The Essential Vermeer Glossary: J - P

Samuel van Hooghstraten
Samuel van Hoogstraten

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 In leyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (Introduction to the Art of Painting, 1678) is an invaluable source for understanding Dutch seventeenth-century art theory and also contains one of the rare contemporary appraisals of Rembrandt's work.

Je ne sais quoi

See also, sprezzatura.

Je ne sais quoi [Fr. literally: I don't know what] is an intangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive, which is, however, ultimately unsayable. It is sometimes associated with other historical terms such as sprezzatura, galanterie, honnêteté. Je ne sais quoi suggests the impossibility of definiting the term itself. Since different individuals perceive it differently, it is not a rational value.

Je ne sais quoi is assumed to be a quintessentially French phenomenon and to belong purely to the realm of the literary. Richard Scholar1 argued that in the early modern period it served to address problems of knowledge in natural philosophy, the passions, and culture and that major figures of the period such as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Descartes, Corneille, and Pascal alongside some of their lesser-known contemporaries can be a tied to it. The term shows up Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique under finesse, but seems to have no other influence until the next century. 2

Kenlijckheyt (perceptibility)

See also, spatial depth.

Kenlijckheyt, (Dutch, obsolete: perceptibility) is a term used to describe pictorial space is perceived in relation to the surface qualities of a painting. Since as far back as ancient Greece, it was believed that light tones tend to advance towards the viewer advance darker tones tend toward the background. However, Rembrandt's pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten explained that the texture of the paint on the canvas could help strengthen or weaken the illusion of three-dimensionality. Thickly painted highlights create uneven surfaces that tend to reflect light, making those elements appear closer to the viewer. Smoothly painted areas, instead, appear more distant.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, made this point about kenlijkheyt in reference to Rembrandt's The Night Watch:

I therefore maintain that perceptibility [kenlijkheyt] alone makes objects appear close at
hand, and conversely that smoothness [egaelheyt] makes them withdraw, and I therefore desire that which is to appear in the foreground, be painted roughly and briskly, and that which is to recede be painted the more neatly and purely the further back it lies. Neither one color nor another will make your work seem to advance or recede, but the perceptibility or imperceptibility [kenlijkheyt of onkenlijkheyt] of the parts alone.

"Interesting, Hoogstraten did not apply this proposition, which he advances with great emphasis, to his own paintings in the period he wrote these words; they are smoothly executed, in both foreground and background."3


A lake is a pigment which has been made by precipitating or fixing a dye upon (usually in the form of a fine, fluffy powder) an semi-transparent inert pigment or lake base in order to give it bulk so that it might behave like other paints. This process may be compared to that of dying cloth. It requires a high degree of skill to achieve good results. Lakes are made in a great range of hues and strengths. Alumina hydrate, chalk and ground egg shells were used base for lakes.

Lakes were typically used in oil painting to produce effects of richness and depth over opaque underlayers (see glaze - glazing) although it is known that Rembrandt typically admixes lakes directly with other pigments to enrich their color.

Some lakes had organic and unusual origins."Until the middle of the last century, when it was discovered that aniline dyes could be made from coal tar, most dyes were obtained from natural substances in plants or animals called carmine lakes. There are two varieties of carmine lake, both produced from insects, cochineal lake and kermes lake and both employed as a dye and lake. Cochineal lake comes from cochineal beetle, native to the New World, which was used by the Aztecs for dyeing and painting and was brought to Europe in the sixteenth century following the Spanish conquest. Kermes lake comes from an other species of cochineal living on certain species of European oaks. These insects were scratched from the twigs with the fingernails and produced a powerful permanent scarlet dye believed to be that obtained from the Phoenicians by the Hebrews to dye the curtains of their tabernacle."4

Indigo and rose madder, two widely used lakes, are now produced more cheaply from synthetic sources, although some use of natural products persists, especially among artisans. The food and cosmetics industries have shown renewed interest in cochineal as a source of natural red dye. Schietgeel, (Dutch pinke or fading yellow), another widely used lake, was made from Buckthorn berries and fixed onto a substrate of aluminum hydrate. Schietgeel in oil is perfectly transparent since the refractive indices of aluminum hydrate and oil are very close to each other. Unfortunately the yellow color in schietgeel, rhamnetin, is not light-fast, causing the yellow glaze to fade, and if over a blue underpaint to produce green, the bluefish color underneath will become dominant.

Vermeer used lakes pigments which are commonly found on Dutch painters' palettes of the time:

red madder - A natural dyestuff from the root of the madder plant (rubia tinctorium), formerly cultivated extensively in Europe and Asia Minor. The coloring matter is extracted from the ground root by fermentation.

Vermeer presumably used red madder to glaze the feathered hat of the Girl with a Red Hat and likely the gown of the seated lady in the early Girl with a Glass of Wine.

weld - A natural yellow dyestuff, obtained as a liquid or as a dry extract of the herbaceous plant, Dyer's Rocket (Reseda luteola) formerly cultivated in central Europe a widely used to dye cloth. Grown easily from seed, weld grows as far north as Scotland and has been extensively naturalized around the world in temperate areas. This pigment was known to be susceptible to fading.

It has been suspected that weld was admixed or glazed over the foil age of the Little Street but has faded producing an unnatural bluish color.

indigo - Is present in various plants, not only in the East Indian indigo plant, but also in woad. It is the most important plant dye. Indigo was recognized as a valuable blue dye by most early explorers of the Indian region. The Venetian explorer Marco Polo described in detail the Indian indigo industry and by the eleventh century, Arab traders had introduced indigo to the Mediterranean region, where it became more popular than the local blue dye (woad). Indigo was brought to Britain in Elizabethan times (1500–1600), but its use was banned there and in other European countries due to protests from woad growers, whose business was being undercut. Today, indigo is still used to dye jeans –the irregular attachment of the dye causes the bleaching and mottling effect. Indigo has become naturalized in the southern United States.

Indigo was detected in the deep blue robe of Christ in Vermeer's early Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and in the background pf the Girl with a Pearl Earring (now faded).

cochineal - Natural organic dyestuff made from the dried bodies of the female insect Coccus cacti, which lives on various cactus plants in Mexico and in Central and South America. First brought to Europe shortly after the discovery of those countries.

This pigment has only been identified in the late Love Letter.


Land transformation occurred in the North Netherlands, during the seventeenth century. The physical geography of northern Holland was dramatically altered by the reclamation of about two hundred thousand acres of land from inland sea, by means of a complex system of dikes and drainage.

The creation of land was a commercial investment made by private citizens. By 1612 over one hundred citizens had invested in the scheme. Projects such as these dramatically altered the appearance of the region. These speculators constructed a system of canals and forty-two windmill pumps across the land. The resulting landscape was an extremely flat land, as recorded in Van Goyen's View of Leiden (1647). The land was highly regular polder, punctuated by a grid like system of canals and waterways across the drained areas.

Although landscape had always existed as a descriptive element of history painting, it only became independent in the early sixteenth century. Seventeenth century Dutch landscape paintings have been described as empirical, naturalistic images of the real Dutch landscape, yet they also reflect the social issues and aspirations of the time. Perhaps because the pressures of art theory in the Netherlands had weakened, landscape began to occupy a major place in art production. Landscape was avidly collected by the growing middle class who did not speak French or Latin and were not educated with humanist reverence for classical antiquity but who loved valued land as a national identity.

"By 1600, both the terms lantschap and its diminutive or frequentative lantschapken (later lantschapgen or lantschapie) were already well established in the inventories and sales records of Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem and Antwerp, and they remained dominant in describing landscapes of all sorts until the very end of... the 1670s. The words lantschap/lantschapje... denoted a relatively abstract, generic category into which many specialties were folded."5

"That Dutch countryside is oddly striking - it almost demands to be painted, although it has little of the drama of the tropics or of mountainous terrain. In fact, the land has almost no verticals at all but is conspicuously flat; the horizon is ever-present -- so much that the Dutch language has four words for horizon. The wind sweeps over the low land. The changeable sky, with its towering clouds reflected in rivers and canals, is more dramatic that the earth: nature in itself seems as moody as man himself.
In their efforts to catch the essence of this ever-changing setting, the new landscapist painted pictures that were different that anything seen before. Nature was portrayed for its own sake rather than as a background ton divine or human enterprises, or an artificial arrangement to convey literary allusion."6

Johan Huizinga in 1968 ably described the Hollanders' "intense enjoyment of shapes and objects, the(ir) unshakable faith in the reality and importance of all earthly things, a faith that... was the direct consequence of a deep love of life and interest in one's environment."

"By 1600, both the terms lantschap and its diminutive or frequentative lantschapken (later lantschapgen or lantschapie) were already well established in the inventories and sales records of Amsterdam, Delft, Haarlem and Antwerp, and they remained dominant in describing landscapes of all sorts until the very end of... the 1670s. The words lantschap/lantschapjea denoted a relatively abstract, generic category into which many specialties were folded. Some of the ost commone were, wilderness (woestyjne), hunting (jacht), harvest (oogst), mountain(s) (gebercht(en)), fishing (visserij), beach (strand, zeestrand), ruins (ruzjnen), moonlight (maenschijin), woods (bos, bossagie), pastorelle, hermitage, ice promenade (qjsgangh), dawn (morgenstond, dagerat), evening (in landscape) (avondstond), dunes (duijnen), river (rivier) and panorama (verschiet)."7

In the noted 1696 Dissius Amsterdam auction of 21 paintings by Vermeer, three landscapes are mentioned although only two have survived. Items 31, 32 and 33, with relative description and sales price in guilders are listed below.

31. The Town of Delft in perspective, to be seen from the south, by J. van der Meer of Delft 200-0
32. A view of a house standing in Delft, by the same 72-0
33. A view of some house, by ditto 48-0

Item 31. certainly corresponds to the View of Delft. Although it fetched the highest price (200 guilders) it is curious to note that the Milkmaid, a fraction of the View of Delft's dimension, was paid almost the same price, 175 guilders. The View of Delft is somewhat an anomaly in as much it had always highly considered throughout its known history while many other of Vermeer's painting slipped into complete neglect and even received signatures by other artists to augment their commercial value. This large work is also considered to be perhaps the first true "urban landscape" in European painting. Unfortunately, one of the two "view of house(s)" mentioned in the Dissius auction is missing.


The ability of paint to form a smooth level film. Paint that has good leveling characteristics is usually free of brush marks. Stand oil can be added to paint to greatly increase its leveling properties.

Liefhebbers van de Schilderkonst

In Vermeer's day there was a fast-growing but distinct interest in art and artists, with a public that was designated as Liefhebbers van de Schilderkonst ("Lovers of the Art of Painting"), composed principally of gentlemen from the upper classes.

Liefhebbers van de Schilderkonst read treatises like Roger de Piles' Conversations sur la connaissance de la Peinture, which linked the present with the grand traditions of arts of the past. Liefhebbers often took drawing classes and some even learned to paint. However, the key to understanding the secrets of art was to visit artists' studios and meet other connoisseurs. Some joined the Guild of Saint Luke alongside practicing painters, whose works they may have bought. As guild members they could probably resell paintings they had purchased from artists.

"A small painting on copper by Antwerp artist Hendrick van Steenwijk the Elder (1550–1603) satirizes the overly worshipful nature of art lovers, as the allegorical figure of Fama opens the door to an artist's studio while a crowd of elegantly dressed gentlemen in tall hats and gallant capes push through the threshold. Some liefhebbers were interested only in the fame of the artist, and not his art. Rembrandt pupil and art theorist Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–1678) disparaged the "naem koopers" (name buyers) in his 1678 Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (Introduction to the Art of Painting) or those who purchased art simply because of the status of the artist, the result of uneducated art devotees and a consequence of the spread of individual fame and name recognition of Dutch artists."8

"At a time when the public wanted images of famous people, the rise of the art lover and his interest in the artist increased the demand for images of the artist as well. Prints became an important media by which images could be produced. Because prints were inexpensive to make and series of prints could be bound together in books, they were widely distributed and easy to collect. Of course, the art lover, who wanted to link himself to the artist, formed the perfect market for these collections of prints. Prints also were ideal for propagating the image of the artist's new status in society. The artists' own image could now be circulated to potential patrons and collectors as a reputable and even distinguished member of society."9

Other than that of the Frenchman Baron Balthasar de Monconys (1611–1665), the only written eyewitness account of Vermeer's paintings was penned by liefhebber Pieter Teding van Berckhout (1643–1713), a young scion of a landed gentry family. In his diary, May 14,1669, he wrote:

"Having arrived in Delft, I saw an excellent painter named Vermeer," stating also that he had seen several "curiosities."

Van Berckhout had arrived in Delft accompanied by Constantijn Huygens and his friends—member of parliament Ewout van der Horst and ambassador Willem Nieupoort. Huygens was an artistic authority in his own day, maintaining contacts with the famous Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck and recording in his own diary some remarkably insightful comments about the art of, among others, Rembrandt van Rijn. However, it is doubtful that Huygens visited Vermeer's studio along with Van Berckhout.

Light in Painting

"Although the painter who uses effects of illumination is very much aware of their power, the influence of light and shadow is experienced in everyday life mostly in very practical ways. The seeking or avoidance of light is common at all levels of the animal world, and in the same way man seeks light when he wants to be see or be seen and avoids it otherwise. For these practical purposes, however, light is merely a means of dealing with the objects. Light and shadowed objects are observed, but hardly consciously for their own sake.They define the shape and spatial position of things and are consumed in this service. The naive observer is unlikely to mention them when asked to give a careful detailed description about objects and their adherent properties.

"Without light, the eyes can see no shape, no color or movement. But light is for human beings more than just the physical cause of what we see. Yet since man's attention is directed mostly towards the objects and their actions, the debt we owe to light is not widely acknowledged. Even psychologically it remains one of the most fundamental and powerful of human experiences."10

In the case of representational painting, the artist of both the past and of present must come to grips with one of the principal dilemmas of his craft: how to render the dialogue of natural light and shadow with paint. In regards to this problem, at least, the painter has a decisive advantage over the photographer.

