Andrea here, I recently saw a very entertaining article in the New York Times on a reality show—not something that would usually catch my fancy. But in this case it was about art, and an artist who fascinates me, so I took a closer read. In celebration of a mega-blockbuster exhibit currently on view at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (alas, currently sold out, but more slots may become available) Dutch TV decided to create a challenge for both amateur and professional artists to “reinvent” some of the lost works of the famous painter. The judges are Vermeer experts the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, in The Hague. The results are absolutely delightful—you can view them here on the station’s website. Isn’t it fun to see such creativity in bloom?
Johannes Vermeer captivates so many people, not only because of his extraordinary talent, but also because so few of his paintings have survived. The current exhibit showcases 25 of the the 35 painting that are known to exist. Records show that 6 more existed but have since been lost to us.
For those of you not familiar with his work, he is one of the giants of 17th century Dutch art despite how few of his paintings still exist. His meticulous depiction of domestic life of the middle class—a milkmaid in the kitchen, a a woman reading a letter, a man at work in his study—epitomize the careful attention to tiny details that characterize the prevalent style in Holland at the time. But even in an era when technical proficiency abounded, his level of nuance and detail demanded great patience and precision
Vermeer was known for his use of expensive pigments—especially ultramarine, which is made from lapis lazuli, and vermilion, which is made from cinnabar—and his masterful depiction of light. The choice of pigments is important. He did a lot of underpainting, using the expensive pigments to create a base. Layering the final color on top of the underpainting created a unique effect, adding subtle depth and richness of color.
More intriguing is the belief held by many experts in the art world that Vermeer used optical devices, including camera obscura, camera lucida and curved mirrors—in creating his remarkable images. David Hockney, the legendary contemporary artist, became fascinated by this idea because of the perspective and the quality of light in Vermeer’s paintings.
Hockney published Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters in 2001, in which he discussed his theories and presented his reasoning. He points out that optical aids help reduce a three dimension view to a two dimensional view as it projects the images captures onto a flat surface (ie. a piece of canvas or paper.) For him, it explains why Vermeer could capture the effect of light so well.
Hockney’s theory has gained a large following—for those of you interested in understanding more about the concept, I highly recommend a delightful documentary film called Tim’s Vermeer (available for rent on Amazon Prime) in which inventor Tim Jenison (a self-proclaimed non-painter) builds his own optical aids and sets out to replicate Vermeer’s techniques. It’s absolutely fascinating in so many ways as it explores ‘how we see’!
One very interesting observation was made when Jenison interviewed neurobiologist Colin Blakemore, who pointed out that “human vision cannot process information about the absolute brightness of a scene.” Which is why the use of optics would explain how Vermeer could distinguish certain shades of light.
Another titillating fact is that while no optical devices were listed an mong Vermeer’s possession after his death, the artist was good friends with the famous lens maker Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
Vermeer was well-known in his own country during his lifetime, but his fame didn’t spread beyond its borders. He was often in financial difficulties—he had 15 children, 11 of whom survived past the first few months of birth—and plagued with debt. Some art historians speculate that he may have taken a number of mundane commissions in order survive, and that explains why there are so few of his masterpieces.
I would love to go to Amsterdam to see the extraordinary exhibit of so many Vermeers in one place. Are you familiar with Vermeer’s art? Would you like to try your hand at creating a work of art that captures his domestic world? Be sure to check out what the reality show contestants came up with—it’s very inspiring!)