An Interview with Jørgen Wadum

Girl with a pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer
Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665- 1667
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 40 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Jørgen Wadum is chief conservator of the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague. Through both his practice as conservator and his writings, Mr. Wadum has made significant contributions to our understanding of Vermeer's art. He headed the restoration project of the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the View of Delft and personally restored the Girl with a Pearl Earring which happily can now be appreciated close to its original splendor which had remained hidden since the painting's rediscovery in 1881.

Other than his writings which directly concern restoration processes (Vermeer Illuminated. Conservation, Restoration and Research, 1994) Mr. Wadum has published two important studies of Vermeer; one of the artist's exquisite painting technique ("Contours of Vermeer", in Vermeer Studies, 1998) and the other of his use of perspective ( "Vermeer in Perspective" in Johannes Vermeer, 1995). see full bibliography below.

Through Mr. Wadum's fascinating observations readers are not only able to appreciate the subtleties of Vermeer's technique, but also to bridge the gap that lies between the understanding of an artist's painting technique and his expressive aims while at the same time providing valuable information for evaluating the artist in the art historical and philosophical context of his times.

February 5, 2003

The Essential Vermeer: Dutch seventeenth-century painters, and in particular fijnschilders such as Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch and Frans van Mieris, had achieved an extremely high degree of pictorial sophistication and technical proficiency. How might we compare Vermeer's technique to those of his contemporaries?

Jørgen Wadum: Vermeer’s somewhat limited output of paintings over an active period of about 20 years as an artist, has in the past been seen as the result of a slow, meticulous and painstaking painting process. However, examining Vermeer’s paintings it becomes obvious that rather than being a fijnschilder, he actually exercised less refined technique than one at first would associate with his works. Primarily in his early ambitious history paintings Vermeer exercises a blunt way of applying his paint, actually recalling Marshall Smith's comments from 1692 on Rembrandt’s technique: ‘Rembrandt had a Bold Free way, Colours layd with a great Body, and many times in Old Mens Heads extraordinary deep Shaddows, very difficult to Copy, the Colours being layd on Rough and in full touches, though sometimes neatly Finish'd’1 The vigour with which the painting of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha has been executed is simply impressive – even the scale of painting taken into consideration. For Rembrandt’s pupil Gerrit Dou, who was almost obsessively devoted to the meticulous rendering of the tiniest objects, it is no wonder that his works took a long time to create. Dou was definitely preoccupied by inviting the spectator up close to cherish the painted objects within his paintings, sometimes even framed behind doors, referred to as displayed in ‘boxes’, ornated with trompe-l’œil or issued with painted curtains, folded aside in order to give us the opportunity to peep into his miraculous world. This, however, is an interesting divergence to the perception of Rembrandt, who is supposed to have kept visitors in his studio at a distance from his paintings in order to appreciate them better.2

For Vermeer, some of whose paintings were also allegedly kept in ‘boxes’, only one painting warrants a very close inspection without revealing its crude brushstrokes: The Girl with the Pearl Earring. In this small painting we still find the bluntness of paint application in the undermodeling of the headgear and her shoulder - protruding out towards the spectator. However, in this painting Vermeer for the only time expressed his skills as a fijnschilder: the face of the Girl is exquisitely subtle in handling, with a softness in paint application that makes the transition between the huge tonal variety found in her face almost invisible. Blended paint obscures any sharp contour or edge of the girl’s nose, yet the eyes are sharply rendered. Most surprising, in the middle of this delicate depiction of facial features, one observes the blunt, almost provocative highlights at the corners of the mouth. In these highlights (and the one in the left corner of her mouth even consists of two light pink brushstrokes superimposed) Vermeer clearly sets himself off from the fijnschilder's. This is not his ambition after all; rather, his goal is to portray the tonal values, the indication of a subtle spatial illusion and the essential capturing of a charismatic intimacy between the girl and the spectator.

What do feel is the most significant single difference between the painting methods and materials of Vermeer and those of his contemporaries?

