction he and other scholars drew between particular definitions of "iconography" (put simply, the identification of visual content) and "iconology" (the analysis of the meaning of that content), has not been generally accepted, though it is still used by some writers.
In the United States, where Panofsky immigrated in 1931, students such as Frederick Hartt, and Meyer Schapiro continued under his influence in the discipline. In an influential article of 1942, Introduction to an "Iconography of Mediaeval Architecture", Richard Krautheimer, a specialist on early medieval churches and another German émigré, extended iconographical analysis to architectural forms.
The period from 1940 can be seen as one where iconography was especially prominent in art history. Whereas most icongraphical scholarship remains highly dense and specialized, some analyses began to attract a much wider audience, for example Panofsky's theory (now generally out of favor with specialists) that the writing on the rear wall in the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck turned the painting into the record of a marriage contract. Holbein's The Ambassadors has been the subject of books for a general market with new theories as to its iconography, and the best-sellers of Dan Brown include theories, disowned by most art historians, on the iconography of works by Leonardo da Vinci.
Although the study of iconography in Dutch art has been a subject which has fascinated scholars for a good part of the 20th century there still exist a number of controversial points to be resolved. Moreover, there exist no period texts which helps to explain either how or to what degree or painter should employ iconographical meaning. It should be also considered that an artist may have used iconography consciously; probably just as often, in a semi-conscious way.
An artist can be said to have a personal iconography, which is often noted and analyzed by others, including art historians, critics, writers and the public.
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the lack of period writing on iconographical interpretation of Dutch genre paintings is that everyone, including the lower class, already knew their meaning quite well. Thus, what was common knowledge in those times and had no reason to be written became in our time an intricate, but largely uncertain, science.
Any reader who is fairly familiar with modern Vermeer literature has certainly noticed the abundance of iconographic studies of Vermeer's painting. The topic was initially touched on by P.T.A. Swillens (1950) and Lawrence Gowing (1952) in their respective monographs dedicated to the Delft master. From the early sixties, onwards, Vermeer's painting were believed to have allusive, allegorical or emblematic character. "In particular Eddy de Jongh - although not the first to do so - believed that many Dutch paintings, including Vermeer's, should be interpreted in the light of "prints in contemporary emblem books that are accompanied by mottoes and verses that together produce a didactic, ethical or proverbial conceit."45
De Jongh ("On Balance," in Vermeer Studies, 1998) has recently pointed out that "even though there exists a remarkable agreement about Vermeer's artistic stature, modern scholars have still have not reached a common stand as to the meaning that Vermeer may have invested in his painting. A methodological battle on the question of form and content in seventeenth-century Dutch art and has been waged for more than a decade, with a partial return to the idea of art for art's sake. Most Vermeer scholars, though, take a different view. They usually do not doubt Vermeer's intention of investing his work with meaning. The question is merely what was that meaning and, above all, whether it can still be deciphered."
In any case, in order to arrive at a full understanding of a painting's iconographical content, it is best to take into account not only of the supposed iconographical significance but also the general mood of the work which at times may seem contradictory to the initial iconographic reading.
The principal characteristic of an artwork which attempts to convince viewers that they are not looking at a representation but at the thing itself. In other words, illusionism means making an image as "realistic," in the conventional sense of the word, as possible. Especially when accompanied by the word "optical," "illusion" is often used to indicate an image which we recognize as playing a deliberate trick on us, like alternating figures. This is precisely not what is meant by "illusionism," which refers instead to coherent images which pass for the real.
The closest one can get to come to understanding the attitudes towards realism and illusionism in art theory in Vermeer's time is Samuel van Hoogstraten's Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (Rotterdam, 1678). Van Hoogstraten was a multi-facetted artist who painted biblical subjects in the style of Rembrandt, genre scenes, portraits and tromp l'œil still lifes. As a consequence, his theoretical treatise, which is an amalgamation of many ideas drawn from the classics, Italian art theory, and his own experience, provides a relatively reliable glimpse into the intellectual concerns that must have been shared by many of Hoogestraten's contemporaries.
Van Hoogstraten provided the following ideal for an artists and an assessment of the requirements necessary to achieve that ideal:
"I say that a painter, whose work is to fool the sense of sight, also must have so much understanding of the nature of things that he thoroughly understands the means by which the eye is deceived."'