Photographers of all levels know that in conditions of intense light it is completely impossible to make a "perfectl" exposed photograph. If the highest lights are captured correctly, the darks will be uniformly dark if not pitch black. On the other hand, if the camera aperture is exposed to capture the shadows, the great part of the sunlit areas will be bleached out. Instead, the painter may "expose" lights and darks differently according to his artistic necessities and represent them "correctly" on his canvas. He is free to exalt or suppress any tonal value he observes and create a "perfectly" exposed image.

However, the capacity to simultaneously expose areas of dark and light does not alleviate the difficulty of expressing in pictorial terms the extraordinary range of natural light's intensity. Beginning with the actual source of light, the sun, and terminating with the total absence of light in the deepest shadow, the range of light in nature is unbounded when compared to the range of light and dark paints available to the artist which do not emit, but only reflect light. While black pigment suggests fairly well the deepest darks we see in nature, the lighter end of tonal values is exceptionally limited.

The expert of craquelure in painting, Spike Bucklow, discloses that "a sun-lit cloud is tens of thousands times brighter than the shadowy foliage under a tree, yet when the artist paints a landscape his brightest clouds can only be thirty times brighter than his darkest shadows (assuming that they—like the white paper and black ink—reflect about 90% and 3% of the light falling on the painting, respectively). The artist is able to re-construct a dynamic range of 10,000s to 1, with paint that reflects 30 to 1 of ambient light.” Bucklow also reveals the painter's limited possibilities of suggesting light with reflective pigments is further exacerbated when his work ages and develops a networks of cracks. " If the painting develops a crack network that reduces the perceived reflectivity of the bright clouds, then the dynamic range is further reduced. White paint that reflects c.90% of the light becomes cracked paint which may reflect c.80% of the light, but the 'spreading effect' means that it is perceived as if it reflects only c.50%. The painting's dynamic range therefore shrinks from 30 to 1 when new, to 17 to 1 when heavily cracked, yet it still adequately represents a scene of 10,000s to 1." "The presence of crack networks therefore influences the tonal organization of paintings, effectively reducing their dynamic range." 11

If the face of this seemingly insurmountable limit, the Great Masters devised simple yet extremely efficient pictorial tactics to artificially extend the range of lights and darks. Moreover, by combining various types of paint application the number of visual effects that can be represented with oil paint is greatly multiplied allowing the painter to suggest optical phenomena of all sorts that cannot be matched with photography. In fact, the paint surfaces of the early masters display a full range of texture, from the most diaphanous veils of fluid paint to layers of impasto paint so rugged that they seem to be tree bark.

Line & Contour

See also, diagonal line.

Line is essentially a convention because it is generally believed that lines do not exist in reality. Lines must be thought of as boundaries between different tone values, the edges of adjoining areas of light and dark or darker tones.

Line is the most basic art and design element, the foundation that other elements are built on. Line was used by the ancient cave painters, and it is used in children's art. Theoretically, it is a one-dimensional element measured only in length—an abstract concept that is more perceived than actually viewed.

In the visual arts, instead, lines are characterized by their length, weight (darkness/thickness) and direction. There are different kinds on line.

From a visual point of view the simplest line is the straight line, but the straight line is by no means the simplest to draw. On the contrary, a complex muscular arrangement must be activated to produce straightness, the reason being that the upper arms, lower arms, hands and fingers are levers, which naturally pursue curved paths.12 Straight lines look stiff in comparison to curved lines. Curved and irregular lines dominate European and oriental painting alike. They introduce linear extension in space and thereby direction. Compositional lines, or implied lines, guide the viewer's eye within the composition of a painting and designates the action within the picture. Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) noted in his journal that "the straight line never occur in nature, they exist only in the brain of man."

Vertical lines have the ability to convey a variety of different moods ranging from power and strength (think of skyscrapers) to growth (think of trees). An image filled with strong vertical lines tends to give the impression of height and grandeur. The straight line is imbued with symbolic attributes that denote moral rectitude and is woven into the imagery of literature and media to represent order, strength and stability.13

Horizontal lines tend to convey a sense of homeostasis (lack of change) and stability. They are commonly found in landscape paintings giving the impression of calm, tranquility, and space. Both horizontal and vertical lines become particularly powerful in painting if they extend from one side of the canvas to the other. If the artist emphasizes line, the term linear is used to describe his or her style. If the lines are broken and lost amidst the artist's brushwork, we use the term painterly.

Outlines describes the outer boundary of an object such as a hand, although it can also distinguish objects or abrupt changes in planes that lie with an object, such as the wrinkles or nails of a hand. Outlines are generally uniform thickness.

Contour is the use of line to define the edge of an object but it also emphasizes its plastic qualities of volume or mass of the form. Contours may describe the shapes and variations in relief (such as an eye or a nose) that lay inside the outline. Outline, then, is perceived as flat while contour emphasizes the three-dimensionality of an object.

Gestural lines are quick marks that capture the impression of a pose or movement rather than the shape and volume of an object.

Implied lines are broken lines that are aligned in such a manner that the immigration is able to complete them. Implied lines can be suggested by objects disposed in sequence or even by the glance seen in someone's eyes. These lines, called implied lines and are completed with the viewer's imagination through the concept of closure.

Analytical line is a formal use of line. Analytical line is closer to geometry with its use of precise and controlled marks. A grid is a very popular analytical use of visual line as a way to organize a design. The Golden Section is an example of the traditional use of analytical classical line, which uses calculated implied lines to bring unity to the structure of a painting composition.

Modeling line is used to create the illusion of volume in drawing. Hatching is the use of parallel lines to suggest value change. Parallel lines on another angle can be added to create cross-hatching to build up a gradation and more value in areas of a drawing.

Vermeer's compositions are pervaded by straight lines. They divide, join and frame objects and the space around them. By dividing the composition in simple geometric forms, the artist created a stable foundation which reinforce the actions of the painting's sitters and to their gestures and bestows an air of restful permanence to the composition as a whole. Many times discontinued straight lines are aligned along the same axis in order to bring into relation diverse parts of the composition.

The following writing by Lawrence Gowing (Vermeer, 1950), author of one of the most penetrating interpretations of Vermeer's art and a painter himself, elegantly sums up the atypical relation between linear and tonal in Vermeer's art.

His is an almost solitary indifference to the whole linear convention and its historic function of describing, enclosing, embracing the forms it limits, a seemingly involuntary rejection o the way which the intelligence of painters had operated from the earliest times to our own day. Even now, when the photographers has taught us how to recognize visual as against imagined continuity, and in doing so no doubt blunted our appreciation of Vermeer's strangeness, the feat remains as exceptional as it is apparently perverse, and to a degree which may not be easy for those unconcerned with the technical side of a painter's business to measure. However firm the contour in these pictures, line as a vessel of understanding, has been abandoned and with it the traditional apparatus of draughtsmanship. In its place, apparently effortlessly, automatically, tone bears the whole weight of formal explanation.

An example of an implied line can be clearly seen in Vermeer's Astronomer wherein a single horizontal line that run horizontally from one side of the picture is implied by various straight but interrupted contours. The light-toned horizontal line representing the lower illuminated edge of the window extends itself towards the right and almost connects with the horizontal stand of the globe. This line proceeds to the right and is picked up by the upper edge of the astronomer's ex­tended arm and finally reaches the other side of Vermeer's composition through the lower edge of the picture-within-a-picture which hangs to the right behind the scientist. This line gives a sense of purpose to the overall composition which is also reflected upon the psychology of the astronomer himself. On the other hand, the gaze of the young woman of the Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace seems to imply a line between herself and the mirror hanging on the wall to the extreme left of the composition. Implied lines are fundamental tool for organizing compositions and guiding the spectators eyes throughout the composition or directly towards the key areas of interest.

Local Color

Local color is the true color of an object removed from all outside influence. Thus, the local color of a lemon is yellow and the local color of a tree's leaves is green. Every local color has its own intensity. Lead-tin yellow, the pigment used to depict the yellow morning jackets worn by Vermeer's fe­male sitters, is an intense yellow, while yellow ochre is dull in comparison. Cobalt blue paint straight from the tube is very intense. When it is mixed with white or black, it becomes less intense

Strong light in nature tends to destroy local color. If all the objects in painting were rendered only with their local colors they would appear flat and unnatural.

Perhaps the most striking example of the use of strong local color in Vermeer's painting is The Milkmaid. Other paintings, such as the Woman Holding a Balance, present such limited areas of local color that one wonders why the paintings seems so natural. It is surprising to note how restricted a role local color plays in some of Vermeer's most intensely illuminated works such as the Officer and Laughing Girl or the Woman with a Pearl Necklace. Although both pictures seem literally bathed in sunlight, only a minimum part of the surface is painted with full color.

"Luster," "Sparkle," "Glimmer," "Glitter," "Splendor" and Highlights

See also highlight(s).

Although the optical phenomena which forms distinct highlights on objects with highly reflective surfaces (known also as of what could be called "luster," "sparkle," "glitter," "glimmer," or "splendor") had been know to the since the antiquity, it had been revived by Northern painters of the 1400s who painted real highlights on metallic objects such as organ pipes that were distinguishable from mere lights which, instead are meant to give volume to objects rather than describe a surface quality. However, the "full potentiality of lustro [luster] to reveal not only sparkle but sheen is a discovery that will always remain connected with the Van Eycks." 14 Later Leonardo da Vinci was the first to write about and explain way luster varies according to the observer's viewpoint. He distinguished two forms of reflected light: so-called lume by which he meant randomly scattered light, and lustro which was responsible for the gleam which is to be seen "on the polished surface of opaque bodies." According to Leonardo the luster "will appear in as many different places on the surface as different positions are taken by the eye." Leonardo's text reads as follows (and see image below left):

Of the highest lights which turn and move as the eye moves which sees the object. Suppose the body to be the round object figured here and let the light be at the point a, and let the illuminated side of the object be b c and the eye at the point d: I say that, as luster is everywhere and complete in each part, if you stand at the point d the luster will appear at c, and in proportion as the eye moves from d to a, the luster will move from c to n.

Leonardo da Vinci,

The principle behind Leonardo's observation is that luster appears at the point of intersection of the cathetus (the perpendicular from the image) and the ray, such that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection.

"The optical instability of lustre varies according to other factors, one of which is the size of the luminous source. When a surface is illuminated from a relatively small source--say a distant window--the visibility of the reflected highlight is critically dependent on the viewpoint, whereas if the scene is more broadly illuminated--say from the sky--the reflected lustre is relatively widespread and the visibility is comparatively resistant to changes of viewpoint. Even so, the fact that a highlight is preferentially reflected at one angle rather than another means that the lustre unmistakably fluctuates when viewed from different positions. This is not observable, however, in pictorial representations, since the highlight is depicted on a two-dimensional surface and cannot vary as spectators change their position. The same applies to the legendary eyeline of a portrait which is said to follow the spectator around the room. It does no such thing, of course. The gaze, like the lustre, is represented on a flat surface and it cannot change its appearance with alterations in the observer's position.

"Another factor which influences the visibility of lustre or sheen is the curvature of the surface from which it is reflected. Highlights which are thrown off from sharply angled surfaces come and go with captivating abruptness, should either the object or the observer shift. This is why diamonds glitter or scintillate when twiddled in the incident light. Another characteristic of lustre is the fact that it seems to hover somewhere below the surface in which it appears. In contrast to the local texture anti colour of the object, which are coextensive with the plane of its surface, the sheen or gleam appears to be in the depths. Once again, this is less apparent in a flat picture than it is in three-dimensional reality." 15


Masterpiece (or chef d'œuvre) is a term now loosely applied to the finest work by a particular artist or to any work of art of acknowledged greatness or of preeminence in its field. Originally it meant the piece of work by which a craftsman, having finished his training, gained the rank of "master' in his guild. Great care was therefore taken to produce a fine piece in whatever the craft was, whether confectionery, painting, goldsmithing, knifemaking, or many other trades. The Royal Academy in London is one institution that has acquired a fine collection of "Diploma works" as a condition of acceptance.

Although it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to articulate a definition of masterpiece that could be accepted universally, superlative craftsmanship, extraordinary design, great antiquity, rich materials, purity of form, artistic genius, originality and influence on other artists must be taken into consideration.


Matthijs Jonker, "Meaning in Art History: A philosophical analysis of the iconological debate and the Rembrandt Research Project". <> (This article is based on Jonker's master thesis " The Practice Turn in Art History. A new philosophical framework for art historical research", University of Amsterdam, 2006)

Since the origins of their discipline in the nineteenth century art historians have silently worked with a certain conception of meaning. In this conception the meaning of a work of art is seen as some kind of aura accompanying it, an essential or intrinsic property of the artwork. Therefore, I will call this the 'essentialist' conception of meaning. The application of this conception in art history has two main variations. In the first one, the artist is seen as the origin and sole source of an artwork's meaning. Through his creativity, brilliance and sometimes even through divine inspiration he expresses his ideas, intentions and emotions by infusing his materials with some intrinsic quality or concept, turning them into art with a given meaning. The art historian attempting to understand this meaning seeks to plumb the intentions, emotions, or other mental conditions the artist had at the time of the artwork's creation. In the other variation, an artist is seen to express (often no less brilliantly) the mentality of a nation or the underlying principals of a culture. Although the artist and his mental conditions are still important in this view, they are no longer crucial for understanding the meaning of a work of art. The meaning of a work of art is analyses by reconstructing the mentality or the principles of his culture. In this variation, culture is seen as a homogenous and ideal entity. The two variations can also be combined: in that case, the intentions of the artist are reconstructed, but they are regarded less as individual choices than as reflections of the mentality or underlying principles of his culture.

The essentialist view tends to downplay or ignore a circumstance that has received increasing attention in recent decades in art history as in other fields. That is, the social dimension of the work of art. This has been acknowledged in the last three or four decades in a large number of art-historical studies infused with concepts and methods.

Since Vermeer's instatement in the Pantheon of European art beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the meanings given to his paintings have steadily multiplied. His work has been a catalyst for a head-spinning array of theories, illuminating and obscure. Scholars have cross-examined every detail, no matter how inconsequential, in the hopes of uncovering some sign of what the artist meant to tell his viewers. A humble ceramic tile with a barely recognizable Cupid scribbled by some anonymous Delft artisan informs us that what the bare-armed, no-nonsense milkmaid had her mind not so much on the bread pudding she is making, but on a loved-one.

