Perhaps no two rooms were more heavily reimagined and scrutinized in art history than the studios of Johannes Vermeer, the beloved Dutch artist, an enchanter with his carefully and meticulously crafted mise-en-scènes. With his famously coveted usage of ultramarine, telling tales hewn in the luxurious pigmentation of lapis lazuli, the many speckles of light that lulled the viewer into a make-belief world of light and textures, to his famously rendered models that seemed to be stuck behind a canvas wherein the flow of time stopped to accommodate some faraway internal affair, it may be a shocking revelation today that the very existence of the master, Johannes Vermeer had laid forgotten for the better portion of two entire centuries with his works being credited to his contemporaries. 

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Since his rediscovery, the artist and his works still elude many art critics and historians as to the intricacies and the techniques that may have been essential to craft a Vermeer. Let’s take an indulgent trip down memory lane to understand that which the master may have revealed!

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A Girl Asleep (c.1656) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

His Life – The Little that has been Revealed

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Johannes Vermeer was born towards the beginning of the 17th century in the city of Delft in Southern Netherlands, which was, at the time, taking shape to be one of the first modern cities in the world. Being the lap of what could be considered modern, Delft had a quaint history that had celebrated the merchant middle class and encouraged small businesses and artisans of all nature. 

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View on Delft (c.1660) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

Vermeer himself had a patron that supported and bought his works for most of his short-lived life but the same kind gesture also limited the popularity of his works to his hometown of Delft and the Hague. He had carried out the family business of art dealing and was well-reputed within his hometown so much so that he had headed a trade association for painters. Vermeer had shown a certain devotion to his art. Inspired by masters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, Vermeer specialized in crafting conceptualized pieces that depicted the domestic life within Delft. 

Much of his paintings were done in the studio of a two-storeyed house owned by his in-laws and shared with his wife and eleven children so much so that it comes across as a surprise that the great artist may have rendered, documented, and warped the settings of the small house in the numerous paintings that were produced after the 1660s. 

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The Little Street (c.1658) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org
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Reconstructions of the home of Johannes Vermeer based on The Little Street_©kalden.home.xs4all.nl
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Simple Reconstruction of the plan of Johannes Vermeer’s Home_©nature.com

In his later years, Vermeer was deeply affected by the Bubonic Plague, the Delft Thunderclap, and the Franco-Dutch War. Johannes Vermeer died in 1675 unable to sell his last paintings and in debt. The artist had remained forgotten for the next two centuries until his rediscovery by art historian Gustav Waagen and art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger, whose research had Vermeer renowned around the globe. Today, 34 paintings are credited to Johannes Vermeer, a testament to his tedious life, one in which he had still managed to contribute immensely to Dutch Baroque.

The Painter of the Unseen

Johannes Vermeer was a painter of the common man. Following the Renaissance and the Golden Ages that saw the mass representation of prominent figures, aristocrats, and monarchs, Vermeer stained the hems of Baroque’s canvas with the portrayal of domestic life and its many pleasures. In his painting ‘The Little Street’ (c.1658), Vermeer represents an unfiltered depiction of rural Dutch life focusing exclusively on the life of the average woman as shown in brilliant pops of vermillion, amber, and lemon yellowa woman sweeping in the courtyard, a young girl playing in the street with her companion and an older lacemaker working away in her foyerpaying homage to the rural character with it’s boarded up a collage of windows and inherent ruggedness and championing the laborers of everyday life.

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Details of Human Figures in The Little Street (c.1658)_©upload.wikimedia.org

Johannes Vermeer is famous for his depiction of ordinary women and their quiet existence in his Dutch society. He had portrayed them as being self-sufficient, conducting themselves with dignity, and being thoroughly capable of entertaining themselves, being talented and indulgent with the secret affairs of their everyday lives. Vermeer painted the famous ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ (c.1665) depicting the detailed portraiture of a young girl frozen with her face aghast, her only possession being a cheap glass orb that could pass for a pearl earring. 

Paintings like ‘The Lacemaker’ (c.1669) and the ‘The Milkmaid’ (c.1657) depict representatives of the guild of people that helps all other classes of life shuttle through and function. Paintings such as the ‘Officer and the Laughing Girl’ (c.1657) show the rather ordinary side of life with its simple pleasures and a certain sense of equality and dignity.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org
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The Lacemaker (c.1669) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

The Master of Light and Colours

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Officer and the Laughing Girl (c.1657) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

Johannes Vermeer has often been nicknamed ‘the master of light’ due to his understanding of the unique ways in which different surfaces react to light. With all Vermeer paintings, there is a certain mastery to the way the many objects are depicted, their feel, and their influence on their surroundings. Vermeer had followed Leonardo da Vinci’s ideologies on colors that dictated that every color is governed by every other color in its vicinity, in other words, a yellow fabric would never truly be yellow as such but rather an ochre with the accented highlights of yellow.

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Details in the View on Delft (c.1660)_©upload.wikimedia.org
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The Milkmaid (c.1657) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

The paint was layered heavily to achieve depth and fine-haired brushes were used to achieve the minute detailing in a Vermeer. The wet-on-wet technique was used to achieve smoother finishes like skin and in some cases, paint was laid on heavily to suggest the presence of something thick or rough.