According to Hoogstraten, then the artist's work is to fool the eye, to make the viewer believe that the image seen is an entirely different reality. The success of such understanding of the laws of nature and 'the means by which the eye is deceived. "For Hoogstraten the means explicitly included the workings of vision and the theories of perspective, but also implicitly an understanding of the psychological expectations of a viewer encountering an illusionist image."46
The notion that a painting should deceive the eye with its illusionism dates back to antiquity. In his Natural History, Pliny described a competition between the artists Parrhasius and Zeuxis, both of whom were intent on creating images that fooled the viewer into believing that the objects depicted were real. Parrhasius won when he painted a curtain so skillfully that Zeuxis tried to lift it to see the image beneath. We are reminded of this story by the large tapestry in Vermeer's painting, which seems to have been drawn aside to reveal the allegorical scene. Its convincing heavy folds, colors, and textures, which Vermeer suggests with multicolored highlights accenting the nubs of the weave, urge us to push it back even further to reveal more of the room behind it.
Paint applied in outstanding heavy layers or strokes; also, any thickness or roughness of paint or deep brush marks, as distinguished from a flat, smooth surface which enhances the effect of texture or of illumination. Some Dutch fijnschilders were so taken to the representation of texture that they pressed a piece of clothe to the almost dry area of paint which represented some kind of course fabric in order to mimic it texture. Rembrandt, in particular, is noted for his use of impasto. A critic of the time once remarked that his portraits were painted with such high paint relief that "they could be picked up by their nose."
Vermeer used impasto above all in his early works. For example, in the Maid Asleep, the carpet in the foreground has been reinforced with rough impasto application of paint. He took great care to re-create the interwoven patterns of the fabric and one can almost feel the material presence of the carpet's knotty texture.
Vermeer, like many painters of the time, used impasto for another reason; that of enhancing the effect of light. The most strongly light areas of his compositions are often painted with heavy impasto and so become, literally, the most eye catching areas.
Vermeer's contemporary Samuel van Hoogstraten, artist and art theoretician, was aware of another important characteristic of textured paint. "I maintain that perceptibility alone makes objects appear closer at hand, and conversely that smoothness makes the withdraw, and I therefore desire that which is to appear in the foreground, be painted roughly and briskly,..." By contrast, shadowed areas were usually more vaguely defined with thin transparent or semi-transparent layers of paint.
Some areas of impasto in Vermeer's works have lost their original relief owing to restorations in which hot irons were employed in the process of relining the original unstable or worn canvas.
Imprimatura is a term used in painting, meaning an initial stain of color painted on a ground. It provides a painter with a transparent, toned ground, which will allow light falling onto the painting to reflect through the paint layers. The term itself stems from the Italian and literally means "first paint layer." Its use as an underpainting layer can be dated back to the guilds and workshops during the Middle Ages; however, it comes into standard use by painters during the Renaissance, particularly in Italy.
The imprimatura provides not only an overall tonal optical unity in a painting but is also useful in the initial stages of the work, since it helps the painter establish value relations from dark to light. It is most useful in the classical approach of indirect painting, where the drawing and underpainting are established ahead of time and allowed to dry. The successive layers of color are then applied in transparent glaze or semi-transparent layers.
Care is taken not to cover the imprimatura completely allowing it to show through the final paint layers, this is effective in particular in the middle to dark shadow areas of the work. An imprimatura can be generic, not specific to the subject being painted on top of it, or it can be specifically adapted to the subject being painted. The painter should be conscious of how the imprimatura is going to affect later stages in the painting. If an imprimatura is too dark and gray, it will drag down the luminosity of the colors laid on top of it. On the other hand, if it is too light, it will make the depiction of shadows more time consuming.
Influence is the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary states that the term "influence" was originally an astrological term, used to signify an emanation from the stars (into a person or thing) of any kind of divine or secret power or principle.
In a sizable part, modern art history is dominated by the study of influences; how artists may be influenced by myriad environmental factors and, in particular, by the works of other artists. However, the task of tracing influence in the arts is not an easy one. Painters may be influenced by styles of painting (past and present) and other arts (past and present), art theory, popular imagery, social conditions or events, religion, state, philosophy, scientific discovery, the requests of patrons and market pressure. Strictly speaking, he may also be influenced by his own social origin, personal relationships, gender and mental conditions such as conscious beliefs, unconscious psychological impulses, greed, desire for fame, love or art or even divine inspiration.