Parallel to specialist study, Vermeer's oeuvre have been ensnared in an incessant reevaluation of Dutch art at large. A broader overview of relevant literature suggests that Vermeer, willing or not, has been a painter for all seasons, a chameleon whose uncluttered images are somehow able to mirror the interests of anyone who wished to see in them something more than chairs, maps, checkered floor tiles and a few not-too-particularly pretty young woman.

Period documents say nothing of what meanings Vermeer may have undefended to convey to his contemporaries. The only qualified assessment of Vermeer's art in his own age was written on May 14, 1669 by an up-and-coming aristocrat and aspiring liefhebber van de schilderkonst (lover of the art of painting), Pieter Teding van Berckhout. Van Berckhout made no mention of "balance," "transience," "suspended time," "allusiveness," "optical way" or any other of the concepts recurrently associated with the artist today. Instead, he unequivocally affirms that the "most extraordinary and most curious aspect" of Vermeer's art "consists in the perspective." Although the perspectival constructions of Vermeer's paintings have been analyzed in recent years, not a single art scholar or museum goer would designate perspective as a salient feature of the artist's oeuvre. From this we may presume Vermeer's art was viewed differently in his own age than ours.

Following Van Berckhout's brief diary entry, critical silence cloaked Vermeer's art for 200 years until the his artistic identity was recovered and his oeuvre provisionally reassembled by the French art connoisseur, collector and active socialist Joseph Théophile Thoré.

Medium and Binder

Oil paint is made from a drying oil bound with a pigment, the actual coloring substance. Binders are usually vegetable oil which dry to a tough hard film by oxidation through absorption of oxygen from the air. Numerous different oils are used in paints, however the most common is linseed oil made from the pressed seeds of the flax plant. Walnut and poppy seed oils are also commonly found used as paint binders.

Drying oils were known to painters of the 14th century and earlier but was not widely adopted for use until about 1400. By the middle of the sixteenth century it was fully in use as the main form of paint medium. This medium leaves paintings with a well saturated rich tonality to the colors.

Ideal mediums are colorless, permanent, flexible, and do not influence the color of a pigment. Learning the particular properties of a drying oil is part of the essential technical knowledge an oil painter should have.When an oil paint feels dry to the touch, it will still be drying under the surface for some time, which is why the principle of painting 'fat over lean' is so important in oil painting.

Linseed oil is made from the seeds of the flax plant. It adds gloss and transparency to paints and is available in several forms. It dries very thoroughly, making it ideal for underpainting and initial layers in a painting. Refined linseed oil is a popular, all-purpose, pale to light yellow oil which dries within three to five days. Cold-pressed linseed oil dries slightly faster than refined linseed oil and is considered to be the best quality linseed oil.

Stand oil is a thicker processed form of linseed oil, with a slower drying time (about a week to be dry to the touch, though it'll remain tacky for some time). It's ideal for glazing (when mixed with a diluents or solvent such as turpentine) and produces a smooth, enamel-like finish without any visible brushmarks. Sun-thickened linseed oil is a mixture of linseed oil and water which has been exposed to the sun for weeks to create a thick, syrupy, somewhat bleached oil, with similar brushing qualities to stand oil.

As linseed oil has a tendency to yellow as it dries, avoid using it in whites, pale colors, and light blues (except in underpaintings or lower layers in an oil painting when painting wet on dry). Stand oil and sun-thickened oil yellows very little.

Poppy seed oil is a very pale oil, more transparent and less likely to yellow than linseed oil, so it is often used for whites, pale colors, and blues. It gives oil paint a consistency similar to soft butter. Poppy seed oil takes longer to dry than linseed oil, from five to seven days, making it ideal for working wet on wet. Because it dries slowly and less thoroughly, avoid using poppy seed oil in lower layers of a painting when working wet on dry and when applying paint thickly, as the paint will be liable to crack when it finally dries completely. Poppy seeds naturally contain about 50 per cent oil.

Walnut oil is a pale yellow-brown oil (when newly made it's a pale oil with a greenish tinge) that has a distinctive smell. As it's a thin oil, it's used to make oil paint more fluid. As it yellows less than linseed oil (but more than safflower oil) it's good for pale colors. Walnut oil dries in four or five days. It's an expensive oil and must be stored correctly otherwise it goes rancid (off). Walnuts naturally contain about 65 per cent oil.

Turpentine is the traditional solvent used in oil painting. It's based on tree resin and has a fast evaporation rate, releasing harmful vapors. Turpentine is principally used to clean brushes.

Vermeer most likely used simple oil/pigment paint since no other element has been detected in his paint other than inert pigments and a protein based material. These elements, however, were commonly mixed with particular pigments such as lakes, azurite and smalt to mitigate their inherent defects and render them more adapted for painting.

For centuries it has been assumed that the great masters, and especially Rembrandt, used complex mixtures of drying oils, resins and other materials to obtains the extraordinary technical effects which later painters were at a loss to explain. However, recent research into the exact composition of Rembrandt's painting medium has shown that he used primarily linseed oil and that resins and wax, which were believed to have been present in his paint, were not detected.

However, it is quite probable that he added amounts of egg (egg yolk, egg white or both) and perhaps water to his mixtures of white impasto (heavy opaque paint). The oil and egg contents of this kind of paint create an emulsion. The emulsion has more body than simple oil paint and brushes easier. The textural effect of emulsion is greater than that of oil/ pigment. However, the presence of emulsion in Rembrandt's work should not be considered a "secret" since emulsion in various forms was widely employed in European easel painting.

Merry Company - Gezelschappen

The term "genre," which is widely used by art historians to describe a variety of subject matter found in Dutch paintings of contemporary life, was not employed by seventeenth-century Dutch viewers, who, instead, used more specific terms to such as gezelschappen ("merry companies") and koortegardje ("guardroom pieces"). During the seventeenth century, a small army of Dutch artists made a discreet living painting gezelschappen which compassed a wider range of styles and subject matter, both "high" and "low."

Although many merry companies display typical elements of contemporary life they cannot be seen as records of real life circumstances but pictorial conventions continually repeated and elaborated upon over many generations to meet and better the expectations of art collectors.

The origins of the merry company motif were colorful paintings of flamboyantly dressed young people engaged in merry-making and amorous play in open garden terraces (buijtenpartij), which in turn may have been transformations of the "Courtly Garden on Love" which had lived a long life in late medieval manuscript illuminations and paintings. Other sources of the merry companies may have been the "Garden of Fools" and the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son, both of which moralized against lasciviousness and drink.

By 1610, Willem Buytewech and Dirck Hals, Fran's younger brother, were actively producing merry companies in Haarlem in which the careless young, fritter away their lives on drink, women and revelry. "Whilst Willem Buytewech seems to have been responsible for moving scenes of merry companies to the indoors, he only painted a handful of pictures of this type." Buytewech, however, died prematurely in 1624 and left only a few works. "It remained for Dirck Hals to develop the theme, updating it and restyling it in a more secular vein. In his hands, the didactic character of the early prototypes largely disappears and is replaced by a new emphasis on modern manners and pastimes. Judging by the considerable number of scenes of merry companies produced by Hals during his career, his new gloss on the traditional theme must have struck a positive chord with the art-buying public."16

Most of the first merry companies were small in scale and bright, if not gaudy, color which featured people of different generations. However, later generations of painters gradually transformed the typically packed merry company scene excluding all but two or three figures. The scenes were no longer staged in flat space but set in boxlike rooms in elegant interior settings decked out with the latest style of dress and most elite social decorum. While the first painters who brought ushered in the more gentrified merry company motif were Anthonie Palamedesz and Dirck Hals. Pieter Codde and Willem Duyster brought hitherto unseen refinements to both in subject matter and technique and provided important precedents for other artists, the most significant of which was the representation of guardroom scenes. Duyster's merry companies strike a contemplative note that was altogether foreign to works of the early seventeenth-century renditions of the motif. In this, more than any other genre painter of his generation, Duyster's merry companies anticipate those of Gerrit ter Borch, perhaps the finest exponent of the motif.

Despite the apparent lowliness of subject matter of some merry companies—one of the more direct examples is Jan Miense Molenaer's group scene in which people sing, dance, drink and smoke while two skeletons lurk, Merry Company With Death Entering the Door (c. 1631)—such pictures were quite popular in the Netherlands and could demand high prices.

Various works by Vermeer would have been considered merry companies, such as the Glass of Wine, the Girl with a Wine Glass, the Girl Interrupted in her Music and the Concert. By the 1660s, artist who pained merry companies no longer had to spell out his intentions clearly whether they be a reminder that love, youth and beauty are as transient as the music's sweet strain. Like today, these paintings could appreciated for its sheer elegance and technical facility.


Mimesis is one of the oldest, most fundamental concepts in Western aesthetics. Generally speaking, mimesis is the imitation of life or nature in the techniques and subject matter of art and literature. Mimesis is a species of imitation, although the word has specialized uses ensuring that it is not a straightforward synonym. Mimesis is the enactment of the elements of a text as opposed to the imagination of them—in other words, the showing of things as opposed to the telling of things (diegesis). One of the major concerns of painting in the Western world has always been representing the appearance of things.

Moshe Barasch in Theories of Art (New York: New York University Press, 1985) states that "there belief that was regarded as dogma and that was reverently observed by everybody who thought, or wrote, on painting and sculpture: the belief that the visual arts imitate nature". Barasch continues: "Not a single Renaissance treatise fails to make the point that the imitation of nature is the very aim of painting and sculpture and that the more closely a work approaches this aim the better that it is." This tradition, wherein the painter's task is to rival the truth of nature which had became a fundamental, has survived to the present day, and the more accurately a painting represents the real world, the greater the aesthetic value attached to it.

In Leonardo da Vinci's world, the assessment of art is largely a mimetic one, where the beauty of an artwork is judged in part by its visual approximation of Nature. Giorgio Vasari, the sixteenth-century da Vinci biographer, describes the artist's Mona Lisa thus:

If one wanted to see how faithfully art can imitate nature, one could readily perceive it from this head; for here Leonardo subtly reproduced every living detail. The eyes had their natural luster and moistness….The mouth, joined to the flesh tints of the face by the red of the lips, appeared to be living flesh rather than paint. On looking closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses were beating. …in this painting of Leonardo's there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.

"Vermeer's use of perspective and camera obscura vision to outdo life was one response to the Renaissance idea that art is the rival and lover of nature, and that art's highest challenge is mimesis, the most persuasive representation of the visible world. In Dutch painting the goal of painting naer het leven (after life) was pursued with a whole range of new tactics. Seventeenth-century viewers relished the miniaturized reproduction of their world that painting offered. A contemporary praised Dou, for example, for bringing 'such perfection to his living subjects, on such a neat and small scale, that his creations can hardly be distinguished from life itself.' "17


Mise-en-scène is the way a director places people and objects on a stage to create verisimilitude in the in the theatre. In theatre and film, the stage setting, including all props, lighting effects, costumes, etc., but excluding the narrative proper. Mise-en-scène is especially critical in film studies, where it implies the orchestration of all the seen elements, with special reference to composition, visual weights, the function of the frame, and staged movements within the scene.

Mixing - Stirring

Although mixing different tones and colors of paint which each other is necessary to create the illusion of form, space and light, over mixing must be avoided.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, a Dutch artist and art theorist who at the time was influenced by his former teacher Rembrandt, warned painters against blending: "It is above all desirable that you should accustom yourself to a lively mode of handling, so as to smartly express the different planes or surfaces (of the object represented); giving the drawing due emphasis, and the coloring, when it admits of it, a playful freedom without ever proceeding to polishing or blending: for this annihilates feeling, supplying nothing in its stead but a sleepy constraint, through which the legitimate breaking of colors is sacrificed. It is better to aim at softness with a well nourished brush, and, as Jordaens used to express it, 'gaily lay on the color,' caring little for the even surface produced by blending; for, paint as thickly as you please, smoothness will, by subsequent operations, creep in of itself."

Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) later wrote, "To preserve the colors fresh and clean in painting, it must be done by laying on more color, and not by rubbing them in when they are once laid; and if it can be done, they should be laid just in their proper places at first, and not any more be touched, because the freshness of the colors is tarnished and lost in mixing."


In his Groot Schilderboek, Dutch painter Gérard de Lairesse, who later turned art theoretician after he became blind, first distinguished between the two modes of painting which he called "the Antique" and "the Modern." According to de Lairesse, "'the Antique' persists through all periods while 'the Modern' constantly changes with fashion." Therefore, the most adapted subjects of great painting were Biblical, historical and mythological themes, in appropriate the dress and settings and not representations of modern scenes such as those of Vermeer in contemporary dress since in this manner the viewers would become estranged by their paintings due to the continual changes. The idea of "the Antique" corresponds to our concept of "classicist."

In the important 1740 edition of de Lairesse's treatise, Vermeer was cited among other "modern" Dutch masters whose art was destined to perish: "the old Mieris, Metzu, van der Meer."


A monochrome is a work painted in a single color, but the term is often used more loosely to describe works in which a single color predominates. In such pictures it is the subtle variation of tone which creates the desired effects.

There was a school of landscape painting in Haarlem in the early seventeenth century which painted "monochrome" landscapes. The school included Salomon van Ruisdael, Jan van Goyen and Pieter de Molijn.


The main theme or idea present in a work of art or elaborated and developed through separate works of art. The term also refers to a repeated form or pattern in work of art.

Many motifs that Vermeer painted are those that he encountered in daily life: a young woman absorbed in reading a letter in a corner of a sunlight room; a girl adorning herself in the morning with a pearl necklace, a girl making lace, a view the harbor filled with boats in front of the skyline of his native Delft and two young children quietly playing in front of their house under the watchful eye an elderly woman.

Naer het leven (from life)

Naer het leven, in Dutch "from life." The alternative to naer het leve was uyt den geest, "from the mind." It was only in 1604 that working naer het leven was introduced as an art theoretical concept in Karel van Mander's Schilder-boeck. Van Mander encouraged young artists to go into the countryside to observe nature and make drawings from life, but once back in the studio, the impressions gathered from nature needed to be transformed. In his opinion the aspect of invention, suggested by the expression uyt den gheest, is the most crucial within the process of artistic creation.

