Watching the excellent programme on BBC4 by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s profiling the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, reminded me of our holiday in Ireland last August. While we were in Dublin we visited the Irish National Gallery, and 0ne of the highlights of the visit was his painting Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (painted around 1670).
The painting has an interesting recent history. In 1974, when it was privately owned, together with other works by Goya, Gainsborough and Rubens, it was stolen by the IRA. It was recovered after only 8 days, but was stolen again in 1986 by a gang led by the notorious Irish criminal, Martin Cahill (known as “the General”) who demanded a ransom of £20 million. It was recovered in 1993 following a “sting” operation by the Irish police. The owner had obviously had enough and before it was recovered had donated it to the Irish National Gallery.
One of the things I like about Vermeer’s work is that his paintings are full of light and bright colours. In this respect they are different from the works by many of his contemporaries which are often rather dark and gloomy. It was interesting to compare Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid with the painting by Rembrandt Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1647), also on display in the Irish National gallery.
Of course the latter is set during the night, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that its rather dark, but the same is true for many of his other paintings. Vermeer’s are very different with liberal use of blues and yellows. During the 17th century the pigments used in such paints were extremely expensive, so perhaps this at least partially accounts for the relatively small number of works he produced. There are only 34 paintings currently attributed to Vermeer. Many of them, though, are well known. Particularly “ Girl with a Pearl Earring”, which is sometimes referred to as “the Mona Lisa of the North”.
There are about 1,400 drawings known to have been created by Rembrandt . In contrast are no drawings that can be attributed to Vermeer. Not many artists produce as many as Rembrandt, who was a particularly skilled draughtsman, but the preparation of a work of art normally involves preparatory sketches and drawings, and some would normally be expected to survive.
One theory that could account for the lack of drawings by Vermeer, suggested by some people, including David Hockney in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters and the physicist Charles M. Falco, is that he used optical techniques including a camera obscura. There’s a good discussion of this theory here and here.
The camera obscura projects an image onto the canvas or other surface being painted, and this can be transferred by tracing or pin pricking. The image is upside down, but this does not present a problem for a skilled practitioner. The use of this technique has also been attributed to other artists, including Van Eyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, and Ingres.
Not everyone agrees with the theory, but to me, whether or not he used the camera obscura is immaterial. The skills of the artist are arranging in the composition and applying the paint (or other medium) to produce something that pleases the eye and the senses and moves the observer. And that is exactly what Vermeer does in his works.
An excellent resource on Vermeer, his life and work, is available here
Picture credits: Wikimedia commons