Since they enable and dictate, both the costs and the inherent properties of the materials which the painter employs also influence the results of his production. Even climatic conditions may have had an influence on the painter’s ability to realize his goals. For example, the significant number of heavily overcast days in the Netherlands, when light is dim even at midday, may have explain why Dutch painters, in respects to painters of other schools of art, were so sensitive to the activities of light. As time passes, more art is produced exposing painters to an ever increasing amount of possible influences.
When attempting to understand the work of painters, or schools of painters, art historians may contemporarily investigate a variety of influences which he or she might hold particularly relevant to that painter’s production although he or she may also choose to investigate a single form of influence in isolation from all the rest. For example, Jeongmu Yang,47 investigated the painting of Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini in the light of the rise of oil painting and the availability and costs of pigments. John Michael Montias, the American economist turned art historians, investigated the influence of economics on the style of 17th-century Dutch painters through "collected evidence on the economic status of the artists…in the Golden Age: the taxes they remitted; the prices they paid for their houses; the gifts their family made to charity after their death."48
Woman with a Pearl Necklace (IRR image)
c. 1662 - 1665
Oil on canvas, 55 x 45 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Developed in the late 1960s by Dutch physicist J. R. J. van Asperen De Boer, infrared reflectography (IRR) is a non-destructive imaging technique that is used to study the presence of specific pigments which may lie beneath visible paint layers. IRR can provide important information for art historians since changes in composition can be detected during the different phases of a painting’s execution. IRR can also detect paint losses and retouchings, sometimes invisible to the naked eye. Infrared radiation allows us to "see through" paint layers that are impenetrable to the human eye since it passes through paint until it reaches something that absorbs it, or it is reflected back to the camera. Infrared light has too long a wavelength to see, but it can however be photographed. IRR can penetrate through most thinly painted oil paints, except carbon black which was often a component of artist's materials such as graphite, charcoal and ink, during the early stages of the painting process and as an additive to darken other pigments. The resulting image, known as an infrared reflectogram, is converted digitally by software, producing a black and white image on the computer monitor. Since IRR detects black materials it is a perfect complement to X-radiography, which typically registers lighter materials, principally lead white ubiquitously employed by 17th-century European painters.
Art historians nowadays use this method widely, indeed it turns out to be mandatory to obtain precious information on the author's technique and the graphical means used to draw. Other important data can be found using this technique, among these are: writings, signatures and dates, originally under the paint layer, or covered by restorations done before the reflectography. In other cases the analysis of the reflectogram reveals significant variations in the composition of the artwork with respect to its final version, or pentimenti of the author, and even sketches of objects without any relation to the painting as it is seen today. Reflectography is often used also by restorers. In many cases it eases the analysis of the creative genesis of the artwork and reveals previous restoration actions. IR reflectography is performed by using various devices.
A main drawback of IRR is the time consumption necessary for manually mounting many mosaic pictures, using dedicated software. This is particularly true for paintings of great dimension, where scaffolding has to be constructed for the investigation in situ, because the camera has to be positioned relatively close to the artwork.
Many alterations that Vermeer made in the course of the painting process painting have come to light with the aid of infrared reflectography. It has been discovered that Vermeer altered his compositions in order to achieve greater balance and at the same time defined theme more precisely. One of the most striking examples revealed by infrared reflectography can be found in the Girl with a Pearl Necklace. The composite Infrared reflectography image (see image above) show that a map similar to the one which hangs in the Art of Painting was initially hung directly behind the standing girl. Some kind on musical instrument, most likely a cittern, was placed on the foreground chair and the dark blue clothe which hangs from the table once revealed more of the floor tiles underneath the table.