Although the Dutch school is primarily known for naturalism and illusionism, it is not know to what extent Dutch painters actually worked from or after life, as it is sometimes termed. Until then, artists had ubiquitously constructed their paintings within the confines of their studios with the aid of sketches from life of single objects, prints, memory and fantasy.

Michiel van Musscehr, The Painter's Studio
The Painter's Studio

Michiel van Musscher
Oil on panel, 57 x 47 cm.
Historisch Museum Het Schielandhuis, Rotterdam

Most authorities doubt that Dutch landscape painters took their painting equipments outside and painted directly from life, as the Impressionist would do centuries later. Rather, the abundance of landscape drawings that have survived would indicate that seventeenth-century landscape painters habitually went of outdoor trips to make drawings, both quick sketches and finished drawings, which they brought back to their studios and elaborated in oil. An example the practice of working from drawings is emphasized in a work by Michiel van Musscher called The Painter's Studio (see image left) which represents a finely dressed painter who momentarily meditates on a number of ship drawings at the feet of his easel while he paints on a seacape using full color, a fact confirmed by the artist's fully set palette tilted obligingly towards the viewer.

Amongst history painters, drawing from life was common practice, but the actual painting process was a different matter. Once the painter had produced a sufficient stock of drawings of figures or complicated props (backgrounds were largely done form fantasy or print), all the parts of the compositional puzzle were arranged together in a harmonious and detailed layout and subsequently painted uyt den geest, "from the mind."

On the other hand, some Dutch landscape painters stated on the title pages of series of landscapes had been done from sketches naer het leven thereby guaranteeing a higher degree of authenticity. As late as 1860 Johan Conrad Grieve felt compelled to declare it on the title page of a series of lithographs he published of various types of Dutch ships; he states the ships were "drawn from nature," and then lithographed by him.18

Nonetheless, only rarely did contemporaries describe single works as done from life. "A very long inventory, in which at a certain point three panels representing the face of Christ were listed. One in particular is defined in these terms: 'Cristus tronie nae't Leven'. Literally: 'Head of Christ from life'. What did that specific 'from life' mean? The first scholar to publish the inventory in 1834, decided it was an oversight on the part of the Dutch magistrate, and thus ignored it and suppressed the description. Two years later, an attentive observer remarked the act of censorship and solved the problem for himself by a decidedly forced interpretation: 'life size'. But in Dutch 'nae't leven', a contraction of 'naar het leven', leaves no room for ambiguity: it means 'taken from life', that is from a living model.19

In regards to genre interiors, art historians and art specialists are divided into separate camps. On side, exemplified by art scholar Walter Liedtke, hold that Dutch painters, including Vermeer, were so technically well equipped that they were able to construct a good part of their paintings from acquired conventions of pictorial representations and from imagination. On the other hands, the London architect Philip Steadman, the author of a game-changing book on Vermeer and the camera obscura, believes that Vermeer not only assembled all the details of his scenes in a controlled studio environment in order to work from life and employed the camera obscura to help him compose and subsequently trace the device's projected image directly to his canvas, shortcutting the need for tedious line drawings and problems of perspective. Unfortunately, there exist are no period documents which discuss the matter.

Narrative - Narration - Narrative Art

Term used to describe art that provides a visual representation of some kind of story, sometimes based on literary work. Narration, the relating of an event as it unfolds over time, is in principle a difficult task for the visual arts, since a work of art usually lacks an obvious beginning, middle and end, essential features of any story. Nevertheless, since ancient times many works of art have had as their subjects figures or tales from mythology, legend or history. The artists overcame the inherent limitations of visual narrative by representing stories that the viewer might be expected to know and would therefore retell in his or her mind while taking in the representation.

The function of narration is to deliver a narrative, although it may also include descriptive or other elements that are not narrative proper. In a simplistic distinction, the narrative is comprised of the events of a story, whereas the narration consists of the way(s) in which the story is presented, ranging from the implied author's tone to such things as the actual order of events.

Genre and history painting are each types of narrative art. While genre paintings depict events of an everyday sort, history paintings depict famous events.

Dutch genre painting of the period, in its apparent preoccupation with the description of interiors and domestic scenes, was fundamentally different in character from contemporary Italian painting, with its narrative portrayals of events, typically from classical mythology or the Bible. Svetlana Alpers argued that the descriptive Dutch painting should not be subjected to analytic and critical methods, such as Panofskian iconography, which had been developed for use in the interpretation of the narrative imagery of Italian painting. She particularly castigated a favorite method of some of the recent scholars of Dutch painting, which was to use the imagery they found in emblems to interpret, by extension, the subject matter of the genre paintings. To her, subjecting the immediacy and simplicity of Dutch painting to minute, iconographical analysis was an aberration.

Modernists largely rejected narrative art.

Although Vermeer worked within an accepted iconographic framework, the specific narrative content of many of his paintings remains unclear. Perhaps Vermeer deliberately left the narrative of his works open so as to not exclude the viewers' eventual participation or perhaps he wished to investigate more fundamental and universal human values.


A method of depiction in the fine arts and literature in which reality as the result of sensory experience rather than theory is represented as realistically and scientifically precise as possible.

The uncertainties provoked by the iconographical interpretations of Vermeer's painting have led to different reactions. "Painting is different from emblem books and other literary genre and its principal aim, unlike these and other forms of cultural production, was not didactic. While today it seems obvious that paintings of domestic interiors are not a mere mirror of reality, as occurred in then19th c., it is helpful to call attention, as [Svetlana] Alpers has done, to the fact that one of the main motivations of this kind of painting is a curiosity of the world, which is expressed in visual terms and is accessible through sight. This interpretation establishes parallels between painting and the interest which existed at the time in acquiring information about the natural world through scientific instruments such as the microscope (a Dutch invention), different types of lenses, the camera obscura and cartography. It also relates the realism of Dutch genre paintings to other spheres of contemporary thought such as the theories of sight proposed by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) or writing on the visibility of knowledge by Francis Bacon (1561–1626."20

Negative Shape

drawn from Wikipedia, "Negative Shape":

negative shape
The so-called "Rubin's vase" is a well known optical illusion in which the negative space around the vase forms the silhouettes of two faces in profile, a well-known example of figure-ground reversal.

Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the "real" subject of an image. The use of negative space is a key element of artistic composition. The Japanese word "ma" is sometimes used for this concept, for example in garden design.

In a two-tone, black-and-white image, a subject is normally depicted in black and the space around it is left blank (white), thereby forming a silhouette of the subject. However, reversing the tones so that the space around the subject is printed black and the subject itself is left blank causes the negative space to be apparent as it forms shapes around the subject, called figure-ground reversal.

Elements of an image that distract from the intended subject, or in the case of photography, objects in the same focal plane, are not considered negative space. Negative space can be used to depict a subject in a chosen medium by showing everything around the subject but not the subject itself. Usage of negative space will produce a silhouette of the subject. Most often, though, negative space is used as a neutral or contrasting background to draw attention to the main subject which is then referred to as the positive space.

The use of equal negative space, as a balance to positive space, in a composition is considered by many as good design. This basic and often overlooked principle of design gives the eye a "place to rest," increasing the appeal of a composition through subtle means. The term is also used by musicians to indicate silence within a piece.

Many art critics maintain that Vermeer was highly conscious of the importance of negative shape in his finely gauged compositions even though there is no documentary evidence that negative shape was contemplated by seventeenth-century artists. In many of his paintings, especially of those of the mid-1660s, the viewer becomes aware that the pieces of background wall are not simply "leftovers" shaped by foreground objects, but rather positive forms in their own right capable of evoking an expressive response. Lawrence Gowing (Vermeer, 1950) certainly had the play of negative and positive shapes in mind when he stated: "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."


Neo-classicism literally means "new classicism" or a revival of classical values. The word is used as a style label and is applied to aspects of the arts of the later 18th and early 19th centuries. At that period there was a conscious revival and appropriation of classical models of art and architecture. The word classical is used in this context to imply both ancient works of art, especially architecture and sculpture, and those by painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such as Raphael and Poussin who were inspired by antique precedents, and in turn established ideals in their work which came to be regarded as "classic".

A renewed emphasis - both inside and outside the academies - on the public and didactic function of art was an important factor in the rise of Neo-classicism, as were the excavations of ancient sites in Italy and elsewhere painters for instance were a part of the Arte dei Medici e Speziali, the doctors' and spice merchants' guild. Elsewhere they were associated with sculptors. In the Netherlands, painters on cloth sometimes belonged to different guilds from painters on wood.

In many neoclassical paintings there is a clear, logical, planimetric structure to the composition: that is, a series of implied horizontal and vertical planes (straight layers or 'slices' through the imagined three-dimensional space of the painting) along which the whole is structured, so that the composition remains taut, stable and balanced. This stability was often achieved partly through the use of the straight horizontal lines of classical architecture, which locked figures and objects into a geometric 'grid'. Figures, derived from antique statuary, are idealised rather than realistic, and arranged hierarchically so that heroes and protagonists and the planes on which they are located are clearly dominant. Neoclassical compositions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries express the traditional values of a classical style: simplicity, unity, order, idealism, balance, symmetry and a general respect for rules and reason. They also adhere to the traditional classical practice of studying antique statuary and the posed academic model as a basis for figure drawing: if 'nature' was to be 'imitated' this had to be in a highly selective, idealising and refining way. The neoclassical style developed and championed by David offers a particularly striking version of the classical characterised by a stark linearity: clearly delineated, outlined or contoured figures and objects, standing out from a neutral, non-distracting background, and often arranged horizontally so that they line up directly in front of the viewer.21

Neutral Color

A color which in color theory is neither warm nor cool. Neutral colors are said to result from the combination of two complementary colors (e.g., red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple). Neutral colors can also be mixed by other means. (See also complementary colors, and color temperature.)

Vermeer used neutral color with great expertise. Although a great many areas of his compositions are painted with neutral grays and low keyed ochers, one never has the sense that his compositions are lacking of color.


An unfinished painting is referred to as non finito when the artist deliberately stopped working before the painting was finished in order to create an effect. Some art historians maintain that non finito had been invented by other Italian Renaissance artists including Donatello and Michelangelo, who left rough-carved surfaces in their works. Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, and his other late works, are other examples of Renaissance works left intentionally unpolished, rough, non finito.

But in general, the non finito is a Romantic idea; the 19th-century Romantics were in love with partial things, fragments, pieces, lost parts and orphaned forms. For a Romantic viewer, the tenuous, unpolished, wavering, dappled surface was far more evocative than the veneered and polished surface.

drawn from:
James Elkins, "Exploring Famous Unfinished Paintings in Google Art Project | Cézanne, De Kooning, Ofili (PHOTOS)", in The Huffington Post, 2011. <>


(or "œuvre" - plural "œuvres")

A substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer, an artist, or a composer.

Vermeer's oeuvre forms a far from homogenous group. The 36 (?) paintings which constitute his oeuvre were presumably made over a period of little more than twenty years, between his entry as a master into the Delft Guild of Saint Luke in December, 1653 and his death in December, 1675. They include the historically imaginative (such as Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), the overtly personification and allegorical (such as the Allegory of Faith in the Metropolitan Museum, New York and The Art of Painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the plausibly realistic, such as his two cityscapes (The L ittle Street in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam and the View of Delft in the Royal Cabinet of Pictures Mauritshuis, The Hague) and the majority of his scenes of domestic interiors with between one and three figures. Among them are works that appear to be hybrid: that is, paintings that combine the characteristics of the plausibly realistic with the allegorical or emblematic. These include the Woman Holding a Balance (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), and the A Lady Standing at a Virginal.

Through more than one hundred and fifty years of rather painstaking study beginning in 1850, scholars have identified 35, perhaps 36 paintings they now safely attribute to Johannes Vermeer. Their task was made difficult for a variety of reasons: Vermeer's varied and changeable painting style; the range of his choices of subject matter; the fact that he signed less than half of those works which yet survive and dated only one; and that, for several hundred years after his death in 1675, no one knew the true extent of his oeuvre. In addition, his contemporary reputation probably did not extend much beyond Holland, in all likelihood because only a small number of local connoisseurs collected his relatively few paintings. According to scholarly estimates, Vermeer completed perhaps no more than forty or sixty works, and he left no drawings or preliminary paintings behind.

When so little is known about an artist, the science of artistic attribution becomes a weaving of a few threads of hard historical data with the fabric of informed but subjective interpretive analysis based upon a shared sense of the artist's style, technique, composition, and subject matter. An attribution's authenticity is greatly strengthened if it can establish direct links over time to the artist himself or to an ownership during the artist's lifetime or fairly soon after his death. And this is precisely what Vermeer scholars have attempted to do. In examining relevant records of art and estate auctions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, they have rather confidently connected those documents with about two dozen extant Vermeer paintings. There also appears to be another nine (or maybe eleven) paintings which have survived for which no contemporary corroboration in Vermeer's time has yet been found. Conversely, there seems to be at least six, and perhaps eight or ten, Vermeer paintings identified by historical records which today either remain hidden or have not survived. This latter group is known as the "missing Vermeers."

The Young Girl with a Flute at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, was likely begun by Vermeer but finished or restored by another; its lack of Vermeer's characteristic refinement has discouraged most scholars from making a firm attribution. For an informed discussion of this painting, see Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.'s article, Young Girl with a Flute, in the catalogue of the 1995–1996 National Gallery of Art Johannes Vermeer Exhibition, pages 204-207. It is therefore cited by the National Gallery of Art itself as a work merely "attributed" to Vermeer.

Another work, the Young Woman Seated at the Virginal, which had languished in a critical limbo of defaced, has made headway amongst art historians and is now accepted as a secure addition to Vermeer's oeuvre by Walter Liedtke, one of the foremost Vermeer experts.

Another painting, Saint Praxedis, has generated much controversy over the last 20 years as a possible addition to Vermeer's oeuvre. However, an overwhelming consensus among scholars has emerged recently backed by persuasive analytical evidence which argues against the inclusion of this work as a genuine Vermeer.

