Posts Tagged ‘Old Master’



It’s hard to get away from Vermeer!

He’s usually called very cheezy and chocolate-boxy, but he was definitely an important early influence on me.  Then again I do like a box of choccies! Mind you, without Vermeer, I very much doubt that my wife and I would have discovered (and fallen in love with) Ghent, Bruges, Delft and Antwerp.

I was even in a band once, called “Flying Fox” — named as a result of looking up Vermeer in the library at Battlefield one day (Vermeer’s Dad, Reynier Jansz, began dealing in paintings, and his first one was “The Flying Fox” around 1631).

Vermeer was baptised and raised as a Protestant Christian, but he married a Catholic Christian (one fabulously named Digna Baltus), and as a result he faced hardship. At least he was not alone — as a result of the end of the 80 years’ war (the fall of Antwerp), there was a massive relocation of people  north to the then tiny port of Amsterdam, as well as  a massive influx of refugees fleeing from religious persecution Sephardi Jews from Catholic Portugal and Spain, and Calvinists or “Huguenots” from Catholic France.

The thing is that through Vermeer, I discovered the two trends in oil painting — the new secular and the old Catholic Christian religious subjects.

The church did not patronise Vermeer — and the various Protestant Christians were usually dead against religious idolatry!  No wonder poor old Vermeer died poor!

Milk Maid]The first Vermeer that I came across was his Milk-Maid painting. Yes — a milk maid! This is mad; who would buy this painting?  The milk maid surely did not commission Vermeer to paint it!  OK, so Vermeer wasn’t doing “religious” stuff, but — where’s the Greek Myth or other “high subjects”?

And yet, there she is, with her strong arms, and stoutness, centred in frame, flooded with daylight from the high level window (so she’s downstairs in the servants’ quarters).  She’s caught in an action — how amazing!  This is exactly like a camera photo – a snapshot!  She’s in the middle of pouring milk from a jug onto a bowl!  I’d never seen anything like it!

This was also a time when oil paint was being invented and the Dutch were leading the way, but it’s not even like an artist showing off in the vein of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. What on earth is going on here? It cannot be a painting of a lover — could it?  I mean, she’s a bit sturdy, isn’t she?

The only answer I could come up with to explain this painting was that Vermeer needed to paint something, and that was all there was to it! Mind you I would still like to know what the box on the floor is supposed to be. I do not think it’s a rat trap; it’s too nice!

[Painting by Vermeer - The Geographer]rThe next painting I found of Vermeer’s was The Geographer. I was stunned by the similarities with the Milk-Maid — the window location and central subject.

I have always loved this painting; in fact I tried to become the painting!  For years I set up my drawing board at the window, and I often worked in client’s offices at drawing boards located near huge antique windows. I even had curtains on one side of the window in one of my flats — I got the idea from this painting, and a lot of people remarked on it!

[Painting of Woman holding a balance by Vermeer]Obviously I wasn’t surprised when I spotted Woman Holding a Balance

Just look at the window location/ light source.  This time, though, the balance is central and the woman is off to the side. What’s going on here?  She’s got jewellery, and the curtains are partly drawn.  She seems to be figuring out the worth of the pieces — maybe she needs money; she does look pregnant. Her covered head is framed by a religious Christian painting.  I like the idea of a rectangular “halo”, and so (it seems) does Vermeer. I just loved how the wall and shadow make the painting look like it’s been folder in half! Again, this is a moment of action, or of decision — this is a turning point recorded on canvas.

So many of Vermeer’s “genre” paintings have the window to the left and follow the same pattern of an action caught in snap shot.  He seems to have worked almost exclusively indoors too.

But another thing is of note — he followed Leonardo da Vinci’s Law — that nothing is it’s own colour completely, instead everything’s colour is affected by the colour of the thing next to it.

[Painting of Girl with a Wine Glass by Vermeer]In Girl with a Wine Glass, apart from the familiar halving of the back wall down the fold of the middle, the dark shadows of the skirt folds are under-painted with blue to resonate with the blue table cloth, and the result is amazing in real life; a sort of purple shimmer.

In fact the use of blue makes me wonder about the accounts of Vermeer’s lifelong poverty.  Blue was the most expensive colour — and Vermeer uses it a LOT. In fact I have heard it said that no other painter of the time used blue so lavishly as Vermeer. He also had at least a dozen or so children, and they lived in a massive house (they moved in with his wife’s mother), and he remained there till he suddenly died.  To me this suggests an income from some unknown source — perhaps his art dealing was successful or perhaps his in-laws provided some form of trust or pension. Who knows, maybe he taught or ran another business?

Like so many at that time, Vermeer joined a Guild or trade association — The Guild of Saint Luke.  Some historians reckon that because the annual fee was waived in Vermeer’s case, the man was too poor to afford the fee!  Yet how come he was elected head of the guild (and re-elected thereafter)!

Mind you, there was a sudden economic downturn and a collapse of the art market in the early 1670s, and this finished off Vermeer, who died due to the stress of financial pressures at just 43.

He supposedly worked very slowly, even though he used oils.  This could be because he was poor and had to save up for paint, but it is more likely as far as I am concerned because he was waiting for the oil paint to dry.  Vermeer painted layer upon layer of almost transparent paint (even more slow drying as it is oily), and he a used an old decorative technique called Pointillé in whereby patterns are formed on a surface by a means of punched dots that do not cut into the surface being decorated, a bit like embossing I suppose.

There is a theory about the “old masters” methods.  This is because they are so photographic, and because their perspective is so good.  The theory is actually promoted by the famous pop-artist David Hockney. It’s called The Hockney-Falco thesis, and was announced to the world via a television programme called Secret Knowledge in 2001.  there is even a book.

Hockney reckoned that the Old Masters used camera obscura techniques, to project a subject onto the canvas surface,  leaving the task of the painter to simply match and fill in the colours.  It is hard to tell with an artist who worked as slowly as Vermeer.

[Painting by Vermeer called Christ in The House of Mary and Martha]The one I have seen the most is (bizarrely) a religious Vermeer — Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, which is in Edinburgh. It has three figures, in a pyramid or triangular composition, and there are the ochres, umbers and browns as well as the blue, red and white of the fabrics.

[Painting by Vermeer - Girl With the Pearl Earring] [Painting by Vermeer; Guitar Player]r [Painting by Vermeer called Girl Interrupted]

Only 35 paintings are definitely attributed to Vermeer, the best know today might be Girl with the Pearl Earring or Girl Interrupted at Her Music. The most remarkable thing I think is how “photographic” they are — not merely in rendering (as Hockney would suggest), but in the fact that they seem to capture an action, usually indoors, and often at a window.  I see no evidence of religiousness, no evidence of attributes of death or moral allegory, I see no judgement of class or culture.  I do not even see these painting as being “public” art in their intention.

Little is known of Vermeer, but, even with his presidency of the guild, I would say that he was not a “painter” at all — he had no apprentices, school or workshop.  He did not seem to want to be patronised or emplyed by the state or Church.  He had  no known customers. It is entirely my own opinion, and I have held it since the early 1980s, that Vermeer was a talented amateur painter; he did not earn a living from painting, but he loved it, and it was a grand hobby — indoors because he worked at home, in his spare time.

I like my theory a lot.  I like the fact that this chap is considered an Old Master, yet he was outside the loop, he was doing it all from love and need, rather than fame and fortune. What do you think?