There is no other seventeenth century artist that from very early on in his career employed, in the most lavish way, the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli, natural ultramarine. Not only do we see it used in elements that are intended to be shown as blue, like a woman’s’ skirt, a sky, the headband on the Girl with the Pearl Earring and in the satin dress of his late Lady Seated at the Virginal. Vermeer also used the lapis lazuli widely as underpaint in, for example, the deep yet murky shadow area below the windows in the Music Lesson and the Glass of Wine. The wall below the windows - an area in these paintings in the most intense shadow as opposed to the strong light entering through the windows above - was composed by Vermeer by first applying a dark natural ultramarine, thus indicating an area void of light. Over this first layer he then scumbled varied layers of earth colours in order to give the wall a certain appearance: the earth colours, umber or ochre, should be understood as reflected warm light from the strongly lit interior, reflecting its multiple colours back onto the wall. This working method most probably was inspired by Vermeer’s understanding of Leonardo’s observations (something I have elaborated on in "Contours of Vermeer")3 that the surface of every object partakes of the colour of the adjacent object. This means that no object is ever seen entirely in its natural colour. A comparable but even more remarkable yet effectual use of natural ultramarine is in the Girl with a Wineglass. The shadows of the red satin dress are underpainted in natural ultramarine, and due to this underlying blue paint layer, the red lake and vermillion mixture applied over it acquires a slightly purple, cool and crisp appearance that is most powerful.

Even after Vermeer’s supposed financial breakdown after the so-called rampjaar (year of disaster) in 1672, he continued to employ natural ultramarine most generously, such as in the above-mentioned Lady Seated at a Virginal. This could suggest that Vermeer would have been supplied with materials by a collector – something again adding additional weight to John Michael Montias’ most convincing theory of Pieter Claesz. van Ruijven being Vermeer’s patron.

In 1994 you conducted the restoration of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. As a result, the picture’s masterful three-dimensional effect, brilliant colour scheme and subtleties of expression can again be appreciated. In Vermeer Illuminated 4, many fascinating details of the restoration have been reported. However, a day-by-day physical contact with perhaps Vermeer’s most intimate work must have made itself felt. Would you be so kind as to share with us some of those feelings? Could you describe any particularly significant moment in your investigation and/or restoration of Vermeer’s painting?


Girl with a Pearl Earring
(detail)
Johannes Vermeer

A Dutch newspaper reporter in 1994, after an interview about the public restoration of both the Girl with the Pearl Earring and the View of Delft, concluded that I after months of work on the painting had fallen in love with the Girl. I would prefer to describe my work on the restoration as comparable to that of a surgeon carrying out a delicate operation. Whether on an unknown citizen or a celebrity, the care for the operation is more important than eventual emotions relating to the body in intensive care. However, I cannot escape the fact that every square millimetre of this painting has forever been rooted into my memory – and thus also the impression of how Vermeer created the image. The intimacy of the girl’s gaze towards the spectator is extraordinary – and prompts great admiration for the maker. Recalling just how yellow and murky the pigmented varnish that I removed was, I became amazed that the painting had caused the attention it did in its former condition. A painting with such exquisite qualities that for decades had been deliberately obscured became a painful reality. Being the privileged one to rediscover under old retouching the highlights at the corners of the extremely sensual, moist mouth was exceptional. Additionally, after removing a stray paint particle that gave the pearl an imaginative third highlight, the earring was restored to a closer appearance to what was Vermeer’s creation. Therefore, having been part of a team of people who were able to reveal so much of what the artist almost 350 years ago aimed at depicting is an exceptional honour – something that makes one humble towards the skill of the maker of this breathtaking painting.

In your study Vermeer in Perspective5 of Vermeer’s use of the "pinhole and string method" of perspective construction, you very ably bridged the gap between Vermeer’s painting methods and artistic expression, revealing more accurately his original intentions and the way and his contemporaries may have viewed his work. Do you feel that further study of Vermeer’s painting technique might yield other insights into Vermeer's work, and if so in what direction?

