Lines and Colors art blog

Jonathan Janson
Occasionally artists will become particularly fascinated with the work of one of their predecessors, and study the work of that artist in depth. Such is the case with Jonathan Janson, and artist originally from (if I’m not mistaken) Seattle, now living and working in Rome.

Janson has a deep and abiding interest in the work of Johannes Vermeer, one of the most enigmatic and fascinating figures in the history of art. The result of that fascination is twofold.

One happy result is that Janson has gifted us with Essential Vermeer, an astonishingly extensive and beautifully crafted web resource on Vermeer and his work, that is the high mark for any web resource devoted to a single artist (see my previous post on Essential Vermeer). The only close second, in fact, is Janson’s other, somewhat similar, site: Rembrant van Rijn: Life and Work (see my previous post about the site under its old title, Rembrandt: life paintings etchings drawings and self portraits).

In addition, Janson has created an extensive sub-site devoted specifically to the study of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and has recently started a blog called Flying Fox, focused on Vermeer, exhibitions and loans of his works as well as other related topics. (The name Flying Fox is from an inn in Delft that was likely central to Vermeer’s world.)

I liken Janson’s Vermeer and Rembrandt sites to the 21st Century equivalent of artist monographs, but bringing to bear the advantages of web technology to extend the lines of information deep into the resources of the web.

Another difference between these sites and traditional monographs is that monographs on artists are usually written by art historians, who study art from a certain perspective, but rarely the perspective of a working artist. The advantages of the latter viewpoint are particularly evident in Janson’s study of Vermeer’s Painting Techinque.

Janson not only brings the perspective of a painter to his writing and research on Vermeer, but moves the knowledge in the other direction, to the second result of his fascination with that artist, in the way it has transformed and informed his own painting.

Many of Janson’s recent works are in-depth and in-practice explorations of Vermeer’s techniques, some of which he has codified in a book, How to Paint Your Own Vermeer: Recapturing materials and Methods of a Seventeenth-Century Master.

Janson’s own explorations of Vermeer’s approach even extend to humorous recasting of some of Vermeer’s famous compositions into his own modern counterparts, a practice that can be simultaneously hilarious and poetic, as in his Girl Playing a Guitar, in which a purple Stratocaster takes the place of Vermeer’s more demure instruments in Woman with a Lute and The Guitar Player.

You can see the same humorous but beautifully painted approach in Janson’s adaptation of Vermeer’s composition from A Lady Writing (see my post on A Vermeer Comes to California), as Young Girl Writing an Email (image above, larger version here), in which Vermeer’s elegant box (perhaps a music box?) has been replaced with a boom box and his quill and inkwell with a laptop. Janson has retained the pearls on the table, and, of course, that wonderful earring.

Vermeer can be surprisingly painterly at times, belying the apparent “realism” of his paintings, and can also be remarkably “soft”, despite the perception he gives of intricate sharp detail. Also, perhaps because of his use of a camera obscura, Vermeer seems in general preoccupied with matters of focus, both in terms of degrees of visual sharpness and compositionally. Janson explores both of these aspects of Vermeer’s work in his own compositions, the soft edges and painterly touches being particularly evident in Girl Writing an Email (details above).

On Janson’s site you can see other examples of his Vermeer inspired interiors as well as his contemplative Seattle landscapes and watercolors.

There is currently a show of Janson’s work at Galleria dell’Incisione in Brescia, Italy until January 30, 2009.

Janson’s fascination with Vermeer has put him on a path of exploration that reaches into the past and future at the same time, in the process throwing a contemporary light on the master’s approach, and giving us a unique perspective from an artist who has done his best to look at a great painter from the “inside”, while revealing his own sensibilities and unique artistic vision.


6 responses to “Jonathan Janson”

  1. Rembrandt’s paintings are some of my favorite. He also made a lot of very impressive 17th century Rembrandt etchings

  2. I think that it is both interesting and important to note that Janson’s paintings, for all the immersion into Vermeer, his methods and his techniques, remain essentially modern paintings that build on the past rather than simply recreate it.

    Beyond the method and technique, Janson clearly pays additional homage to Vermeer with sly references like the earring on the girl in this image the pale yellow of her sweatshirt, and the rich fabric of the table-top. But the presence of a radio, a laptop and even the compositional device of a rather dark background mark the painting as someone else’s.

    It’s not so uncommon to come across someone who has studied and imitated an old master. Sadly, many who plumb the depths of an old master’s technique often seem to wish that they are actually living back then and their paintings are no more than competent copies of long ago masterpieces. What makes Janson unusual is that the depth of his study — as impressive as it is — remains harnessed in the service of his own development as an artist, someone very much of the here and now.

    On the shoulders of giants…

  3. A clarification: although he has spent time in Seattle, the artist was born in South River, NJ.

  4. I have loved Vermeer since I first saw his work. Now I have someone new to watch and love. Thank you for introducing me!

  5. I think that it is both interesting and important to note that Janson’s paintings

  6. They both made a very impressive work.