Vermeer’s The Lacemaker

Vermeer's The Lacemaker
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).

Vermeer's The Lacemaker, Dali's The Lacemaker

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.

15 Replies to “Vermeer’s The Lacemaker

  1. I agree that there is only one Vermeer and no amount of technology will let another painter, modern or otherwise (I don’t think even Rubens or Rembrandt could replicate what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer)paint the same way Vermeer did, but that Dali copy doesn’t make your case all that well. It looks like amateur work, with it’s muddy colors, off values, and poor rendering of form. There are a number of modern painters, or even atelier students, who I think could come closer to the mark.

    1. Thanks, Chris. As I mentioned, I’ve seen the original of Dali’s version, and the images of it available on the web are unfortunately quite poor and inaccurate. It’s much better than the image shown here would indicate. It was the best I could find, and I even tried to color correct it a bit based on memory.

  2. To what degree he thought about this we will never know, but your close-ups here show two adaptations that Vermeer made to painting on a small scale while using a camera obscura. First, he appropriated the slightly unfocused points of light visible through the camera obscura into tiny blobs of lighter colored paint applied to the composition, thereby bridging the gap between what we see and what painters put down on canvas. The result is a sparkle often imitated but rarely applied with such restraint and effect by anyone else. Secondly, and almost in imitation of those little sparkling points of light, he used the texture of the canvas itself to produce a similar pattern. the high points of the weave carry paint that is lighter than the rest. Whether this is because the darker glazes settled around the high points or because he consciously applied a very deft light scumbling brushstroke of slightly lighter color I cannot tell. Either way the results are brilliant.

    Jonathan Janson, an American living in Europe (and whose work you have acknowledged before, Charley) has studied Vermeer and his techniques extensively has given us all a brilliant web site, The essential Vermeer. But in the process of all the technical study Janson has also revealed, inadvertantly or otherwise, that a huge part of Vermeer’s success comes from extremely careful composition. The colors and rendering alone don’t achieve the wonderful effects we all admire. The pictorial composition is exceedingly well worked out. You can see this in Janson’s own paintings which have benefitted from years of studying how Vermeer worked:

    1. Thanks, Daniel. I agree that composition is certainly a key part of Vermeer’s “magic”, and the flow of light across the individuals and objects in his paintings has a palpable presence. I’ve likened it to atomized honey.

      There is some speculation that Vermeer’s diffuse dots of light, and perhaps some of his remarkably definite but simultaneously soft edges, involved the use of Venetian turpentine.

      Thanks for the additional tip about Jonathan Janson. As you point out, I’m not only an admirer of Janson’s amazing resources on Vermeer and Rembrandt, but of his own painting as well. I particularly enjoy the sense of humor evidenced in his juxtaposition of Vermeer like compositions and techniques in portraying contemporary life and modern objects, e.g.

      Janson is making some of his years of study of Vermeer’s techniques available in a book and CD-ROM, How to Paint Your Own Vermeer.

  3. And although Dali was an exceedingly formidable technician, I don’t think even he could help but imbue the young lady’s face with a tiny but discernable hint of, of, what? a hint of 20th century angst or annoyance at the challenge of working lace.

  4. I buy into the Venetian turpentine theory. If you try it you’ll see how it softens up the edge of whatever you put down while using it. Its use, far from diminishing Vermeer’s reputation, demonstrates how he used (very sparingly) a technical additive to achieve a specific optical effect. One can only imagine how much trial and error preceeded the usage we see in the less than 40 surviving paintings by Vermeer.

    And my point about composition is meant in part for those who think using a camera obscura is a crutch. The camera didn’t arrange the figures and furniture. To 17th century artists it was just a lens. As a 21st century artist I’d be lost without the pair of lenses balanced on the bridge of my nose.

  5. I know I haven’t commented much as of late–just can’t keep up! But I always keep an eye on what you’re doing, and it’s always great. This one, is, of course, a treasure. Did you see the Met show on Master Painters of India 1100-1900? Just fantastic.

  6. Nice post. These are of the kind I look forward to on lines and colors.

    I haven’t seen Dalí’s copy in person, but the two images posted here are so strikingly different that I have to think Dalí had something more in mind than just a straight copy. The hardened or sharpened edges, greater dynamic range, divided values, the brushed “glow” around the forms.. they all appear to me like more modern devices. I see this copy as a transitional study between Vermeer’s original and his own Paranoiac-Critical Study. Still, I can’t say any of this with much confidence, since I haven’t seen the originals.

  7. I once tried to copy a Vermeer (an unrealistic thing of course to try), but I certainly did not understand how he did that. Now I know that Salvador Dali also did not understand it very well 😉

    But I also saw some reproductions from abroad, from painters in China or a country like that and what I saw there matched the technique of Vermeer very closely. Still no exact copy, but a near perfect copy.. So I will not say that it is immpossible..

  8. I have recently got one with louvre Paris Sticker. It is oil on canvas (24x21cm)and is framed in gilt. A Treat to watch.

  9. “The most discussed case about mechanical aids is Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura absurdly inferring that this instrument mainly allowed the brilliance of his results. The latest is about someone spending years trying to prove that Vermeer used a unique complicated optical system of lenses in order to paint the scene in front of him. He spent years carefully setting up a duplicate scene and carefully painting on the projection this produced. The guy who went through all this trouble failed to realize that the weather and time continually changed the lighting, so painting on a projected image of the scene in front of you for any length of time is futile.
    Some of today’s incompetent art school teachers have to get students to imagine that there is some sort of major mechanical secret behind master drawing and painting. Artists like Hockney who can’t draw but who are still impressed by beauty, just can’t believe there are artists out there who simply can draw and paint realism exquisitely. No strings attached!”
    by Poly Ethylene

    1. Thanks, Poly Ethylene. I haven’t see the video yet, but my impression from the descriptions I’ve read is that it’s an interesting account of one individual teaching himself to paint in a novel way, but that it tells us nothing about Vermeer’s actual working methods.

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