Each generation perceives and describes the impressions gained from Vermeer’s works based on the intellectual baggage and the reception they master. Obviously a future generation will find new relations within Vermeer’s visual oeuvre – aided by further archival study and technical observations of Vermeer’s contemporaries. Vermeer’s paintings have been the subjects of close study already for more than a century after Thoré-Bürger ‘re-discovered’ the Delft artist. However, it has so far been possible to disclose new aspects of Vermeer’s technique. Moreover, I would think that further comprehension of how 17th century maesenases collected and also displayed their collections might add information we do not understand fully today. Viewing the known oeuvre of Vermeer, it becomes obvious that the direction in which light falls in his paintings vary. In most works it enters the scene from the left; in a few from the right. Could we understand part of the oeuvre as created to fit a collector’s ‘gallery’ and how the light fell in that room? Is it conceivable that van Ruijven acquired paintings from his favourite artist with this in mind, equal to the manner with which the artist Jacob van Campen, working under the supervision of Constantijn Huygens, perceived the Oranjezaal outside The Hague? For this interior it was stated that within certain paintings the light should be painted entering from the left and in others from the ‘wrong side’ (the right). This was done in order to complete for the spectator the illusion of natural light and painted light following the same laws of nature.

Pieter Fransz. de Grebber in his 1648-rules of painting (in my view prompted by his engagement in the making of the Oranjezaal) wrote: "…there are various reasons for knowing where a piece [painting] will hang before it is made; for the light; for the height at which it will hang; in order to position our distance and horizon…"6 Would the concept about this notion also have been valid to Vermeer’s understanding of composing paintings? Whether we together-- conservators, scientists, (art) historians-- in the future will be able to solve questions like these remains to be seen.

Some historians believe that the 34-36 extant works by Vermeer represent a significant part of the artists' total output. Thus, in the span of his short 20-year career he most likely painted from two to three paintings a year, a slim number by any standard. Do you feel that such a low output can be explained more easily by peculiarities of his painting methods or by other factors?

Montias has made a most qualified estimate of Vermeer’s possible total output close to 50 paintings. The reason for his possible small production (some paintings may obviously have been lost, some may have an erroneous attribution) could equally be explained by the fact that he by no means was forced to paint in order to earn his living for his family and himself. His mother-in-law supplied him with sufficient financial means. On top of this the prices he obtained for his painting also were relatively high. We just need to recall the diary entry by the French diplomat and scientist De Monconys. In 1663 he paid a visit to Vermeer where he apparently saw none of the master’s works. However, at the Delft baker Hendrik van Buyten he saw one of Vermeer’s paintings showing a single figure. Monconys found the price, six hundred livres, unjustified. This price was equal to a painting he was to see a few days later by the fijnschilder Gerrit Dou, for which Dou asked the amazed Frenchman an equal amount of money.

Vermeer’s painting technique as such, the way of applying the paint, was in no way restrained by a meticulous style comparable to the fijnschilder’s. His low output was rather caused by the need for a long mental process before he was satisfied with the image. Vermeer needed a long period of maturing his works in order to reach an acceptance of having reached the final and aesthetically pleasant accomplishment. As many authors in the past have observed, Vermeer in many paintings deleted earlier rendered elements from his interiors. In lectures, I have shown digital reconstructions of how crammed some of his paintings may have been at earlier stages in their making. These are in particularly evident in the Girl with the Pearl Necklace, the Woman with the Water Pitcher, but also in the early Woman Reading a Letter by the Window.

In Vermeer Illuminated we illustrated that on one of the small women in the foreground of the View of Delft Vermeer painted grey vertical lines over so-called premature cracks in her black skirt. As this sort of drying cracks in paint does not form over night, Vermeer could therefore have applied this modest detail only after the painting had been sitting in his studio for a considerable amount of time. Elements like these prove that the timeframe he needed to reach the finished image was without limit – and not necessarily equivalent to the hours actually spend applying the paint.