"Between approximately 1650 and 1675 some of the most beautiful scenes of domestic interiors ever painter were produced in the Netherlands. The real capital of this genre was Delft, where Pieter de Hoogh and Johannes Vermeer represented spaces with startling illusionism and remarkable geometric perfection. These painters translated the genre scenes created by earlier artists into domestic interiors inspired by their own homes, imbuing then with an unprecedented freshness and evocative quality."49
"There is a substantial difference between the interiors painted after around 1650 and those of the first half of the century in their treatment of subject matter and pictorial space. The subjects depicted ( domestic scenes, amorous subjects and gathering of festive and other types) are no longer defined through their association with religious senses, series of the Four Seasons o the Five Senses, or illustrations of proverbs, but rather have acquired their own identity as a genre. The paintings inevitably continues to act as vehicles for different contents, but these are often these are less specific and present themselves in an ambiguous fashion and less overtly that in earlier works.
Most of the genre paintings produced in this period take place in an interior, generally inspired by elegant homes of the middle classes. They reflect concepts that were important to the Dutch culture such as family, privacy, intimacy, comfort and luxury, encouraging the spectator to think about issues relevant to his or her daily life, sometimes with touches of humor. Both from an anthropological and viewpoint as well as an architectural and decorative one, the home acquired and enormous importance in Holland in the second half of the 17th century: the physical space of the of the upper middle classes expanded as the consequence of their growing wealth, dividing itself up into more spaces and offering to its inhabitants greater comfort and more private areas. The way that genre painting moved indoors undoubtedly reflects this new interest on the part of the Dutch at hits time in then space in which the played out their domestic lives."50
Even though the most striking as aspects of Dutch genre interiors is their ability to recreate space, texture and light in a realistic way, it should be remembered that they portrayed a modified reality.
Because the splendid marble floors can been seen in most genre pictures from the middle and the third quarter of the 17th-century, we have been led to believe that they were present in nearly all well-to-do interiors. However, it seems doubtful that genre painters, Vermeer included, could have directly observed and painted this type of marble tile in his own studio.
In fact, C. Willemijn Fock, a historian of the decorative arts, has demonstrated that floors paved with marble tiles were extremely rare in the Dutch 17th-century houses and that only in the homes of the very wealthy where floors of this type were sometimes found, they were usually confined to smaller spaces such as voorhuis, corridors and upper story sleeping or storage rooms. Fock reasons that the numerous representations of these floors in Dutch genre painting may be explained by the fact that "artists were attracted by the challenge involved in representing the difficult perspective of receding multicolored marble tiling."
At the time, wooden floors were almost ubiquitous being eminently practical for the long gelid Dutch winters. These floors were so practical that they were found in houses of the very wealthy and can be observed in the paintings. An excellent example os such flooring is found in a portrait of Constantijn Huygens in which expensive globes and scientific instruments. Another such wooden floor is featured in Gerrit Borch Parental Admonition in the Rijksmuseum. Although other Dutch genre painters had also depicted the black and white marble floors or the smaller warm toned ceramic tiles of his earlier works, Vermeer may have painted these wooden floors in The Milkmaid, The Geographer and The Maid Asleep. However, they are not rendered with the same degree of accuracy as in Ter Borch's work.
Throughout Europe, Italy was the art center of the world during the 16th century. From the 16th century onwards, Dutch artists traveled to Italy regularly to study the works of art from classical antiquity and the Renaissance. Once in Italy, the artists were inspired by the landscape and the Mediterranean light. The works produced by these artists were exceptionally popular in the Netherlands. Known as "Italianists," they had a major influence on the artists who remained in the Netherlands, such as Nicolaas Berchem and Albert Cuyp, who also took to painting Italian landscapes, even though they themselves had never been to Italy.
From approximately 1640 onwards various Dutch artists focused specifically on painting sunny southern landscapes. Chief among the Italianists were Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Andries and Jan Both, Nicolaes Berchem, and Jan Asselijn. The Both brothers, of Utrecht, were to some degree rivals of the Haarlem-born Berchem. Andries painted the figures that populated Jan’s landscapes. Berchem’s own compositions were largely derived from the Arcadian landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain; a typical scene would contain shepherds grazing their flocks among Classical ruins, bathed in a golden haze. Upon his return to the Netherlands, Berchem occasionally worked in cooperation with the local painters and is said to have supplied figures in works of both Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema.
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- James Elkins, 1996.
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- Arthur Wheelock, Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New Haven and London, 1995, p.14.
- Alejandro Vergara, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 201.
- ibid., p. 204.