The present day account of Vermeer's oeuvre is very close to that established in 1948 by Ary Bob de Vreis V (A. B. de Vreis, Jan Vermeer van Delft, London / New York (2nd.ed.), 1948) In his penetrating study of the artist (Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, London, 1952 and 1970), Lawrence Gowing set an example followed by nearly all scholars afterwards by not listing rejected works. Ben Broos has been argued that any significant dispute was been laid to rest (until the case of the Saint Praxedis) with the publication of Albert Blanket's book on the artist, Vermeer, Oxford, 1978)

Oil Out

Depending on the absorbency of a painting's ground and the medium used to temper paint, the paint on the canvas will usually sink-in as it dries. Thus, mid-tones and especially darks will dry a lighter and more matte then when originally applied. Because it is fundamental to be able to judge value and color relatively of a painting during the working process, oiling-out allows the painter to correctly gauge the true values of his tones and color restoring the original values and luster. Oiling out consists in brushing on a very thin layer over the area that has sunken in ( the whole surface of the painting can also be oiled out). For small paintings, the oil may be spread out and thinned by using a badger brush or the ball of the hand.

Unfortunately, earth tones, which are among the most extensively used pigments in oil painting, and dark values are especially prone to sinking in. Once the oiling-out layer has thoroughly dried, it can be painted upon again. Oiling-out too much or too may times can create some long term problems such as yellowing. A thin layer of dammar varnish will normally suffice. Too much varnish will cause the brush to drag and cause problems when large areas of paint must be blended with one another.

Oiling-out may also be used to create a surface that can be painted into fluidly while the surface is still wet.

Oil Paint

A painting medium in which pigments are mixed with drying oils, such as linseed, walnut, or poppy. Though oils had been used in the Middle Ages, it was not until the Van Eyck brothers in the early fifteenth century that the medium became fully developed. It reached Italy during the 1460s and by the end of the century had largely replaced tempera. Oil paint was preferred for its brilliance of detail, its richness of color, and its greater tonal range. Oil painting also has the great advantage that colors may be blended with great accuracy since the do not dry so quickly as water based paints.

"The complicated process of preparing oil medium and its subsequent instability may have frustrated painters who had much experience with painting in tempera, which has a comparatively straightforward preparation and a stable interface with pigments. In
contrast to viscous oils, paint bound in egg yolk and diluted by water, forms a liquid of a consistency between water and jelly, and thus allows the painters who were concerned with fine craftsmanship to achieve precise forms with certainty. In addition, the paint
film in tempera is arguably the toughest and most long-lasting achievable with any media, if the pigment-to-medium and water-to-medium ratio are correctly gauged. Therefore, unlike oil painting, considering their age, the astonishingly fresh tints of many medieval works is notable. Thus, to many of fifteenth-century Italian painters, tempera remained a favourable option, even when oil was available as a serious alternative."22

Only 36 (?) works by Vermeer have survived. Scholars hypothesize that he may have painted perhaps forty but no more than sixty. All of his extant works were painted oil on canvas except for the tiny Girl with a Red Hat and the Girl with a Flute, both on panel, and there exists no historical evidence that he worked on other mediums such as drawing, etching, fresco or watercolor.


A breakfast piece—an ontbijtje—is a still life painting that depicts simple foodstuffs, such as herring, ham or cheese with a bread roll and a glass of beer or wine. Though ontbijtje translates literally from the Dutch as "little breakfast," paintings categorized as such do not necessarily depict elements of a typical Dutch breakfast. Breakfast pieces were especially popular in the Netherlands during the 1620s and 1630s, and Pieter Claesz., Willem Claesz. Heda, and Osias Beert, among others, are remembered for their production.

Ordinantie (composition)

The following information on ordinantie was drawn from:
Paul Taylor, "Composition in Dutch art theory", in Pictorial Composition from Medieval to Modern Art, ed. Paul Taylor and François Quiviger, London and Turin (Warburg Institute and Nino Aragno) 2000, pp. 146-71

Even though no European country had such a high production of paintings than the Netherlands, Dutch art theory, which had never evolved as an organic whole and was based on ideas reformulated in former times, is fundamentally encapsulated in five volumes written over a span of one hundred years. In good part, Dutch concepts of pictorial composition elaborated in these volumes overlap those of Leon Battista Albert in De pictura (On Painting, 1435). The seventeenth-century, the Dutch painter and art theorists Karl van Mander and Gérard de Lairesse furnished the most exhaustive account of pictorial composition or, ordinantie.

According to these art theorists, composition and narrative were indissolubly linked. For de Lairesse, ordinantie, was "first and foremost the attempt to tell a story clearly and logically." Key elements for a good composition were the disposition of figures, probability, force of narrative and posture. The centrality of narrative was so important that de Lairesse boasted he could compose a historia as well as any other painter notwithstanding the fact that he was blind.

On "probability," a term completely extraneous to any modern concept of pictorial composition, de Lairesse wrote, "Probability (waarschynelykheid) is the most important thing to bear in mind when composing a picture." One must make probability "evident not only in the general disposition, but also in each particular object, and attentively reject things which are in conflict with it." "To give an example: de Lairesse tells us that if we are painting a dining room we should make it clear whether a meal is about to take place, or has already taken place; if the latter, we should depict empty vessels lying in disorder, empty plates, a dog gnawing a bone, chairs strewn around and the table cloth pushed to one side, and so forth. We should also avoid painting details which are obviously improbable; thus he writes disparagingly of an artist who made a painting of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, in which the patriarch used a curved sword, but had a straight scabbard."


See also, spatial depth.

When one object partly obscures another, the first object is said to overlap the other.

There are two kinds of overlapping in mimetic painting, the overlapping of one illusionist object in respects to another within in the fictitious space created by the painter and real, physical overlapping of paint layers. The overlapping object partially obscures the object behind it another.

Overlapping is the most primitive but, nonetheless, unequivocal manner of creating the illusion of depth on a flat surface. Overlapping can be found in Paleolithic cave drawings, Egyptian art and Mesoamerican wall paintings. However, by itself, overlapping tells us only that one object is in front of the other but it does not tell us how distant the two objects are from each other. To achieve more convincing illusion of space, changing size and placement, linear perspective, relative hue and value and the degree of detail are necessary. Linear perspective is the most rational method of creating space.

Physical overlapping of paint layers compliment illusionist overlapping. This explains the logic of painting "back"to "front" recommended by Dutch art theorists. This method assures that the contour of the object nearest the viewer physically overlaps the paint surface of the object behind it.

Gérard de Lairesse, the Dutch art theorist and painter, wrote:

If a picture be well dead-coloured, and have a good harmony and decorum, we certainly render the second colouring the more easy; for then we can unbend our first general thoughts, and apply them solely to lay neatly and finish particular parts, and so to work on the former good ground. But, to do this in the best manner, we must, as I have said, begin from the greatest distance, the sky, and work forwards from thence: by this means we have always a wet ground to melt in with the out-lines of the forward figures, which otherwise they would not have; besides another pleasing advantage, that the piece goes forward, all parts well supported, and a good harmony in the whole; whence the eye must be satisfied, and the mind continually spurred.


"During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the paint used by artists was prepared in the studio. The painter purchased pigment from apothecaries and apprentices, who also prepared panels and grounds for the master painter, then prepared it for use as paint. To obtain a smooth spreading paint the pigments had to be ground into particles of fairly uniform size. Most pigments were ground as smoothly as possible to improve their color and to make a better flowing paint. The pigment was then mixed with sufficient medium to make an easily workable paint. The recipes or instructions used by painters were handed down from master to pupil. Many survive as manuscripts and printed books, such as Theodore de Mayerne's seventeenth-century notebooks on painting and Cennino Cennini's fourteenth century treatise, Il Libro dell'Arte.

"The oil paint used by artists from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries consisted primarily of pigment and vegetable oil, although sometimes gums, proteins and resins were added for particular passages in a painting. Preparing oil paint involved mixing oil, typically linseed or walnut oil, with pigment that had been previously prepared by merchants or artists' apprentices. The pigment and oil were mixed on a flat stone slab into a smooth paste with a muller. The paint was then placed into shells for immediate use or in pigs' bladders for later use."23

Because some paints were rare and costly, painters learned to economize. Roger de Piles, who made important contributions in the seventeenth century to the understand of color wrote in his Dialogue sur le colori "(Dialogue on colours") :

We can make an observation here that makes use of certain oil colors in the underpainting with common colors sparing those colors of too great a price. For example, when one wants to finish a drapery with fine lake, you can use common colors in the underpainting. Similarly, a drapery that we must finish with the best ultramarine can be started in underpainting with the most common ultramarine. Finally, instead of ultramarine in the first hue shade and even in halftones, we can use willow charcoal, which is a little bluish, or bone black in the underpainting, and then finish with ultramarine, but the practice is not so good and the tints not so fresh.

It is a conventional belief that artists' paint began to be commercially produced during the Industrial Revolution. Until then, painters had to make their own paints by grinding pigment into oil. The paint would harden and would have to be made fresh each day. However, there is growing evidence that reveals that some tools of the painter's craft were already being produced industrially in seventeenth-century Netherlands, including prepared canvas and pigments.

Paint consists of small grains of pigment suspended in oil. Although it appears smooth to the naked eye, on a microscopic level, particles of pigment are suspended in oil. Oil paints do not "dry" by evaporation (as do watercolor paints); rather they harden through chemical reaction Contact with the air causes oils to oxidize and to crosslink. The paint sets and hardens over time. Paints of different pigments dry at different rates. Charcoal black retards the drying (creating a slow-drying paint); ochre accelerates the drying (producing a quick-drying paint).

Modern paint is different from older paints. In order to increase the covering power of a pigment, particle sizes are reduced to the smallest possible. The smaller the particles, the more the color nuances of the pigment are absorbed into its basic hue, as in inks that have no texture. Particles that are more consistent in shape and size also tend not to settle quickly and separate from their binder once inside a container. This increases the shelf life and thereby marketability of paint, but does not necessarily increase its desirability as a color for artists.

Historical evidence suggests that paint was already being commercially produced in the mid seventeenth-century in major artistic centers in Holland. However, it is not to know exactly to what extent painters employed such paint since production methods are unknown and thus cannot be determined by laboratory analysis. However, if we consider Vermeer's highly perfectionist approach to the thematic, compositional and technical components of his art, it might be safely assumed that he was more apt to have made his own paint in order to assure the exact quality he desired. This attitude is confirmed by his use of the finest grade of the costly ultramarine (crushed natural lapis lazuli) instead of the cheaper and more common azurite.


Paintings are made of organic and inorganic materials which are put together by an artist to create a specific image. They form a simple construction consisting of one or more paint layers and a support for those layers. However, the structure of a painting can be very complex within these two general layers. Supports can themselves be supported. For example, a piece of paper could be attached to a canvas or panel. There can be additions or changes made by the artist or by another hand. With careful observation a trained eye should be able to detect many of these elements. The materials found in and on paintings are best considered layer by layer. Easel paintings are defined as paintings not attached to an immovable object and therefore portable (albeit often with difficulty). There exist many other kinds of paintings such as fresco.

Paintings age at different rates depending on the way they are created and with what materials have been used. Paint layers may dry and become brittle, eventually cracking, the varnish may yellow as well as the oil contained in the paint itself. Pigments can alter in co lour; oil paint becomes more transparent and underneath drawings may show through; the canvas may become brittle or weak, or slack; and the painting may become coated with a layer of dirt, nicotine, finger marks etc. Not all the effects of ageing necessarily impair our aesthetic enjoyment of the work of art although restoration may bring back some of the painting's initial appearance.


The surface on which a painter will mix his colors. Also the range of colors used by an artist. The palettes that are represented in paintings of Vermeer's time are surprisingly small in dimension with relatively few pigments placed on them, always in an orderly fashion. Wood was preferred because it was lightweight, rigid and could be easily shaped. Another advantage of wood was its warm brown tone. Many painters started their work on a canvas primed with a warm brownish tone that was not dissimilar to the color of the palette. Since the perception colors are strongly influenced by the dominating tone that surrounds them, the paint that was mixed on the palette did not change perceptibly when applied to the canvas.

Earliest palettes were small and remained so until the end of the 19th century when they were about 10 to 12 inches long. Only in the 19th century did they assume a half table-top size which permitted artists to have available during every phase of the working process every pigments as well as areas for mixing a variety of specific tones. This larger palette allowed the artist to work on any area of the composition. Before the 19th century, instead, painters employed smaller palettes primarily because they worked on only one area of the painting at each painting session and thus their palettes contained only those pigments necessary for the day's work.

Representations of palettes often display pigments necessary for painting flesh tones. The flesh palette had a particular significance. Willem Beur, 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 achievement are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and string hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions." The layout of the pigments, from light to dark, was common.

Vermeer most likely used a wood palette like every painter of his time. In the 1676 death inventory of Vermeer's house in the front room of the first floor of the Oude Langendijk, there were listed "twee schilders eesels, drye paletten" (two painters easels, three palettes). In Vermeer's time the familiar painter's palette with a hole for the thumb had replaced the older rectangular kind with a handle. The artist held the palette with his thumb inserted into the hole leaving the rest of his fingers free to comfortably hold a number of brushes and the mahlstick on which he steadied his hand.

It is curious to note that in the representation of the artist at work in The Art of Painting, Vermeer has hidden the palette behind the artist's body as well as a great part of the easel's left-hand leg.

The following pigments have been detected in Vermeer's paintings. For a detailed study of Vermeer's palette and pigments, click here.

  • WELD

Panel Painting

Painting on wooden panels. Until the introduction of canvas in the fifteenth century, wooden panels were the standard support in painting. In the Netherlands, France and England, oak panels were most common. Lime, beech, chestnut and cherry as well as oak were used in Germany and Austria. A seasoned plank, which had been allowed to dry out for some time, was layered with several coats of size, a glue made from animal skins. In Italy, the planks used for panel paintings were most often made of native poplar, a widely available wood that was, however, soft and vulnerable to warping. A piece of linen soaked in size was often laid over the front of the panel to conceal any surface flaws. Over this, coats of gesso were applied. Gesso, a mixture of powdered calcium sulfate (commonly called gypsum) and animal glue, provided the ground for preliminary drawings. Although canvas had become more popular, Dutch painters continued to employ panels as well. The extremely smooth surfaces of panels makes them particularly adapted for fine detail since their surface is extremely smooth.

Only two of the surviving 34-36 paintings by Vermeer are painted on panel: The Girl with a Red Hat and The Girl with a Flute (whose authenticity is not accepted by many scholars). However, in Vermeer's death inventory there were listed ten canvases and six panels in the front room of his house, a fact that would lead us to believe that he may have used more panels that is generally believed.