In a number of late paintings Vermeer employed green earth, a dull green pigment, in the rendering of the shadows of the flesh tones. Although this pigment had been widely used by medieval painters for the preparation of flesh tones for panel paintings, its use gradually diminished in favor of more the natural appearing brown earth tones except among some later mannerist painters. Why do you believe Vermeer may have favored such a use green earth and by whom do you believe it use may have been suggested?

To speculate from where Vermeer may have been influenced would be most hazardous. Recent research into the painting technique of Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), an artist often referred to as a possible teacher or inspiration for Vermeer, has not been able to be substantiated – rather on the contrary (see forthcoming Mauritshuis exh. cat. Carel Fabritius (1622 - 1654), 25 September 2004 through 9 January 2005. Artists employing green earth in flesh tones in a comparable way as observed in Vermeer’s women have hitherto not been found in Dutch 17th-century painting. There is but one possible link, however far-fetched it could well be: Italian paintings. Archival research has revealed that several collectors in Rotterdam, Dordrecht and possibly also in Delft possessed Italian paintings. However, it may be more important that both Vermeer’s father but also Vermeer himself were dealing in paintings. This metier, together with his public duty as the headman of the Painters Guild in Delft, gave him the reputation of a connoisseur of Italian painting. We recall how Vermeer, together with a colleague Johannes Jordaens, was called to The Hague to evaluate a collection of Italian paintings offered to the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP). Vermeer’s conclusion was firm and resolute; the paintings were not Italian at all, on the contrary, great pieces of rubbish not worth much. He would necessarily have had the knowledge to argue for this devastating ordeal.

Thus, his knowledge of Italian art and possibly also painting techniques could have proven influential over his own choice of materials – and thus the green earth pigment employed in the shadow areas in the incarnates of his later figures.

In his writings, Arthur Wheelock, and other scholars familiar with the Vermeer's painting technique, have often referred to the technique called glazing. Would you please briefly explain the fundamental characteristics of this technique and, judging by your observation, the extent to which Vermeer actually employed it in his painting? Would you please cite a specific example of glazing in Vermeer’s painting?

A glaze is a thin film of translucent paint laid oven an already dry underpaint. The superimposed layer of paint will change the tonality of the lower layer by filtering the colours of both when reflected into our eye. Therefore the total colour effect of a glazed area of a painting will have a luminous quality which differs from that of light reflected from a solid, opaque paint layer. Adding a colorant to a binding medium, typically a drying oil, produces a glaze. A colorant can often not be discerned even under high magnification, contrary to a scumble. A scumble is a thin layer of opaque or semi opaque paint in medium rich paint. Such a scumble allows the underpaint to shimmer through between the loosely distributed pigments of the scumble. Also this produces a mix of multi coloured stimuli to our eye.

Vermeer, like most of his contemporaries, employed both techniques. The scumble was utilized when applying the subdued ochre tint over the ultramarine underpaint on the walls in deep shadow below some of the windows in his interiors. Also the loosely distributed large lead-white particles applied over the underpaint of the cityscape of the View of Delft fit this characteristic. However, this scumble was again to be covered by the transparent glaze of red lake that gave the tiled roofs their deep red glow.

In your essay, Contours of Vermeer, you have proposed that the chronological order of Vermeer’s painting might be beneficially revised based on a thorough study of Vermeer’s materials and painting techniques. For these ends, which technical factors should be taken into consideration? Has any progress been made since in this area?

