How to paint like Vermeer

I have to confess that New York’s art was one of the main incentives for my trip and the two galleries that I visited, the Met and MoMA, did not disappoint.   Curiously, it was the European Art that was the biggest draw for me, as a large number of major works that I knew from reproductions had crossed the Atlantic over the years.   MoMA, for example, includes Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was the starting point of Cubism and modern art.   I had seen it reproduced in books but this was only a partial preparation for my first encounter with the painting itself.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – an enormous, bewildering maze of a building – holds five of the 34 paintings by Vermeer, my favourite artist of the Dutch Golden Age.   This was a treat; the only place I have seen so many on a single day was at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago.   Two of those at the Met (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Woman with a Lute) are amongst his very finest paintings, epitomising both his skill at capturing the effects of natural daylight and his compositional genius, capturing an air of calmness and serenity in a manner that has rarely been matched.

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Three of the Met’s five Vemeers: A Maid Asleep (ca. 1656-7); Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662); Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67).

Most Vermeers are very small works (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is 45.7 x 50.6 cm, for example) but with very fine brush work and great attention to detail.   Their near-photographic detail has led to many speculations about his working methods with some, including David Hockney in a recent book, suggesting that he may have used optical devices. In this, he may well have been aided and advised by his friend Anton van Leuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope (finally … a tenuous link with the main theme of this blog!)

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The other Vermeers from the Met’s collection: Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662-63) and Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670-72).

One of the unexpected delights of the return flight was finding a documentary, Tim’s Vermeer (2013), on the in-flight entertainment system, which explored this idea.   The “Tim” of the title is an American inventor and entrepreneur who was sufficiently intrigued by the possibilities that devices such as Camera Lucida may have offered to seventeenth century artists that he first re-created the scene that Vermeer portrayed in The Music Lesson (ca. 1662-65) and then, with the aid of mirrors and lenses, produced a very accurate likeness of the original painting.   Tim Jenison, it should be noted, had never painted before embarking on these experiments, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Some are not convinced, regarding Jenison’s finished painting as a “pedantic and laborious imitation” rather than a step towards a better understanding of Vermeer’s methods. I’m not so sure.   To understand his working methods is not to undermine his compositional genius. Modern art history is, in my opinion, too readily inclined to believe in the lone creative genius rather than recognise the way society moulds and shapes artistic production.   This film cannot prove that Vermeer used optical devices, but it does show that the idea is worthy of consideration.  And, with the final credits rolling just as we began our final descent to Heathrow, it made an otherwise sleepless night much more enjoyable.

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