Traces of Vermeer
An artist's detective story about the working methods of Johannes Vermeer
the creator of the Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) , A Lady Writing c. 1665-1667.
National Gallery of Art Washington
There is tremendous debate about the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) because the experts cannot explain how he achieved his extraordinary, iconic images. There is hardly a scrap of contemporary information about this most mysterious of painters: no letters or diaries, and no first hand descriptions of his working practice.
Did he use a camera obscura in the making of his pictures? Vermeer’s oeuvre lay unappreciated after his death, and it is possibly no coincidence that his work was rediscovered at about the time photography was beginning.
Despite intense research in many fields to find answers, few traces of the man have been found, and no agreement has been reached amongst experts as to how Vermeer went about his work. Yet there is an area that has been ignored. What do we know of Vermeer’s studio and the materials and equipment he had at hand? How could these have allowed him to directly use images from a lens; and in what ways would they have affected his methods, his artistic choices, and the immediacy of his paintings?
Traces of Vermeer is a new book that looks the current debate about Vermeer’s possible use of the camera obscura, and sets his work in the context of his home surroundings in Delft, and the technology of his time. Some practical experiments, using recipes from old ‘books of secrets’, are compared with the visual and scientific evidence of Vermeer’s own painting methods. The results answer a number of vexing questions about his techniques: in particular how he could have corrected the orientation of images from a camera obscura, and how he produced his unusual dark underpaintings which lack line, and which contribute to the luminosity of his pictures. The experiments suggest that tracings from a camera image could have been used in conjunction with perspective, and that Vermeer could have completed most of his painting conventionally, using direct observation.
Jane Jelley explains where artists found their raw materials and how they managed with a limited choice of colour and with unstable paint, and the use they made of some unlikely ingredients: the cochineal insect, madder root, buckthorn berry and sheep bones; the rainwater and rust. She explains how artists made their paintbrushes, ground their pigment and prepared their canvas, and how they constructed their paintings in time honoured tradition, layer by layer, bit by bit. She hears from travellers and scientists of the time, who tell us of the emerging interest in optics and its interconnection with alchemy, astrology and medicine; and reveals just how Vermeer could have worked in an innovative way, without diminishing his genius, to trace images projected through a lens and transfer them to his canvas in the slow process of creating his masterpieces.
Vermeer kept his studio door tightly closed in his lifetime; maybe at last we can take a look inside, catch a glimpse of him at work, and uncover some of his secrets.
See more, and buy a copy of Traces of Vermeer
Paperback edition is now available here
May 12th 2020
Talk in Oxford for the Friends of the Ashmolean
This event has been postponed due to COVID-19
Further information available here
Hay on Wye Festival 2019. Podcast here
The original research, on which Traces of Vermeer is based, is free to download below:
Last updated March 2020