It is extremely chancy to propose this kind of revisions, and arguments will to a certain degree be also based on subjective impressions. Although I still feel uncomfortable with the chronology of some of Vermeer’s paintings it is primarily in the early oeuvre that the largest difficulties are found. How did Vermeer reach from the indeed very bluntly painted Christ in the House of Maria and Martha to the much more subtle execution of D Rembrandt Research Project (RRP)? And what made Vermeer transform these themes into the most eloquent Procuress, signed 1656, with its finely conceived anatomical elements such as the woman’s hand receiving the money? This early painting, recently restored, reveals a most impressive luminosity with its abundance of colours. This painting is now an even more important calibration point for the early oeuvre than ever before. We may expect some adjustments after this impressive restoration achievement by our colleagues in Dresden. And what caused the metamorphosis in Vermeer’s production from history painting into small-scale, quiet domestic genre scenes?

Considering the slim number of extant Vermeer paintings and the great strides made in the scientific analysis of his canvases, an overall systematic analysis might yield precious information regarding both Vermeer's techniques and consequentially his expressive aims. Does there already exist an analogous project or are there any future plans for such a study?

JW: By producing a very thorough technical and (art) historical analysis of an artist’s oeuvre, we gain an insight into his artistic methodology and materials choice and utilization. By examining one artist to this high degree, similar to what has been done so eloquently by the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), we achieve a comprehensive understanding of a particular artist. By describing some of the astonishing discoveries within one such oeuvre, we may exacerbate the value of this discovery – just because we are lacking enough comparative material. From the very outset of the materials research into Vermeer’s technique that we undertook at the Mauritshuis in the mid 1990’s, we carefully and with gratitude made extensive use of the Rembrandt Research Project documentation. By doing this, we were able to restrain our excitement about seemingly remarkable revelations within Vermeer’s oeuvre that in a larger context become more commonplace. What I am aiming at saying is that research into other 17th century artists other than Rembrandt, Vermeer and the like will yield a much greater understanding, revealing more about the artistic achievements during this period.

In the Netherlands, the MolArt project and the current De Mayerne research project, whose aim it is to scientifically and (art) historically examine 17th century artists materials and techniques, as well as the issue of material deterioration, will be most important in achieving further insights in this matter.7 Any monographic study of materials and techniques, like those from the past including Jan Steen, Van Goyen and Albert Cuyp, as well as the current Mauritshuis examination of Carel Fabritius’ oeuvre, will add important pieces to the puzzle about artists of the past and their innovative manner of utilizing known materials. The way artists experimented with employing these materials in a novel way, as well as a sense of how modern materials could be created and substituted for those with proven shortcomings, are visualized. We should not underestimate to which degree a 17th century artist was aware that certain materials were prone to a quick alteration due to incapability of materials or just as a sheer influence of external factors such as excessive light and fluctuation of humidity.

With more artists’ oeuvres thoroughly examined, we shall reach a level of knowledge that may even reveal that what we claim as rare and unique achievements of only a few great artists we in the present know a good deal about are actually more generalized achievements: perhaps Rembrandt, Dou and Vermeer will end up being much more children of their time. However, this will in no way diminish the attraction of the great artists; on the contrary, they will have achieved with comparable materials to their own generation more outstanding creations that survived the judgment of centuries of spectators – not because of the materials they used but primarily for the way they utilized them to reach such exquisite artistic qualities.

Based on technical considerations, do you feel that the authorship of any painting(s) by Vermeer ought to be reconsidered?

At the Vermeer-symposium in The Hague in 1995, I was the first to advance the questioning about the authorship of the Saint Praxedis, based on a close examination of the painting itself compared with early accepted works by Vermeer. Part of this lecture was included in my article "Contours of Vermeer" from 1998. My arguments then presented are now being further substantiated by new observations and supplementary scientific examinations. On the other hand, and on the flip side of the case with the Saint Praxedis, there may well be other paintings traditionally attributed to Vermeer which in recent years have been rejected but, after renewed insights and thanks to the vast technical material now available on Vermeer, may prove to be genuine works by the master himself. I’m quite convinced that the artist’s oeuvre soon may increase with yet another outstanding work.

If you could ask Mr. Johannes Vermeer a single question, what would you wish to know?

If we could have lunch on Saint Luke’s day.