The Italian word paragone ("comparison,", pl. paragoni) refers to various theoretical discussions which include the comparison between the differing aesthetic qualities of the Italian and Venetian schools of painting (the so-called disegno/colore paragone) and whether painting or literature was the more effective medium. However, the term paragone most often refers to debate about the relative merits of painting and sculpture. This debate unfolded primarily in Italy but also in the Low Countries (Flanders and the Netherlands) and protracted well into the seventeenth century.

Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise on painting of 1435 (De Pictura), set forth many of the arguments in favor of painting. Giorgio Vasari, the painter and author of Le Vite, a fundamental art historical text, and Benvenuto Cellini, one of Italy's most celebrated sculptors, are among those who argued most eloquently for the superiority of their respective arts. However, the debate, which today has no more than historical importance, was also taken up by a significant number of artistic and literary theorists and practicing artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Pompino Gaurico, Paolo Pino, Vicenzo and Raffaello Borghini, Angelo Bronzino, Giancristofero Romano, Baldassare Castiglione and in the following century, Federico Zuccari, Galileo Galilei and Giulio Mancini. Although Leonardo had committed significant energy to uplifting painting from of the charge of being a "mechanical art,"thereby elevating the artist from \mere artisan to the status of the poet and man of letters, in the 1350s the Italian poet Petrarch had already extolled the durability of sculpture over painting. Leonardo extended the comparison between painting and sculpture into the realms of poetry and music to argue that painting was the most noble and superior of all the arts.

In 1546, Benedetto Varchi, the Italian humanist writer and historian, canvassed eight prominent artists on the question. All eight responded in a predictable manner (the painters proclaimed the primacy of painting, while the sculptors) "but the main impression left by their letters is that they were genteel, skilled in the use of the pen, and well versed in the classic arguments on either side. This is further proof…that artists were no longer humble craftsmen but cultivated letterati whose opinions were worth having." "Only Michelangelo, eminently qualified in both fields, seemed a little irritated by the question."24

The Dutch art writer, Philips Angel, commented on why painting is superior than to sculpture:

[Painting] is capable of imitating nature much more copiously, for in addition to depicting every kind of creature, like birds, fishes, worms, flies, spiders and caterpillars it can render every kind of metal and can distinguish between them, such as gold, silver bronze, copper, pewter, lead and all the rest. It can be used to depict a rainbow, rain, thunder, lightning, clouds, vapor, light, reflections and more of such things, like the rising of the sun, early morning, the decline of the sun, evening, the moon illuminating the night, with her attendant companions, the stars, reflections in the water, human hair, horses foaming at the mouth and so forth, none of which the sculptors can imitate.

Those who favored the superiority of SCULPTURE argued that:

  • Sculpture is more durable.
  • Painting created only shallow illusion while sculpture shows objects in three dimensions and can be see from different angles.
  • Painting was only good insofar as it imitated the three-dimensional qualities of sculpture (Michelangelo).
  • While painters could improvise and retouch their works, there was no room for error in sculpture and therefore required greater skill.

Those who favored PAINTING argued that:

  • Painting has greater potential for naturalistic representation because of its ability to render color and texture to create the illusion of any material or object.
  • Painting could represent an entire scene as if viewed through a window (Alberti)
  • The ability to create an illusion of reality on a flat surface required greater ability than sculpture
  • Painting involved the intellectual demanding science of perspective.
  • Painting was suited for depicting complex narratives (which Alberti considered the noblest type of subject matter).
  • Painting required more mental ability than physical effort which was important in painters' attempts to elevate their art to the level of a learned, scholarly endeavor.
  • Leonardo also noted that painters sit while sculptors stand, and in their studios they are elegantly garbed while sculptors are covered head to foot with stone dust. Painting requires no greater physical effort so he can listen to poets reciting sonnets, or scholars reading aloud from the classics, or singers and musicians.

The debate over the merits of painting and sculpture also appears in works of art from the period. These examples often involve paintings which imitate sculpture and sculptures that imitate painting, a strategy of undermining claims about the unique advantages of one art over the other. Sculptors – first and most notably Donatello for his Feast of Herod and marble schiacciato reliefs, and Ghiberti for his Gates of Paradise – employed systems of linear and aerial perspective in narrative scenes, which painters had claimed as essential components of good painting. These reliefs are some of the most admired works of the early Renaissance, and had a great impact on the next generation of sculptors and painters alike. In works like his Nativity, Petrus Christus juxtaposed a rich, colorful scene, made possible by the recent adoption of the medium of oil painting among Flemish painters, and a fictive stone arch with grisaille statues and reliefs. Christus contrasts the naturalistic colors and textures that could be represented in painting with the monochrome sculpture, while showing that a painter can also create the effects of sculpture on a flat surface. Titian used a similar device in his Portrait of a Woman ("La Schiavona"), including a fictive stone relief of his subject in profile next to the colorful, vividly rendered portrait. To show that painters could also depict figures from multiple angles, they incorporated reflective surfaces into their compositions (also a virtuoso demonstration of illusionistic skill). According to a fifteenth-century source, Jan van Eyck composed a magnificent painting (now lost) showing a nude woman emerging from her bath, her back reflected in a mirror on the wall. Titian's Venus with a Mirror was likely inspired by the written description, and likewise responded to the argument in favor of sculpture that only a figure sculpted in the round could be seen from multiple viewpoints.25

In The Art of Painting, Vermeer may have made reference to the paragone with the inclusion of the plaster cast of a antique sculpture (Apollo, the god of light?).

In the same picture, Vermeer may have made reference to the paragone via the inclusion of the plaster cast of a antique sculpture (Apollo, the god of light?). The handsome, slashed velvet bodice and ballooned pantaloons worn by the seated artist, already somewhat anachronistic when Vermeer executed the work, could have conceivably been a reference to Michelangelo's idea that the painter was superior to the sculptor since the former could work comfortably in his peaceful studio while the latter in a noisy, dirty studio. In any case Vermeer clearly presents to his public the painter as a person of refinement and learning.


Patina is a tarnish that naturally forms on the surface of copper, bronze and similar metals and stone. It is also a sheen on wooden furniture produced by age, wear, and polishing; or any such acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. Patinas can provide a protective layer to materials that would otherwise be damaged by corrosion or weathering and are sometimes considered aesthetically appealing. Artists and metalworkers often deliberately add patinas as a part of the original design and decoration of art and furniture, or to simulate antiquity in newly-made objects.

The changes caused by natural ageing of the materials, are intrinsic to the materials used by the painter, are also referred as patina. Some painters of today prefer varnishes made of traditional organic resins because with age they tend to lend their works an "Old Master" look.

The word "patina" derives from the Latin for plate, the paten for the wafer in a mass, or the varnish used for coating shoes.26 In his art dictionary (Vocabolario toscano dell'arte del disegno, 1681) the Italian painter and art historian Filippo Baldinucci calls patina a "term used by painters, otherwise they call it 'skin' (pelle), and it is that universal darkening that time makes on pictures." As early as 1660 Marco Boschini maintained that ''the patina of time,'' la patina del tempo, makes colors ever more perfect and heightens the value of the facture, the work, of painting.

"About the middle of the 19th century, a flurry of lengthy controversies arose almost simultaneously in England, France and Bavaria. Artists, connoisseurs, art dealers, collectors and amateurs of art found themselves embroiled in an artistic ideological debate on the aging of paintings. Toward the end of the seventeenth century a theory had emerged and continued to gain currency through the 18th, that 'Time' improved and mellowed paintings, increasing their beauty, harmony, subtlety and mystery."27

The London National Gallery has been at the center of various controversies regarding their conservation policy and were violently accused on stripping great works of art of their patina, considered by some quarters an essential aspect of great paintings of the past.

In 1978, the National Gallery of Art in Washington became embroiled in a heated debate regarding what was called “tasteless” cleaning of their paintings.

The restoration policy of the Louvre is one of the most conservative among major art institutions. Many of their Old Master works still possess patina that is no longer seen in many museums. Nonetheless, following of the accusations that the Louvre had overcleaned a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, leaving it with a brightness that the Renaissance master had presumably never intended, Ségolène Bergeon Langle and Jean-Pierre Cuzi—eminent former specialists in conservation and painting respectively at the Louvre—resigned causing major embarrassment. There were also disputes over whether an area dismissed as removable repaint was in fact a glaze applied by Leonardo.

According to Sheldon Keck, a pioneer in the field of art conservation, "Careful study of the documents of these controversies suggests that at times the clamor and criticisms were motivated less by genuine concern for the condition of the paintings, than by politics, self-aggrandizement or jealousy on the part of the most persistent complainants."


The concept of the patron which is still with us originated in the times of Rome and designated a Roman citizen who was a protector (the patronus) of a foreigner who had settled in Roman territory (the clients). The relationship between the patron and his client (clientala) was an especially close one and involved many of the terms found in feudal contracts between lords and vassals. This Roman concept of the patron was extended into the medieval and Renaissance times, during which artists were afforded protection and sponsorship by various nobles and merchant princes.

In contemporary society the word "patron" has lost some of its original connotation. Today we usually reserve the term for one who is specifically a "patron of the arts." Certainly, the closeness of the original relationship between a patron and his client is no longer implied in the term.

The scholar John Michael Montias has shed the most light upon Vermeer's social and economic situation. His seminal research has shown there were at least a small number of people who acquired Vermeer's paintings during his lifetime or shortly thereafter and that at least one of these, a wealthy collector named Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven, may have been a significant patron, protecting Vermeer and his family during his lifetime from the vicissitudes of the national economy.

After reviewing the records which Montias and others have uncovered, two facts become apparent. First, Vermeer's paintings commanded relatively high prices when compared to many of his contemporaries. The price of six hundred livres that the baker thought reasonable for his painting compares favorably with the six hundred livres that Gerrit Dou (1613–1635) asked from de Monconys (5) for his Woman in a Window, "clearly also a painting with only one figure." Evidently, a painting by Vermeer had the same market value as a work by Dou, whom King Charles II of England had invited to become his court painter in 1660. Dou, one of Rembrandt's prized students, commanded very high prices for his work throughout his career.

For an in-depth study of Vermeer's clients and patrons, click here.


Pendant is the name given to one of two paintings conceived as a pair. Pendants were often works intended for a particular domestic setting - perhaps to hang either side of a fireplace or window. By far the most popular subject of pendants display married couples. The word 'pendant' can also be used for sculptures, pieces of furniture and other objects that are made in pairs. Usually pendants are compositionally and thematically related; for example, the landscape pairs of Claude Lorrain share similarly structured compositions, but depict the light at different times of day and male and female portraits might respond to one another in pose. Dutch painters were capable of conceiving pendants in a highly original manner. Van de Velde, one of the most refined of Dutch marine painters, depicted two ships in a completely different weather and lighting conditions.

While Vermeer seems to have painted various couples of paintings which are strongly related to each other in theme and composition, for some reason modern scholars are reluctant to consider them as true pendants which were explicitly painted to be hung side-by-side. Among these couples are: The Geographer and The Astronomer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Study of a Young Girl; The Girl with a Red Hat and the Girl with a Flute; and A Lady Standing at a Virginal and the Lady Seated at a Virginal.


Changes undertaken by an artist in the course of painting a picture. They are usually visible under the final version only with the help of X-rays, though they are sometimes revealed when the top layers of paint are worn away or become translucent.

Although in Vermeer's oeuvre there are a number of clearly visible pentimenti, most of the significant changes that he made during the course of painting can only be revealed through laboratory analysis methods such as IR or X-ray photography. One of the most striking pentimenti can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. The profile of the upper part of the typical lion head chairs which can be seen in may of his interiors, can be fairly well discerned. It would seem that Vermeer had brought the chair to a rather advanced stage of finish before he eliminated it from the composition. Other changes are only visible through close scrutiny. In the same painting, the left-hand edge of the hanging map of Europe once was fell to the right-hand side of the woman's head. One can only perceive a very shift in tone which runs vertically from the top of the canvas to the edge of the woman's headdress. For a detailed study of on the changes he made in this painting, click here.


Perspective creates an illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional picture surface. Objects in the background appear smaller than those in the foreground.

The "single point" system (linear perspective) was invented by Brunelleschi in Florence in relation to his architecture. It is mathematically constructed so that all receding parallel lines appear to converge towards each other, eventually meeting at a single point, the vanishing point. This system was used by artists from the early fifteenth century in Florence, and codified by Alberti in 'De Pictura'. Netherlandish painters in the early fifteenth century seem to have created a convincing illusion of three-dimensional space empirically, employing linear perspective without the system devised in Italy.

In Vermeer's time the study and practice of perspective was held in high esteem throughout Europe. Correct representation of perspective went hand in hand with accurate draftsmanship, careful rendering of the play of light and the description of texture which were employed in order to achieve the most illusionistic portrayal of reality as possible. This was considered one of the highest goals of art. Vermeer 's own paintings were once praised by the young Dutch connoisseur Pieter Teding van Berkhout as "curious and exceptional perspectives." There existed at the time various guides to aid the artist in perspective drawing for artists such as those of Samuel van Marolois /c. 1572-c.1627), Hendrick Hondius (1573–1649), Francois Desgagues (1593–1662), and Hans Vredeman de Vreis (1526/1527–1606). It is likely that Vermeer was familiar with the principles of perspective drawing expounded in these manuals.

It is usually assumed that for practical purposes, complicated perspectives were first worked out in preparatory drawings on paper. The drawing could then be transferred efficiently to the painter's canvas with the pin-prick and dust method.

Recent scholarship has called attention to the importance of perspective in Vermeer's painting. In fact, one of the three contemporary testimonies of Vermeer's art describes one of his pictures, perhaps The Art of Painting, as a "perspective." Jørgen Wadum of the Mauritshuis has noted that 13 paintings by Vermeer, including Woman Holding a Balance, "contains evidence of Vermeer's system, by which he inserted a pin, with a string attached to it, into the grounded canvas at the vanishing point. With this string he could reach any area of his canvas to correct orthogonals, the straight lines that meet in the central vanishing point." This system was widely used among painters of the time. In Wadum's opinion, Vermeer had most likely had fully assimilated the laws of perspective perhaps using various extant guides.