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Details of the Wall in The Milkmaid (c.1657)_©drawpaintacademy.com
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Soft and Delicate texturing of Skin in comparison to rough clothes and pottery in The Milkmaid (c.1657)_©drawpaintacademy.com
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Detailed textures of Food, Fabric and Utensils in The Milkmaid (c.1657)_©drawpaintacademy.com
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Girl with a Red Hat (c.1665) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

Johannes Vermeer has also famously worked with the use of complementary hues to suggest highlights and shadows optimally, almost as a means of exaggeration. This can be seen explicitly in ‘Girl with a Red Hat’ (c.1665) The shadows on the hat have a blue undertone which in turn makes the exposed scarlet on the same appear brighter, the ruddy complexion of the girl is further enhanced using green shadows and the cloak dawned by the girl is given yellow highlights which gives it a glistening appearance or the impression of silk or velvet. Further, Vermeer makes use of tinted highlights such as the pale turquoise dot on the eye inducing a glimmer brought on by light and the pale pink dot inside the mouth suggesting wetness. This is uncommon as the general practice involves the usage of lead white to depict spots of light.

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Details of Girl with a Red Hat (c.1665) by Johannes Vermeer_©twitter.com

The Linear Perspective, Compositions, and the Camera Obscura Debate

One thing that was peculiar to the paintings of Vermeer was his usage of the linear perspective. An uncommon feat for his era, one can often spot the punctures left by Johannes Vermeer in his attempts to lay down the baselines for his compositions using a pin and a thread. Hence, most of his paintings have a unique focal point.

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Encircled Area shows a Pin-and-Thread employed to get the perpectives in The Milkmaid (c.1657)_©drawpaintacademy.com
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The Puncture on The Milkmaid (c.1657) can be traced to reveal her Field of Vision, the Viewer observes her and what she sees
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The Key Perspective lines on the Woman Holding a Balance (c.1665) with its focus on the Woman’s pinky
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Perspectives and Composition of the Lady Standing at the Virginal (c.1662)_©The Master of Light – Documentary
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Perspective reconstruction of Vermeer’s A Lady Standing at a Virginal (c.1662)_©essentialvermeer.com
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Elevation Reconstructed for the Lady Standing at a Virginal (c.1662) showing the use of Camera Obscura_©essentialvermeer.com
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Elevation Reconstructed for the Lady Standing at a Virginal (c.1662) showing the use of Camera Obscura_©essentialvermeer.com
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Plan Reconstructed for the Lady Standing at a Virginal (c.1662) showing the use of Camera Obscura_©essentialvermeer.com
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Orthogonal Perspective for the Lady Standing at a Virginal (c.1662) showing the use of Camera Obscura_©essentialvermeer.com

As seen with the technical reconstruction of The Lady Standing at a Virginal (c.1662), we can easily deduce that Johannes Vermeer was the sole maestro when it came to his mise-en-scènes. Vermeer carefully warped the settings of his room to provide the illusion that it could be spacious or higher. In some cases, even deliberately made the paintings on his sets appear to hang at sharper angles. He played around with the sense of privacy – as though the viewer is invading in what may be a private and intimate eventwith the help of objects placed carefully to obstruct the scenea happenstance of mise-en-abyme. He did so with the help of curtains, overturned chairs, tables and pottery, and an occasional change of foreground details. Direct comparisons can be drawn by juxtaposing the above painting with The Art of Painting (c.1666) provided below.

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The Art of Painting (c.1666) by Johannes Vermeer_©upload.wikimedia.org

Perhaps one of the most debated facts in Johannes Vermeer’s career was the use of a camera obscura. Art historians suggest the use of the same as being a tool in the construction of his famous compositions, aided by the drawing table.

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Camera Obscura and it’s Production of Imagery_©essentiallyvermeer.com
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A Drawing Table that allows the viewer to see image superimposed by grids_©essentiallyvermeer.com
Details of the Lion-head on the armrest of a chair in Girl with a Red Hat (c.1665)_©The Master of Light – Documentary

Johannes Vermeer’s tale goes on to show us that things of beauty can stem out of the darkest of times and though history can sometimes leave us as an afterthought, the potential of sheer mastery is enough to surpass all censorship. Johannes Vermeer never explicitly left behind a self-portrait (though many believe the figure on the left in The Procuress (c.1656) is him. Today, this man without a face evokes numerous feelings in the viewer and captivates them, making them question who his subjects could be? What is their story? What was Vermeer’s story?

References

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  1. D Torrez. (2013). Vermeer: Master of Light (COMPLETE Documentary) [No Ads]. [Documentary]. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEior-0inxU>. [Accessed 30 June 2021].
  2. The School of Life. (2015). ART/ARCHITECTURE – Johannes Vermeer. [Documentary]. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kfeWpLry3U>. [Accessed 30 June 2021].
  3. Wikipedia (2010). Johannes Vermeer. (Last updated: 17 June 2021). Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Vermeer> [Accessed 1 July 2021].
  4. Binstock, Benjamin (2017). Interiors and interiority in Vermeer: empiricism, subjectivity, modernism. School of History and Social Sciences, Cooper Union, New York, NY, USA  (Published: 12 Jul 2017). Available at: <https://www.nature.com/articles/palcomms201768.pdf>  [Accessed 1 July 2021].
  5. Janson, Jonathan | Essential Vermeer 3.0. Vermeer and the Art of Linear Perspective: How did Vermeer Create his Perspectives?. (Last updated: 2001-2021). Available at: <http://www.essentialvermeer.com/technique/perspective/vermeer-and-perspective.html> [Accessed 2 July 2021]
  6. Janson, Jonathan | Essential Vermeer 3.0. Reconstructions of Vermeer’s Rooms. (Last updated: 2001-2021). Available at: <http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeers_rooms.html> [Accessed 2 July 2021]
  7. Steadman, Philip (2001). Vermeer’s Camera. Extracts available at: <http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeers_rooms.html> [Accessed 2 July 2021]
Author

As an eccentric ‘arch-ling’ residing in Cochin that shares a quintessential kinship with art, architecture, literature and nature. She is an individual with an ever-present urge to streamline, decode and engross herself in information from any given field.

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