Bibliography

  • WADUM, Jørgen, Vermeer Illuminated. Conservation, Restoration and Research. With contributions by L. Struik van der Loeff and R. Hoppenbrouwers (1994) The Hague.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and His Use of Perspective", in Preprints Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice. University of Leiden, 26-29 June (1995) 148-154. Malibu.
  • WADUM, Jørgen & N. Costaras, Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ De- & Re-Restored, in Restauration, Dé-Restauration, Re-Restauration... ARAAFU (1995) 163-172. Paris.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Vermeer in Perspective", in exh.cat. Johannes Vermeer, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Royal Cabinet of Pictures Mauritshuis, The Hague (1995-1996) 67-79.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Les audaces techniques de Vermeer", in Dossiers de l´Art 27, (1996), Paris, 30-39.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Des perspectives curieuses et extraordinaires", in Dossiers de l´Art 27, (1996), Paris, 42-49.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Vermeer and the Spatial Illusion", in The World of Learning in the time of Vermeer (exh.cat.), Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum (Museum of the Book), The Hague, (1996), 31-49.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Gemälde mögen einige hundert Jahre bestehen, was genügt..." Zwei Gemälde von Johannes Vermeer restauriert, in Restauro 3 (1996). München, 172-177.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Vermeers zielgerichtete Beobachtungen", in cat. Johannes Vermeer. Der Geograph und der Astronom nach 200 Jahren wieder vereint. Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Franckfurt am Main 15.05.-13.07. (1997) 31-38.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, "Contours of Vermeer", in Vermeer Studies. Studies in the History of Art, 55. Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers XXXIII, eds. I. Gaskel and M. Jonker. Washington/New Haven (1998) 201-223.
  • WADUM, Jørgen, review of Vermeer’s camera: Uncovering the truth behind the masterpieces, by Philip Steadman. 202 pp. incl. 10 col. pls. + 72 b. & w. figs. (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001). ISBN 0-19-215967-4, in ArtMatters - Netherlands Technical Studies in Art (1) 2002, pp. 126-127.
  • See also:

  • Carol Pottasch, Ruth Hoppe and Elmer Kolfin, Diana, "Vermeer and technical ambiguity. The metamorphosis of an early painting by Vermeer," in ArtMatters - Netherlands Technical Studies in Art (1) 2002, pp.90-103.
  1. M[arshall] S[mith], The art of painting, according to the theory and practice of the best Italian, French and Germane masters, London 1693 (2e edition), p. 22.
  2. A. Houbraken, De groote schouburgh der Nederlandtsche konstschilders en schilderessen. Amsterdam (1718-1721), vol. I, p. 269: "…de menschen, als zy op zyn schilderkamer kwamen, en zyn werk van digteby wilden bekyken, te rug trok…"
  3. J. Wadum, "Contours of Vermeer", in Vermeer Studies. Studies in the History of Art, 55. Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers XXXIII, eds. I. Gaskel and M. Jonker. Washington/New Haven (1998), pp. 201-223.
  4. J. Wadum, Vermeer Illuminated. Conservation, Restoration and Research. With contributions by L. Struik van der Loeff and R. Hoppenbrouwers (1994) The Hague, 1994.
  5. J. Wadum, "Vermeer in Perspective", in exh.cat. Johannes Vermeer, ed. Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr, with contributions by Wheelock, Albert Blankert, Ben Broos, and Jørgen Wadum. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC and Mauritshuis, The Hague. New Haven, CT, London and Zwolle, 1995. pp 67-79
  6. P.J.J Van Thiel, "De Grebbers regels van de Kunst", Oud-Holland 80 (1965), pp. 126-31.
  7. See http://www.amolf.nl/research/biomacromolecular_mass_spectrometry/molart/molart.html Molecular Aspects of Ageing in Painted Works of Art (MolArt), and http://www.nwo.nl/nwohome.nsf/pages/NWOP_5TGBPY_Eng The De Mayerne research program.
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