Only 34 paintings are now attributed to Johannes Vermeer, one of the most celebrated 17th-century Dutch masters. Instead of volume, we get absolute craftsmanship and a great attachment to colour accuracy. How did he achieve that?
From lapis lazuli to bone black
Vermeer has been working slowly, with great care, and frequently used very expensive pigments like natural ultramarine, deep blue dye originally made by grinding semi-precious stone lapis lazuli into a powder. During the Renaissance, this most expensive pigment was often reserved for depicting the robes of angels or the Virgin Mary. Vermeer, on the other hand, applied it so lavishly for… common girl’s apron and a tablecloth in his masterpiece The Milkmaid.
His choice of pigments included also:
- lead-tin-yellow – also known as yellow of the old masters, saturated yellow pigment obtained by heating a mixture of lead and tin powders (A Lady Writing a Letter or The Milkmaid)
- madder lake – a pigment originally created from the root of the madder plant (Christ in the House of Martha and Mary or The Glass of Wine)
- vermilion – scarlet to a brick-red colour of powdered common mineral cinnabar (A Lady and Two Gentlemen)
- ochre – a mixture of iron oxide with clay; although the colour known by that name is usually associated with light brownish-yellow, the pigment itself could vary in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown (Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Love Letter)
- bone black – deep-black pigment made from bone char, i.e. material produced by charring animal bones (Study of a Young Woman, Girl with a Pearl Earring)
Helpful camera obscura
Of course with Vermeer, there is also that light vs. shadow component. For years now experts speculate painter’s application of optical devices to his work. Famous British painter David Hockney argued that Dutch master was using some combination of curved mirrors, camera obscura and camera lucida to achieve precise positioning in his compositions.
Professor Philip Steadman noted that many of artist’s works had been painted in the same room, and he found six of his paintings that are precisely the right size if they had been painted from inside a camera obscura in the room’s back wall.
Although now regarded as one of the greatest masters of Dutch Golden Age, the painter has died leaving his family in debt and fell into oblivion for almost two centuries. After his re-discovery painter’s admirers included Marcel Proust, Agatha Christie, Peter Greenaway. Salvador Dalí painted his own version of The Lacemaker and immortalized the Dutch master in The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which Can Be Used As a Table, 1934.
Johannes Vermeer, born in Delft 1632 – 1675