Perhaps the modern eye has become somewhat jaded to the magic of perspective due to the literal flood of photographic images in which the camera resolves automatically correct perspective.

Perspective Box (or peep box)

The perspective box or peepshow is an optical device which enables an artist to create a convincing illusion of interior (or, more rarely, exterior) space. Using a complex perspectival construction, the four inside walls of a wooden box are painted to simulate the space and the scene is then viewed through a carefully positioned eyehole. The eye is deceived into believing that this is really the inside of a room.

The peepshow was popular among Dutch seventeenth-century artists, reflecting a fascination with perspectival and optical devices. Of the six peepshows which survive from the seventeenth century the best is that by Samuel van Hoogstraten in the National Gallery. The inside of the box is painted in such a way that when viewed through either of the peep holes, located at each end, it gives the illusion of a three-dimensional interior of a modest Dutch room, sparsely furnished and with views through into other rooms.

The peepshow was only a shortlived phenomenon. However, the effect that such boxes had on contemporaries can be judged by John Evelyn's account of a peepshow he saw in London in 1656:

[...] was shew'd me a prety Perspective & well represented in a triangular Box, the greate Church at Harlem in Holland, to be seene thro a small hole at one of the Corners, & contrived into a hansome Cabinet. It was so rarely don, that all the Artists and Painters in Towne, came flocking to see & admire it.

Only six of these boxes, all of which simulate a domestic or church interior, survive and the one in the National Gallery is without doubt the best of them. It is the only one which is signed: the signature is in the form of a letter addressed to 'Monsieur S de Hoostraten a Dordrecht' lying on a chair in the corner of the principal room.

Pictor Doctus

Pictor doctus, amoris causa, and alter deus are all terms used by scholars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to characterize painters, however the ideas they encapsulate also circulated in the seventeenth century.28 The pictor doctus, is one who paints amoris causa, skillfully imitating nature his paintings so that he might surpasses nature itself. The figure of the pictor doctus was epitomized both by sophisticated artist-gentlemen like Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Nicolas Poussin. The Dutch painters Gerrit Dou and Rembrandt van Rijn would have been aware of the tradition of pictor doctus although Rembrandt might be considered by some of his contemporaries as a pictor vulgaris, whose crude working clothes are soiled with paint. The image of the scholarly painter frequently expressed through self portraiture. Dou, who lived in the university atmosphere of Leiden, made a number of such self portraits in which he consistently surrounded his own image with props and accoutrements that reflect diligent study and erudition.

Both the pictor doctus and pictor vulgaris derive from Horace's Ars Poetica of 18 BC as positive and negative ideals within the creative life—the Learned Poet and Vulgar Poet. The development of the artist as pictor doctus, which began during the Renaissance, reflects a long struggle by artists and theorists to retrieve the fame, glory and honor of the profession enjoyed by the ancients.

Despite the many literary and visual topoi designed to elevate the status of the artist in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Dutch artists of the Golden Age were all too often reported as misbehaving. Instead of emulating the noble exempla offered by the model of the pictor doctus, Dutch painters drank (Steen) and reveled in public (Van Laer), could not pay their bills (Van Mieris) and eschewed conventions of dress and gentlemanly comportment (Brouwer). [Philip] Angel complained in his speech that drinking and carousing derailed artists from articulating the Renaissance topoi of the artist as an intellectual, famed, respectable gentleman. He emphasized the ideas that drinking made artists inelegant ("you walk with splayed legs"), indolent ("devote your useful time/To the service of painting, not squander it uselessly"), dim-witted ("[you] celebrate…until the brainpan knows neither rule nor law") and unworthy of fame ("This would give you great honor, now you have great shame"). Instead of "brutish carousing,"Angel encouraged artists to "perfect the praise of painting with your scholarly writings."29

Pictorial Space

In a painting or other two-dimensional art, illusionary space which appears to recede backward into depth from the picture plane. The principal task of the realist painter is to find an artistically meaningful way to collapse the three dimensional world onto the flat pictorial plane.

Picture Plane

The plane occupied by the physical surface of the picture. In most representational painting, all the elements in the picture appear to recede from this plane, while trompe l'œil effects are achieved by painting objects in such a way that they seem to project in front of the picture plane. Conceptually, it acts as a transparent window into illusionistic space.

One of the representational painter's principal tasks is to "collapse" the real three dimensional world he wishes to represent onto the bi dimensional picture plane. This transposition must take into account that what may appear to be an agreeable and significant arrangement of objects in the real world may not seem equally significant once it is flattened onto the canvas, a fact which many amateur photographers are painfully aware of. In order to express the mass or volume of a figure in the real life, the artists must express with tone and contour the mass of an object which on his. Illusion of depth are usually obtained by the use of geometrical or aerial perspective.


See also palette.

The pigment is the element in paint which provides its color. Pigments can be made of a wide range of materials, including minerals, natural and synthetic dyestuffs, and other man-made compounds. Paint consists of pigment bound in a medium. The ratio of pigment to medium affects the malleability, color and drying time of the paint. Different pigments deteriorate over time in different ways and at different rates. Many pigments in used in the past were very expensive and difficult to acquire. Their history is fascinating and can be very romantic. True ultramarine blue for instance, is made from ground lapis lazuli and indian yellow was made from the urine of cows fed on mangos in India, a practice which has been banned as it harms the cow. Red lakes come from the a secretion of the females and eggs of the cochineal beetle and dragons blood was long thought to be a mixture of dragon and elephant blood. It is, in fact a dark resin from an eastern Asian tree, (Calamua draco). Mauves and purples were difficult to obtain from the seventeenth-century palette except by mixing, since no pure purple-colored pigment was available for oil painting. A successful colour could be obtained by combining ultramarine with red lake, with or without white, or by glazing one over the other, but at considerable expense on account of the ultramarine content. Azurite combined with red lakes tends to make more muted grayish mauves.

Some pigments require great quantities of oil to transform them into a workable paste for the painter. These pigments produce paint that is structurally weaker than those denser, more highly pigmented paint. Some paints are heavy or coarse while some are light and fluffy. Alizarin, a ruby red lake, comes in the form of a fluffy light-weight powder. The particles of smalt are so coarse and heavy that they slide down the canvas if it is set vertically on the easel. One pound of it will almost fill a half-gallon (1.9 liters) pound of vermilion will go into a four-ounce (.11 liters) jar.

Pigments are named for their color, resemblance to objects in nature, for their inventors, their places of origin, the purpose for which they are used and for their chemical compositions or derivations. For centuries, the nomenclature off pigments was confusing and unsystematic. The term "lake," which now comprises an array of transparent pigments of different colors, was until the 18th century intended only for red lakes only. Some colors had dozens of names.

"By the early nineteenth century most of the color men were producing color from traditional 19th century produced an enormous expansion in the range of pigments. Some of these new pigments made valuable additions to the artists' color range by providing less expensive alternatives for expensive traditional pigments, for example, artificial ultramarine. For the first time, synthetic pigments were replacing traditional pigments on the artists' palette. Although natural and synthetic ultramarine are chemically similar, their hues and behavior in paint are remarkably different.

"Modern pigments are developed on a quantitative basis for the paint industry, in which producing paints for artists plays an insignificant role. They are formulated for maximum tinting strength, covering power and stability in paint without concern for their chromatic diversity and novel consistency. To achieve maximum desirability in modern paints, pigments are made homogenous in shape, size and composition.

Traditional paint made with traditional pigments result in paint with chromatic diversity. The heterogeneous size and shape of traditional pigments gives novel, unique behavior to oil paint. Modern additives alter the behavior of paint, reducing or eliminating the individual effects created by pigments, and granular, crystalline pigments give a certain pleasing quality to paint films that cannot be had from fine, well-dispersed pigments such as are produced for the modern paint industry."30

Vermeer used the same pigments as his contemporaries. The only significant difference was his preference of costly natural ultramarine (lapis lazuli) instead of the common azurite. About 20 pigments have been detected in Vermeer's works although he probably employed not more than 10 or 12 systematically. For an in-depth study of Vermeer's pigments, click here

Pigment Analysis

Pigment analysis is undertaken to establish the contents of an artist's pigments. The identification of pigments provides information about the artist, era, history and style of an object or painting, and allows accurate pigment selection for restoration. Some pigments change chemically, so accurate pigment identification is important to help return a painting to its original color after restoration. Their chemical identification is also crucial for finding safe conservation treatments and environmental conditions for display, storage, and transport of valuable art.

In general only a minute sample of paint is taken from the edges of pre-existing losses or other areas of damage. These samples can then be viewed under high magnification with a microscope. This helps to identify the painting materials present, particularly the pigments. Other laboratory techniques can in turn be applied to identify the paint binding medium.

"An experienced researcher who has seen many cross-section samples, and who is familiar with the rather small number of pigments generally used in traditional painting, will be able to identify most of those pigments with nothing more than an optical microscope. Identifying the media within which the pigments are bound, however, is impossible with the naked eye; and there are too a few cases where natural and synthetic varieties of a pigment are visually indistinguishable. When the eye is no longer able to answer our questions, other methods have to be brought into play. There are a number of chemical and physical techniques which are used by conservation scientists. Commonly-used methods at present include gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, Raman spectrometry, Fourier transform infrared spectrometry, scanning electron microscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy and infrared microscopy."31

Studio techniques may involve a two way system: identifying the pigments by carrying out a number of the chemical reactions with powdered pigment particles under a microscope (dissolving in acids or observation of the characteristic crystals created as a result of the chemical reaction with reagents) or secondly visual observation of pigment dispersions (pigment powder, mounted in a clear-setting resin) with a polarizing light microscope, using gemological and mineralogical optical analytical processes.

Each type of pigment reacts differently to the polarized light rays so that every single particle can be identified.

Pin & String Method (of creating perspective)

Although Vermeer was likely familiar with the principles of perspective described in contemporary perspective manuals, in daily practice, he very likely employed the so-called pin and string method to work out and verify the perspectival construction of his interiors in during the planning and working stages of the working process.

"Remarkably, thirteen paintings still contain physical evidence of Vermeer's system, by which he inserted a pin, with a string attached to it, into the grounded canvas at the vanishing point. With this string he could reach any area or his canvas to create correct orthogonals, the straight lines that meet in the central vanishing point. The vanishing point of the central perspective in The Art of Painting is still visible in the palm layer just the end of the lower map-rod, below Clio's right hand.

To transfer the orthogonal line described by the string, Vermeer would have applied chalk to it. While holding it taut between the pin in the vanishing point and the fingers of one hand, his free hand would have drawn the string up a little and let it snap back onto
the surface, leaving a line of chalk. This could then have been traced with a pencil or brush. Such a simple method of using a chalk line to make straight lines was probably used by Vermeer's Delft colleagues Leonard Bramer (1596–1674) and Carel Fabritius (1611–1654) to compose wall paintings, and is still used today by painters of trompe l'oeil interiors."32

Little or no trace of Vermeer's method remains except the pinhole, revealed in X ray images.


The external appearance of a person, in particular the face.

It has often been noted that Vermeer, in respects to his contemporaries, generally did not pursue his sitters' individual physiognomy or psychology at length. None of them, even the Girl with a Pearl Earring or A Study of a Young Woman are considered to be true portraits, at least in the seventeenth-century meaning of the term.

One modern critic went so far as to state that Vermeer seems to have lost his patience while painting faces and treated them as if they were still-lives. In any case, Vermeer preferred to generalize (differently than idealize) his sitters' features in order to convey a more universal meaning to his compositions. Credible comparisons of the faces found in Vermeer's oeuvre are very difficult to make because the woman are portrayed in different lighting conditions, poses and presumably ages.

Plein Air

En plein air simply means that the artist painted outside, literally "in empty (or open) air," instead of in the studio. Occasionally one also sees the derivative term pleinairisme, which is nothing more than a grammatical inflection of the same idea. For example, Monet (or whomever) painted en plein air during the period in which pleinairisme was in fashion. Even though Dutch landscape painters achieved a truly amazing sense of naturalism, their paintings were largely created inside their studios and not en plain air. Artists employed monochrome sketches done from nature, the knowledge of many pictorial conventions, memory and imagination. Portrait painters often worked from mannequins clothed in the sitter's elaborate dress in order to avoid long and tiring hours of posing for the sitter.

Many scholars believe that Vermeer employed a camera obscura as an aid to paint his View of Delft and that he had most likely had situated himself on the upper story of a building slightly outside the Delft city walls. Judging by the perspective construction of the Little Street, the artist seems to have painted from a window of the second story of a building presumably across a canal. Had Vermeer actually looked out of the windows while painting in both or either of the two landscapes, he would in essence have painted them en plein air. Even though there is no historical evidence that he did so, the perspective accuracy and refined renderings of the play of light of his works may have well been the fruit of direct observation. Many Dutch painters were know to have worked largely from drawings.


Pointillès, small globs of thick light-colored paint, are the pictorial equivalent of the so-called "disks of confusion" or "halations" which occur on the screen of a camera obscura in the place of natural highlights, especially frequent on shiny surfaces such as glass or polished metal. If a small highlight of this type, whatever its shape, is not brought exactly into focus at the viewing plane of the camera obscura or the lens is imperfect, its image becomes spread out into a circle (or disk) of confusion.

For reasons unknown, Vermeer voluntarily imitated a distortion of the camera obscura which cannot be perceived by the naked eye in normal circumstances. Pointillès, although detectable in most every mature work by Vermeer, are particularly abundant in the View of Delft, the Milkmaid and The Lacemaker. Vermeer's pointillès are usually pure white or slightly yellowish in tone but sometimes they are the same color, but lighter than the underlying local color, such as in the tapestries of The Art of Painting and The Allegory of Faith.


The Roman portrait bust survived in the form of life-sized reliquaries of saints, but it was in fifteenth-century Florence that the individual features and character of a contemporary sitter were accurately recorded by sculptors such as Donatello, Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole and the Rossellino. A similar degree of realism occurs in fifteenth-century tomb sculpture. Portraiture, visual representation of individual people, distinguished by references to the subject's character, social position, wealth, or profession.

