Vermeer, in a Mirror?

My sister’s brother’s nephew’s neighbor knows a guy who said this thing which is true. Common sense tells us that the farther something gets from the source, the less reliable it becomes. (Remember that childhood game ‘telephone‘?) This grain of truth is often swept aside in historical inquiries. We must remember to always ask questions. The author’s sources should be the biggest area of concern.

The subject of Vermeer’s technique warrants such a consideration. The facts are simple:

  • We don’t know with certainty who taught Vermeer how to paint.
  • Vermeer did not have any documented pupils.
  • Vermeer wrote no treatise on painting.

A basic understanding of the technical practices of the day does provide some insight into the likely methods used by Vermeer. The Delft School, Fijnschilders, and the whole of Genre Painting are a clear place to start. An excellent resource is found in folks like Dou, de Hooch and ter Borch. We can also connect Vermeer to Rembrandt’s circle by way of Carel Fabrititus, a pupil of Rembrandt who lived (and died) in Delft. There’s no shortage of information, but none is exactly from the horses mouth, as the saying goes.

David Hockney wrote a controversial book called Secret Knowledge. Personally, when I see a painter claiming authority about another painter’s work, the first thing I am compelled to do is look at the author’s paintings. Unfortunately, doing so here would keep us from reading Hockney’s book, which is an intriguing and entertaining hypothesis about past painters’ use of the camera obscura (and lucida). It’s also complete speculation, and in my opinion, false. As it has been several years since I read Secret Knowledge, I’m not prepared to give a proper book report, but Hockney’s argument boiled down to “it would have been too hard for them to paint these pictures free-hand, so they must have traced an image using these optical devices.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) This is obviously flawed.

Hockney’s celebrity propelled his book to some critical acclaim; regrettably, we live in a world where popularity is synonymous with truth. A better argument is found in Philip Steadman’s book, Vermeer’s Camera. Steadman’s argument is far more academic, but still rooted in speculation. (For the record, I love speculation… All I ever do is speculate. But we should all take issue when someone presents their opinions as facts.) Personally, I favor Lawrence Gowing for a speculative analysis of Vermeer’s technique.

Nigel Konstam expands on Gowing’s analysis and poses a compelling hypothesis regarding Vermeer’s painting methods through the use of mirrors. See the following videos:

An article written by Anne Shingleton, the painter in the above videos, follows:
Vermeer’s advantage of using two mirrors, By Anne Shingleton

Nigel also has some interesting theories about Rembrandt, and art history in general.
His blog is worth visiting.

Remember that in the end, we’re all just guessing. Some are educated, others are ignorant. It’s important to remember too, that Hockney’s title is deliberately provocative. There are no secrets. Good painting is made of good observation, and good observation will return good technique. Shortcuts existed then as they do now (far more now, no doubt), but shortcuts will only get you so far without a solid foundation beneath.

Additional texts such as Vermeer and the Art of Painting and the recently released Vermeer: The Complete Paintings are highly recommended.

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