Vermeer the Forger- Part One
(As a change of pace, I want to post a short six part series that I had previously posted several years ago when attempting a second blog. Perhaps a half dozen bots and a couple of stumble-upons were exposed to this, so it is still, relatively speaking, factory fresh. I feel it is germane to the ongoing discussions here at POM as it is an exercise in clear-eyed interpretation of imagery. It concerns the output of the Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, whose paintings are the most sought after across all of planet Earth, though I am at a loss as to why.)
This has bothered me for a long time and so I am finally going to try and put this somewhere other than my head. Guided by a generally agreed upon chronology, I will use the paintings as a stepping stone to get a handle on how Johannes Vermeer of Delft, Holland (1632-1675) managed to feed ten surviving children, a wife and a mother-in-law on thirty some odd paintings, almost none of which sold while he was alive.
A few basic facts: Vermeer’s mother in law, Maria Thins, an assumed source for most of the household revenue, was not as wealthy as most claim. She owned rented farmland that did yield some steady income. She was Catholic and so restrained to a degree inside Protestant Holland. The fact that several debts were outstanding at Vermeer’s death strongly suggests that the family, at best, had decent credit. The fact remains that Vermeer was in need of work and that he possessed one marketable skill: The ability to render objects and persons, as well as preexisting paintings by others, with remarkable accuracy.
The Girl With a Flute is a first try. What Vermeer is doing here is courting this woman, Catherine Bolnes. He is attempting to flatter her as a model while at the same time buying an out by claiming this new projection technique he is using is an inexact science. This woman will turn up several times in Vermeer’s work as the portrait ploy will pay off in marriage.
The picture is not a success by Vermeer’s standards and he tries again, this time utilizing the soft focus effects of the system in Girl Wearing a Red Hat by having Catherine look back over her shoulder. This is an interesting pose that will return in the fabled Girl With a Pearl Earring. Aesthetically speaking, The Red Hat is an improvement and we can’t really know what the standards of the time were regarding female vanity- but, as I mentioned, she did marry him and whelp 15 kids.
Two questions: What technique was he using to get these proto-photographic effects and what was this woman doing posing for this guy?
I suspect he was using a concave mirror and was executing the picture at his father’s inn, known as Mechelen. The concave mirror technique requires a darkened space, like a draped dark room large enough to fit an easel and a painter, a small cut out to let light in and a model outside whose image is bounced off the mirror, upside down onto a blank canvas inside the darkened space. A precise sketch of the model can be made in any medium, including paint if one possesses a quick and steady hand.
Catherine Bolnes was there because she had taken up residence as a guard against her abusive father. She was about twenty one at the time the two portraits were made. Vermeer worked at his father’s inn while apprenticing at the Guild of St. Luke’s, the regulatory body for training and controlling the local artisan markets. I would add that the protection for this young woman was priced to sustain Vermeer’s apprenticeship, which was not cheap.
The house Bolnes was fleeing from was catty-corner to Vermeer’s Mechelen Inn, across Market Square at the center of downtown Delft, thirty three miles (!) south west of Amsterdam. The inn catered to officers and other government wonks so could be described as a respectable joint. The male patrons aspired to higher standing and likely saved their reprobate behavior for the bordellos. The inn was approved as a safe haven for an unmarried woman of age.
The concave mirror system had been around for more than two hundred years as a form of image projection and could by then be employed in any number of ways without great space or elaborate set up. The only drawback was that it’s depth of field was very narrow and would lend itself to no more use than for modest still life or intimate portraits as we see in the two panels featuring young Catherine. Other, more versatile techniques utilizing more sophisticated lenses had by Vermeer’s time largely displaced the concave mirror, though if on a budget as Vermeer almost certainly was, it was still serviceable as a practice tool.
Both panels are in dispute so you can take what I propose with a grain of salt if you are married to academic presumption; I will state up front that the novel/film Girl With a Pearl Earring is, as best I can put it, an entertaining implausibility. I will also pile almost all Vermeer scholarship and romance together and set it alight. Vermeer is the greatest beneficiary of revisionism in all of cultural archeology. His modest output has been infused with more magical thinking and his circumstances have been more fictionalized than any of the pre- Christian Roman emperors.
I won’t run through every attribution but I want to select a few key paintings to illustrate the progress of Vermeer’s technique and suggest why he failed in his own time.
The Procuress is of interest because here is the same problem with depth of field; all of the action is on a single plane. Even more interesting is Vermeer’s desperate attempt to compensate by filling the lower fifty percent of the picture with elaborate drapery. This is the equivalent of extending a half hour of television programming into sixty minutes with extra commercials.
I should also state categorically that the two supposed early works, Diana and Her Companions, along with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, are not on my list of Vermeer originals. The circumstances that approved them are largely why I’m bellowing about this guy and his work. A bloviator named Abraham Bredius put the two pictures in the canon and the people who had owned them saw great advantage in keeping them “authentic” as the Vermeer cult was peaking in the early twentieth century.
Another item still evidencing the depth of field problem is A Girl Asleep, below. This is essentially a collage. In the foreground is a white jug, as flat as a magazine advertisement cut and pasted to the canvas. The short span of the fruit bowl remains in the narrow range of focus as does the ruffles of cloth. The elaborate table cloth that seems to be rising up as if infused with life by a conjurer to smother the poor girl as her dreams begin to turn to dark appears to have been draped like a tepee over, what, a brass fireplace stand?
The girl herself is tightly posed, her arms kept close by her sides. The background looks abandoned to geometric patterns that probably hid a figure or, more likely, another room too far beyond the reach of the modest focal length of Vermeer’s mirror.
The breakthrough comes with The Soldier and Laughing Girl. Here Vermeer recognizes how to enhance the illusion of depth with still relatively primitive techniques. The foreground soldier, dimmed by the back light of the window, sits immobile, pausing to find the right adjective to garnish the amusing anecdote he is reciting. The staging will allow the sitter to sustain the pose long enough for Vermeer to adjust the focus of the mirror by moving forward and back as needed. The advantage of the composition is that the figure’s right arm which carries the weight of the illusion is rather indistinct as it is lost in the shadows.
The chair he sits on can pose all day and so any adjustment in focus could be done at leisure, even done over if unsuitable in a final rendering.
The amused maid sits in sufficient light to allow complete focus on her half turn to the left and the apparent foreshortening of her right arm, though we can’t really see it as it is blocked by her goblet.
The map on the back wall is flat. That leaves the lattice work of the window panes and frames to finish off the illusion. Focus from front left to right rear would not be as vital in situ and Vermeer, who was professionally trained after all, would certainly be able to render the crisp edges effectively without needing the mirror to hold his hand all the way to completion. The fabled diffused light makes itself felt in full force, but that is the one element that requires no artificial means of focus……
(I will spread the rest out over the week so as to not jam up traffic. Oh, and enjoy the old school punctuation)