Because of his astonishing skill and the unfortunately small number of his known works, the enigmatic Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer probably has one of the highest masterpiece/oeuvre ratios in the history of art.
Among Vermeer’s (and the art world’s) most notable masterpieces is a small jewel of a painting called The Lacemaker.
It has on occasion been called the second most important painting in the collection of the Louvre, after Leonardo’s portrait of a noblewoman who may or may not be smiling.
The painting has fascinated other artists; Van Gogh wrote of the beauty of its colors in a letter to Émile Bernard, and Renoir considered it the most beautiful painting in the world.
Even among Vermeer’s often small works, The Lacemaker is a small painting, 9 5/8 x 8 1/4 in (24.5 x 21 cm), and both its size and subject invite intimacy. As we observe the young woman, who is absorbed in her craft, we get to observe Vermeer working at his; the weave of the canvas is visible through his thin layers of paint; the delicate application with which he has modeled her hands and face and the extraordinarily deft suggestion of her materials fall together in a harmonious, seemingly perfect composition.
The woman’s hands, in particular, are exquisitely painted, simultaneously naturalistic and surprisingly abstracted, the planes of the fingers almost geometric shapes. The entire painting, in fact, is remarkable for its open, spare composition and intense focus.
Vermeer deliberately played with focus here, sharply defining the hands and the workpad (as sharp as Vermeer ever allows his soft edges to get) while reducing focus on the surrounding objects, even in the foreground.
And for those who point to Vermeer’s (and other artists’) use of the camera obscura as though it were a crutch that somehow diminished his artistry, I offer my challenge that no modern artist, armed with not only a camera obscura, but all manner of photography, projectors and computer assistance, is going to match the artistry of Vermeer in similar paintings.
As a case in point, one of the artists particularly fascinated with this painting was Salvador Dalí, whose father had a copy of The Lacemaker in his study as he was growing up.
In addition to doing his Dalífied Paranoiac-Critical Study of Vermeer’s Lacemaker, in which the image explodes into a shower of rhinoceros horns, in 1955 Dali acquired permission to take his paints into the Louvre and paint a direct copy from the original (which used to be a much more common practice among artists in centuries past).
Whatever you may think of Dalís art, few who have seen his work in person can deny that he was one of the most accomplished painters of the 20th century, with a keen eye and firm grasp of old master techniques. Yet Dalí, with all his skill, produces a copy that, while a nice little painting and well painted (I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the original), still falls well short of Vermeer’s mastery, and seems forced in comparison (image below, larger version here).
As for the original, there is a feature on the Louvre’s new website that allows you to zoom way in on a selection of highlights from the collection, one of which is The Lacemaker. Unfortunately, it requires Microsoft’s Silverlight plug-in, which is not as widely installed as Flash. Those who have, or install, the plug-in can scroll to the right to find the painting, and zoom way in, a view that is particularly effective in fullscreen mode.
I’ve listed other resources below.
I’m late in mentioning this, but not too late — until this Sunday, 15 January, 2012, The Lacemaker will still be on view in the UK as part of an extraordinary exhibition in which the Louvre has allowed it to be loaned to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The exhibition is titled Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence, and features three other Vermeers as well as a number of other Dutch Golden Age masterpieces. There is an article about the exhibition on The Guardian. There is a catalog of the exhibition, Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence.
Vermeer is one of my personal favorites in all of art, and in his finest works, of which The Lacemaker is surely one, seems to transcend painting into the realm of magic — presenting us with a frozen sheet of time, distilled by his genius into the essence of seeing. But for all his apparent sorcery, he was still a painter, applying paint to canvas with brushes, seeking to express the ineffable with physical materials.
The Lacemaker has a quiet intensity and focused perfection that makes me think Vermeer found in his subject a reflection on his own absorption in, and dedication to, his craft.
For anyone, artist or otherwise, who has experienced the Zen-like state in which work or action seems to flow through you, instead of being created by effort, I think The Lacemaker should resonate with that exquisite suspension of time and thought.