Vermeer's Methodology: Why did Vermeer Paint so Few Works?

One of the most puzzling facets of Vermeer's oeuvre is its restricted dimension. As today, there are roughly 35 paintings which scholars unanimously agree upon. Albert Blankert, one of the most reputable and cautious Vermeer scholar,s wrote: "There is good reason to believe that Vermeer's artistic production was small. Three of his paintings are recorded in documents as property of the painter's widow. Twenty-one more are listed in the catalogue of an auction of paintings held in Amsterdam in 1696. Another five occur in auction catalogues from the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Remarkably enough, nearly all of these paintings can be identified. Moreover, all but a few of the thirty-odd paintings now regarded as autograph works by Vermeer are mentioned in these few sources. This provides strong evidence that the Vermeer's known today constitute nearly the entire oeuvre of the master."1

John Montias, who has analyzed every shred of historic evidence regarding Vermeer's art and life, has speculated that the total number of paintings executed between his first dated work, The Procuress (1656) and 1675, range approximately between forty and sixty, a truly paltry number if compared to the standard output, often counting into the hundreds, of Dutch painters of the Golden Age. Thus, Vermeer would have painted only two or three works a year, most likely, according to Montias, two highly finished works and one small painting of a lower price range.

On the other hand, renowned artists like Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Jan Van Goyen produced works in the hundreds; in Van Goyen's case, more than one thousand paintings have survived. Vermeer's production however, should be more fairly compared to those of artists who worked in a similar controlled manner and whose production would have been logically more limited such Gabriel Metsu, or Pieter de Hooch and specifically to the fijnschilders (fine painters), Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch and Frans van Mieris. More than one hundred paintings by Metsu and De Hooch have survived and the output of the other artists mentioned easily exceed that of Vermeer.

Even if it seems very probable that Vermeer produced only a few works other than the 35 (36?) which have survived, it is just as important to know for what reason he did so.

Technical Considerations

Detail

Vermeer's paintings present a marked illusionist quality and a seemingly high degree of detail. But under close observation, more than the quantity of detail, it is the quality of detail which is most notable. When we have the opportunity to make side-by-side comparisons between works of Vermeer and of the fijnschilders mentioned above, we are struck by the relative lack of detail in Vermeer's work. Not one of these painters every applied paint so broadly and so boldly as Vermeer did in his famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The level of detail in Dou's work, which cannot be perceived in even the most accurate printed reproductions, nears the microscopic. It is said that when the artist was complimented on his skill in painting a broom no larger than a finger nail, he remarked that the broom was unfinished, he still had three days' work to do on it. Dou, Van Mieris and Ter Borch neglected no detail or tonal change. No time was spared to insure the maximum degree of illusionism and commercial success.

Vermeer instead, especially in his mature works, took a different pictorial approach. Accuracy of tone and contour, rather than the methodic accumulation of descriptive elements and their minute description, sustain the illusion of reality. Vermeer's tonal approach is particularly evident in the deep shadows which are often flat and virtually unmodulated areas of paint. The shaded side of the woman's blue satin dress in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, is a flat unmodulated shape of deep blue that is startling. Even more so is the absolute visual authenticity obtained.

Nicola Costaras ("A Study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer," in Vermeer Studies edited by Ivan Gaskell, 1998), provides convincing objective evidence that the artist probably worked with extended periods between painting sessions. Jørgen Wadum, who restored both the Girl with a Pearl Earring and the View of Delft has this to say: "on one of the small women in the foreground of the View of Delft Vermeer painted gray vertical lines over so-called premature cracks in her black skirt. As this sort of drying of cracks in paint does not form overnight, 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."

Composition

Another factor which contributes to Vermeer's lengthy painting process is the paramount role that composition played in his work. Composition must not be confused simply with the number of elements placed more or less in the position where the artist found them in the real world, but rather, a thoughtful and meaningful ordering of those elements in order to achieve a desired artistic expression. Vermeer must have spent many long hours arranging and re-arranging the various objects he intended to represent even before he began the actual painting process. Both the objects' positions and the spatial interval between them, called negative space, are given equal expressive significance, which no other artist before or after Vermeer has achieved. X-ray images and neutron radiographs have revealed an impressive number of many major and minor corrections in Vermeer's compositions. It would seem that Vermeer was a contemplative painter who may have spent long hours meditating exact thematic and formal relationships.

Vermeer's Vision of Art

The technical and artistic complexities of Vermeer's art offer a satisfying explanation for his low output; however, they ultimately depend on a single guiding factor: Vermeer's vision of art. Although it is well known that he repeatedly drew inspiration from fellow genre painters he filtered their thematic inventions and technical findings through the light of his own personal experience. In Dutch art of the last quarter of the 17th century, Vermeer was, with the exception of Gerrit ter Borch, the only artist capable of infusing a sense of timeless dignity and moral gravity to his scenes of contemporary life which had been the prerogative of history painting. Luckily, Vermeer's lofty concept of painting was evidently shared by a few choice patrons (principally Pieter van Ruijven of Delft) and occasional clients from the social elite. John Montias believes that the relationship that Vermeer had with Van Ruijven (and with his wife Maria de Knuijt) went beyond the usual client/artist one.

More than one critic has advanced the idea that Van Ruijven played an decisive part in Vermeer's evolution as an artist (see box right). Not only did he guarantee the artist a degree of financial support and encouragement, he must have also have offered the artist entry into the world of discerning connoisseurs and powerful functionaries that constituted the highest end of the art scene of the art world in the Dutch Republic. Thus, Vermeer could develop freely his own artistic inclination differently from many other Dutch painters who were forced to produce great numbers of paintings while keeping an eye on the capricious moods of the art market. It may not be accidental that Vermeer died shortly after Van Ruijven, who had certainly bought the largest part of his artistic production. Paradoxically, it was Vermeer's own approach that was to limit the spread of his fame. By selling so few works to so few patrons located in a minor artistic center such as Delft, he had reduced drastically the possibility that his fame might spread in his own time.

Conclusion

While there are sound reasons which would lead us to believe Vermeer's output was only marginally larger than the 36 generally accepted paintings, there exist no valid evidence that might induce us to believe that Vermeer had a significantly larger output than that which has survived. Vermeer painted a restricted number of highly significant number of paintings for a few connoisseurs who shared the same vision of art.

  1. Albert Blankert, (with contributions by RUURS, Rob and VAN DE WATERING, Willem), Vermeer, Oxford, 1978, p. 9.

Recommended Books

Vermeer: The Complete Works, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
Vermeer: The Complete Works
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
1997
Johannes Vermeer,  Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
Johannes Vermeer
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
1995
Vermeer, Martin Bailey
Vermeer
Martin Bailey
1995
Vermeer and the Delft School, Walter Liedtke
Vermeer and the Delft School
Walter Liedtke
2001
Vermeer and the Art of Painting, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
Vermeer and the Art of Painting
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
1995
Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell & Micheal Jonker
Vermeer Studies
ed. Ivan Gaskell & Micheal Jonker
1995
Vermeer, Lawrence Gowing
Vermeer
Lawrence Gowing
1970
Vermeer, John Nash
Vermeer
John Nash
2002
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