Portraitists often strive for exact visual likenesses. However, although the viewer's correct identification of the sitter is of primary importance, exact replication is not always the goal. Artists may intentionally alter the appearance of their subjects by embellishing or refining their images to emphasize or minimize particular qualities (physical, psychological, or social) of the subject. Viewers sometimes praise most highly those images that seem to look very little like the sitter because these images are judged to capture some non visual quality of the subject. In non-Western societies portraiture is less likely to emphasize visual likeness than in Western cultures.

As R. H. Fuchs has pointed out, " category in pictorial art is so conservative as portraiture. A portrait is not just a likeness of an individual to be preserved for posterity; it was also an image of pride, a projection of social position. A man who wants his portrait painted cannot but attach a certain importance to himself, in whatever sense, and he is not likely to take chances; he is concerned about his appearance. Normally, and the history of portraiture testifies to this fact, he opts for the classic formula - the formula which has proved its efficiency." It is all too obvious that it was the commissioner had a fundamental role in determining the painting's final aspect. He choose the sitter, attire, dimension, technique and often the type background and surroundings props as well. The painter's role was essentially to give life to the clients' vision of himself through the technical and expressive means which had initially attracted the client's attention to the artist.

The Dutch Portrait

drawn from:
"Portraiture", in Making, Meaning and Market: Seventeen-Century Dutch painting from the Hunt arian Gallery website. <>

"In the seventeenth century there was an unprecedented range and number of portraits created in the Netherlands. This was the result of social and economic factors. Portraits were often the only steady source of income for an artist as virtually all portraits were commissioned with prearranged prices being set by them.

"The market for portraits increased during the seventeenth century because the huge success of Dutch trade had resulted in the rise of a strong middle class who were eager for portraits to symbolize their new status. Portraiture became accessible to a much wider social group in the seventeenth century and all types of customers seem to have ordered portraits, from shopkeepers to local militias. Delft and The Hague were important centers for portraiture during the first part of the seventeenth century because the House of Orange had residences in both cities and The Hague was the seat of government for the united provinces, thus providing artists with wealthy patrons.

"Dutch portrait painters produced an unprecedented number of paintings since the new affluent middle class provided a broad-based patronage. There were many different types of Dutch portraiture in the seventeenth century. Commissioned portraits of real people, of varying sorts were popular as well as tronies, which were portraits of picturesque types for the open market. There was a big market for tronies, which would show a stereotypical peasant woman or similar subject. Most common of the commissioned portraits were marriage, family and group portraits. Portraits were commissioned on a variety of occasions, portraying their sitters from the cradle to the grave. Depictions of the elderly were common and pendant portraits of family founders became treasured family possessions, passed through the generations. Young students and graduates from universities, and numerous people in their professional roles were portrayed. 'Portraits histories' showed their sitters as literary, allegorical, mythological or biblical characters, implying that those painted possessed the same qualities as the people they were playing. State portraiture was uncommon, given the prominence of the middle classes and the relative lack of an aristocracy. The last occasion in a person's life when a portrait would have been made was when someone was dying or recently deceased. This tradition seems strange to a contemporary viewer but was commonplace during the seventeenth century."

In the light of above, even Vermeer's most deliberate renderings of female physiognomy, the Girl with a Pearl Earring and A Study of a Young Girl, are not to be taken to be portraits in the seventeenth century sense of the ter. Rather, they are considered examples of the Northern tronie tradition.

In any case, it is known that Vermeer painted at least one true portrait, or rather a self-portrait, which however is missing. This self-portrait was listed as item number 3 of the 1696 Dissius auction of 21 paintings by Vermeer. and described thus: "The portrait of Vermeer in a room with various accessories, uncommonly beautiful painted by him "

Portrait Historié

The portrait historié, (historical portrait)" was a type of portraiture that was popular in the Golden Age of Dutch art. Many seventeenth-century people had themselves portrayed as mythological, biblical or historical figures. Differently form traditional portraits in which the sitter wore contemporary clothing and was set against a blank background or a familiar environment, the portrait historié represents the sitter in the guise of gods and heroes, and at times Biblical figures thereby drawing comparisons between the virtues of the sitters and the historical personalities.

Initially, portrait historié were reserved for princes and nobility, but in the seventeenth century less affluent citizens increasingly had themselves portrayed in such a manner. Some painters who made portraits historiés are Maerten de Vos, Hendrick Goltzius, Rembrandt, Ferdinand Bol, Nicolaes Maes and Jan de Bray. De Bray is also known for the portrait historié of his own family, The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra (1669, Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester). "In this family portrait all members participate in the legendary banquet of Antony and Cleopatra. The painter is probably represented in profile at left. His parents impersonate the Roman general and the Egyptian Queen, at a feast she organized in a bet that she could spend the largest fortune on a meal. Although the fare was simple, Cleopatra defeated Antony by dissolving one outsized pearl earring in acid and swallowing the drink.

"Since several contemporaries commented on the humorous but reprehensible vanity of the story, de Bray's decision to make his family perform it may seem bizarre. In most family portraits, poses, gestures, costumes, and attributes speak of harmony, good education, and modesty; the wife and mother in particular."33

Anthony van Dyck, probably the most sought-after portraitist of the age, set the benchmark for years to come for the portrait historié genre.

According to Kees Veelenturf, the early Middle Ages contributed to the development of the portrait historié of later times although not through visual expression but, through "a widespread practice of simile and typology in thought and writing, which usually can be labeled as Christian allegory. The portrait historié would probably never have evolved since Antiquity if these features of ruler metaphysics had not blossomed in early medieval times."34

Positive Shape

See also negative shape.

In a picture, the shapes that the artist has placed are considered the positive shapes. The spaces around the shapes are the negative spaces. Although beginner painters are usually only aware of positive shape, it is just as important to consider the negative space in a picture as the positive shapes. Sometimes artists create pieces that have no distinction between positive and negative spaces. M. C. Escher was a master at creating drawings where there was no distinction between positive and negative space.

Primary Colors

The basic hues of the spectrum from which all of the other hues can be mixed. The primary colors actually differ from context to context, but in the classic formal language of much artwriting, there are only the three: red, blue and yellow. Classic color theory asserts that admixtures of any two of these in the proper proportions will result in the creation of "secondary" colors which will be the "complementary" of the third primary color. For example, mixing the primary red and blue gives the secondary violet, which is the complementary of yellow; mixing red and yellow gives orange, the complementary of blue; and mixing yellow and blue gives green, the complementary of red. One of the curious optical phenomena attending this observation is that a hue will always seem its most vibrant when accompanied by its complementary. This is very easy to test with combinations of squares of the sort often reproduced in psychology survey texts: several small squares of an identical red will appear quite different when sent into larger squares of different hues, and the apparently most vibrant red will be the one surrounded by the hue closest to its complementary green. Painterly artists from Titian to Matisse have long known and exploited this effect, although it was not theorized coherently until the nineteenth century publication of the works of Eugène Chevreul and other color theorists. There are, of course, further admixtures of hue one could call tertiary and quaternary colors, and so on down the line, but there are diminishing returns in terms of usefulness. Correspondent Zachary Stadel offers an interesting corrective under the heading color theory.

"It is interesting that, for all their experience and technical proficiency, Renaissance painters had no conception of primary colors in the sense in which we think of them today: as red, yellow and blue which, in various combinations, produce the secondary colors, orange, green and violet. Alberti (De Pittura, 1435-6)3 states that 'there are four genera of colors, and these make their species according to the addition of dark or light, black or white.' 'Red is the color of fire, blue of the air, green of the water, and of the earth grey and ash. Others colors such as jasper and porphyry, are mixtures of these.'"35 The art historian's answer the questions about primary colors is suggested this last statement: Alberti and his contemporaries though that before being colors, specific pigments were substances used in the manufacture of paint. "The artist as craftsman, concerned with preparing his own colors, thought of each as a separate entity. No two greens are alike'"

By Vermeer's time, primary colors were understood. in Gérard de Lairesse wrote, "The number of the Colors is six; and these are divided into two Sorts. The former Sort contains the Yellow, Red and Blue, which are called capital Colors. The latter is a mixed Sort, consisting of Green, Purple and Violet; these have the name of broken Colors ..." The art theoretician suggests various lists of colors that go well with each other and some to be avoided although they were not ordered by a law but "as Experience teaches."


In painting, sculpture and architecture, the ratio between the respective parts and the whole work. The following are important: 1. the Canon of Proportion, a mathematical formula establishing ideal proportions of the various parts of the human body.

The unit of measurement is usually the relationship of the head to the torso (1:7 or 1:10); 2. the golden section, a line C divided into a small section A and a larger section B, so that A:B are in the same relationship as B:C; the quadrature, which uses the square as a unit of measurement; 4. triangulation, which uses an equilateral triangle in order to determine important points in the construction; and 5. harmonic proportions, an analogy with the way sounds are produced on stringed instruments, for example an octave = 1:2 (the difference in pitch between two strings, one half the length of the other), a fifth = 2:3, a fourth = 3:4.


Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of a historical object. The term was originally mostly used in relation to works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including archaeology, paleontology, archives, manuscripts, printed books, and science and computing. The primary purpose of tracing the provenance of an object or entity is normally to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing, as far as practicable, its later history, especially the sequences of its formal ownership, custody, and places of storage. The practice has a particular value in helping authenticate objects. Comparative techniques, expert opinions, and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation.

The objective of provenance research is to produce a complete list of owners (together, where possible, with the supporting documentary proof) from when the painting was commissioned or in the artist's studio through to the present time. In practice, there are likely to be gaps in the list and documents that are missing or lost. The documented provenance should also list when the painting has been part of an exhibition and a bibliography of when it has been discussed (or illustrated) in print.

Where the research is proceeding backwards, to discover the previous provenance of a painting whose current ownership and location is known, it is important to record the physical details of the painting - style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions, frame, etc. The titles of paintings and the attribution to a particular artist may change over time. The size of the work and its description can be used to identify earlier references to the painting. The back of a painting can contain significant provenance information.36

To consult all the provenance of all of Vermeer's paintings, click here.

  1. Richard Scholar, The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe Encounters with a Certain Something, Oxford, 2005.
  2. James Elkins, Why are Our Pixtures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of. Pictorial Complexity. New York, 1999, p. 138.
  3. Ernst van de Wetering, Rembrandt, the Painter at Work, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles, 2009, pp. 184–185.
  4. "Carmine lake", Pigments through the Ages website. <>
  5. 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), p. 21
  6. Hans Koningsburger, The World of Vermeer 1632–1675, New York, 1968.
  7. 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), p. 219.
  8. Ingrid A. Cartwright, "Hoe schilder hoe wilder: Dissolute Self Portraits in Seventeenth- Century Dutch and Flemish Art", Ph.D., p.104–104 <click here to view complete paper >
  9. Carissa Di Cindio, "Portrait of Peter Paul Rubens after Anthony van Dyck, 1665". <>
  10. Rudolf Arnehim, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1974, p. 320.
  11. Spike Bucklow, "The effect of cracks on the perception of paintings", 1996. <> See also Bucklow, "The effect of cracks on the perception of paintings" in Research at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, <>
  12. Rudolf Arnehim, 1974, p. 182.
  13. Juliette Aristides, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practices, New York. 2006, p. 37.
  14. E. H. Gombrich, The Heritage of Apelles, Oxford, 1976, p. 31.
  15. Jonathan Miller and Valerie D. Mendes, On Reflection, London: National Gallery, 1998.
  16. "Dirck Hals (1591 – 1656) A Musical Company in an Interior"' Johnny van Haeften website. <>
  17. Mariët Westermann, "Vermeer and the Interior Imagination," in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 228.
  18. Seymour Slive, "The Manor Kostverloren: Vicissitudes of a Seventeenth-Centre Dutch landscape Motif," papers in Art History from Pennsylvania State University 3, Age of Rembrandt: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting, 1988, p. 141.
  19. Giuseppe Frangi, "Rembrandt moved by the face of Jesus", Exhibition reveiw: Rembrandt and the face of Christ, in 30 Days in the Church and the World, 2011. <>
  20. Alejandro Vergara, Vermeer and the Dutch Interior, Madrid, 2003, p. 215.
  21. Open University, "2: The Death of Sardanapalus, 2.5: Neoclassical – the established style." <>
  22. Jeongmu Yang, "Giovanni Bellini; Experience and Experiment in Venetian
    Painting, c. 1460 to 1516", a dissertations ubmittedin partial fulfilmento f the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy History of Art University College London, University of London, 1998. <>
  23. George O'Hanlon, Traditional Oil Painting: The Revival of Historical Artists' Materials", Natural Pigments website. <>, 2012.
  24. Peter Hecht, "The paragone debate: ten illustrations and a comment", Semiolus 14, 1984, p. 125.
  25. "Renaissance Paragone: Painting and Sculpture", Benezit: Thematic Guide: Oxford Art Online. <>
  26. The information in this paragraph was derived from: Randolph Starn, "Three Ages of 'Patina' in Painting", Representations, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Spring 2002), pp. 86–115.
  27. Sheldon Keck, "Some Picture Cleaning Policies Past and Present", JAIC 1984, Volume 23, Number 2, Article 1 (pp. 73 to 87. <>
  28. Denise Giannino, "Gerrit Dou: Seventeenth-Century Artistic Identity
    and Modes of Self-Referentiality in Self-Portraiture and Scenes of Everyday Life, dissertation", 2006, p. 3, note 12. <>
  29. Ingred Cartwright, "Hoe schilder hoe wilder: Dissolute self-portraits in seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish Art"' dissertation, University of Maryland, 2007, p.113.
  30. George O'Hanlon, 2012.
  31. Paul Taylor, Condition: The Ageing of Art, 2014 (Forthcoming), p. 10.
  32. Jørgen Wadum, "Vermeer in Perspective", in Johannes Vermeer, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: The National Gallery of Art, 1995), pp. 67-68.
  33. Emil Kren and Daniel Marx, "The de Bray Family (The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra)", Web Gallery of Art website. <>
  34. Kees Veelenturf, "In the Guise of a Christian: the Early Medieval Preliminary Stage of the Portrait Historié", prepublication 30 November 2011, retrieved from <>
  35. Eugene Clinton Elliott, "On the Understanding of Color in Painting", in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Jun., 1958), pp. 458.
  36. "Provenance", Wikipedia websi <>