From the show-stopping gaze of Girl with a Pearl Earring to the picture-perfect sky captured in View of Delft, Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer has beguiled generations of 17th-century Dutch Baroque art fans. Some of this celebrity is owed to the undeniable beauty of his paintings, but it’s the mysteries that surround him that compound his allure. Very little is known of his life, and particularly his artistic training. For this reason the incredible accuracy of his works has led many to ask: just how did Vermeer paint? In this article, we will explore the techniques that Vermeer most likely used in his paintings and use examples of his work to explain these these techniques.
Given the incredible success that Vermeer has posthumously achieved, art historians and enthusiasts have worked to piece together his backstory. Vermeer spent most of his career in the Dutch city of Delft. It seems he married in his twenties, after inheriting his father’s art dealership. He went on to have a large family (city records suggest that he fathered more than ten children). Somewhere between all these major life events – taking over a business, getting married, and starting a family – Vermeer also launched his art career. How he found the time to do so, and with whom he trained, continue to perplex scholars of his work.
No concrete records survive to share the narrative of Vermeer’s artistic training. During the Baroque era, artists would often vie for space within the studio of a noted artist. Here they could learn from their work or take advantage of resources and connections. We can imagine that Vermeer must have followed such a path. We may never know, however, with whom he studied. This question continues to prove especially confounding because the work he produced was very novel for its day. Had his paintings merely emulated the fleshy bodies of Flemish contemporary Peter Paul Rubens or the dramatic tenebrism of Rembrandt van Rijn, one might be able to surmise his artistic lineage. But Vermeer’s paintings transcend those of his contemporaries and competitors, like Gabriel Metsu, for their remarkable realism conveyed through color and light.
Capitalizing on the Camera Obscura
Scrutiny of Vermeer’s painterly technique has led to various theories as to how he could capture such delicate detail. One leading hypothesis is that Vermeer relied on a variation of a camera obscura. An optical device with a history tracing far back into antiquity, the camera obscura allows an artist to broadcast a reflection of an image onto a surface for tracing. Literally translated as “dark room,” the camera obscura uses an “oculus,” a small hole cut into one side of a box (a small as a box camera or as large as a room). When inside this darkened space, the oculus allows for the illuminated image of the world outside to be projected. This illumination is illustrated well in James Ayscough’s 1755 print. The advantage of this reflection, despite its inversion, was that it offered a clear image of whatever subject or form was outside. An artist could then trace this onto their canvas.
It would seem that visual evidence in Vermeer’s paintings supports the idea that he relied upon a lens system like the camera obscura. In paintings like The Lacemaker or Girl with the Red Hat, one can see that while the mid-ground of the composition is crisp and clear in its focus, the foreground appears slightly hazy or blurry. This distortion would be typical if one were using a device like the camera obscura; its reflective properties can manipulate the depth of field conveyed. Another clue is the prevalence across many of Vermeer’s paintings of pointillés, or points of color similar to dots or dabs of paint. These points of color, like those that articulate the luster of individual pearls in the jewelry box of Woman Holding a Balance, convey the luminous pinpoints of light that would be more obvious in a reflection.
Vermeer’s Compositional Variations
Vermeer was able to carry these captivating visual effects to many of his paintings that explored a variety of subjects. The majority of his roughly 40 works that survive, though, can be categorized into two main fields:
1. Religious Paintings
Apparently a devout Catholic, Vermeer was known to express his devotion to his faith in several of his compositions while also emphasizing the humanity of his subjects. Saint Praxedis, for example, considered potentially one of Vermeer’s earliest paintings, reveals a tender portrayal of the young female saint as she wrings a sponge filled with the blood of the beheaded martyr behind her into a vessel, while also clinging to a delicate crucifix. The same could be said of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, where the close positioning of the three figures and the gentle, hopeful gaze of Mary as she kneels at the feet of Christ conveys a striking relatable sensation for the viewer. Such paintings emphasized the humanity of these religious figures to heighten their devotional quality.
At the same time, Vermeer also explored the power of the allegorical image to showcase his religious inclinations. In paintings like Allegory of the Catholic Faith, for example, Vermeer depicted an elegantly dressed woman who gazes up at a gilt crucifix and presses her hand to her chest as if overcome with spirituality. Behind her is a colossal and vibrant painting of the same scene of the crucifixion, allowing the viewer to relive the intense moment alongside this female subject. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns this painting, identifies this woman as a symbol of the Catholic Church, so the fact that she rests her foot on a terrestrial globe implies Catholicism’s reach around the world.
2. Interior Genre Paintings
While a painting like Allegory of the Catholic Faith correlates with Vermeer’s commitment to his faith, it also falls into an even larger category of Vermeer’s paintings, known as “genre scenes” or “genre paintings”. Genre paintings are compositions that depict scenes from everyday life; they became very popular as early as the sixteenth century. Vermeer’s genre paintings offer a marvellous snapshot of Dutch daily life. Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, for example, shows us a rather elegantly dressed woman drafting her correspondence. Flooded by the light coming through the window at left, her dazzling brooch and earrings glisten as she focuses on her writing. The maid waits behind her, seemingly dutiful, yet gazing out of the window with a sense of longing. The same qualities are found in paintings like The Music Lesson, where we find a young woman clothed in refined Dutch dress as she plays a type of harpsichord. Next to her appears a male singing companion, perhaps in the middle of a lesson.
These genre paintings often took on their own form of veiled symbolism for the viewer to interpret. Such could be said of the oil painting The Procuress. In a setting commonly interpreted as a brothel, a man gropes a young woman at the right of the tableau; she extends her right hand to receive the coin the gentleman is about to drop into it. Meanwhile, another figure in black – identified as the brothel’s procuress, or madam manager – looks at them with greedy eyes. Another figure to her left, wearing elaborate garments, gazes out at the viewer with a rather sly grin as if to allude to the debauchery to come. Perhaps a commentary on the sinful indulgence of such lustful pursuits, Vermeer’s painting showcases these subtle references that added to the compelling quality of his work.
Less bawdy is the Allegory of Painting, which is rumored by some scholars to showcase a self-portrait of Vermeer himself (seen from behind in the role of the artist we see at the easel). The comparison is often made between this figure and that sly-grinned gentleman in The Procuress, who has also been interpreted as depicting the artist.
Despite these variations in subjects, these paintings all share compositional elements that have led scholars to believe that Vermeer used his studio space as the backdrop. One can note that the floor tiles are identical across all three paintings, and both Lady Writing a Letter and The Music Lesson illustrate the same tracery on the exposed window. Props are also reused, from the azure-blue upholstered chair to the carpet artfully draped across different furnishings. These commonalities serve as little reminders for us as the viewer of the humanity of Vermeer, whose endless creativity perhaps was bound only by the limitations of the decor available to him in his studio.
Journeying Through Jan Vermeer’s Work
While questions will forever endure over the exact details of Vermeer’s life and artistic training, his paintings tell their own fascinating stories that can illuminate the artist himself. The delicate details of Vermeer’s paintings reveal captivating windows into 17th-century Dutch life, and the brilliant light that illuminated his paintings equally reveals his remarkable skill as a painter. Don’t stop your journey through these Dutch masterworks here; keep exploring Vermeer paintings and prints to learn why so many love his art.