Traces of Vermeer


Traces of Vermeer
By Jane Jelley
Oxford University Press – £25.00

There was a bewildering choice of blacks at the time, and they all had different properties and different uses. It is a long list: earth black; sea coal black; lamp black; cherry stone black; vine black; charcoal black, peach, date, or almond stone black; walnut shell black; bone black; ivory black; even ‘burnt toast,’ described as a ‘bread black.’ Some blacks are warmer in colour than others: bones produce a brownish colour, while vine black, often called ‘blue black,’ was recommended for painting ruffs, or the shadows in the face, when mixed with white. There were recipes to suggest how to prepare and use all of these different pigments in painters’ treatises. ‘Cheristone’ black was suggested as being good for draperies; and if a painter wanted ‘a most extremely deep black,’ then lamp black, and ivory black could be used together; by putting one, as a glaze, over the other. Painters could follow a recipe for making ivory black; and put some bits of an ‘old combe, fanne handle or knife in a closed crucible, with a ‘little salt;’and place it in the fire for a quarter of an hour.

My word, the complexity of choice at the disposal of artists during The Netherlands so-called ‘Golden Period’ – or any period come to that – really was both bewildering and overtly comprehensive to say the least. A daunting feature and something which is resoundingly highlighted in this overtly investigative yet very readable book by Jane Jelley.

A painter of still life and landscape herself, who, as authoress, herein bequeaths the reader with an inexorable intrigue that is altogether contagious. Contagious, because in her pursuit of trying to decipher just how Johannes Vermeer’s paintings were ”made,” she takes the reader on something of a tangential journey that is most illustrative, idiosyncratic and interesting at the same time.

This ultimately accounts for Traces of Vermeer being what it is: ”An absolute delight. A rich and highly original exploration of Vermeer’s life and work seen through the eyes of a practising painter” (Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe).

An example of such richness can be found in Vermeer’s View of Delft, on which Jelley conclusively writes in the book’s seventh chapter ‘A Glimpse of Vermeer’: ”Vermeer had to decide where he would stand to observe Delft, in order to establish his composition. Which window he would use? What might he like to include from here, or from any other viewpoint, and what should he ignore? One of his trademarks is the attention he pays to the construction of his picture, and the dynamics of the movements within it. He thought carefully about the weights of shapes, and where he wanted the viewer’s eye to travel; where he wanted it to rest […]. If this picture appears ‘real’ to us, it is not because things are very detailed, but because Vermeer has grasped the essentials of the tone and the shapes, and has left much for us to interpret ourselves. It is not like looking at a high definition image on screen, or even a photograph; but like glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something we feel to be familiar.”

It is precisely this familiarity, that to my mind at least, entices us to admire Vermeer’s luminous sunlit spaces, full-blown, mesmerising skies, glimmers of satin and many eloquent strokes of tranquillity (such as Young Woman with a Water Jug, Mistress and Maid and of course, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

To be sure, Traces of Vermeer is an invitation for us to not only embrace Vermeer’s world, but to also ask or decipher to what degree he may, or may not have used some sort of lens through a camera obscura.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. Surely it’s the final product that counts?

Wonderful paintings that have traversed the years.
The centuries. Paintings which continue to touch us.
And resonate.

David Marx


2 responses to “Traces of Vermeer

  1. David G. Stork

    I profoundly disagree with the sentiment that “I couldn’t care less [how Vermeer painted]. Surely it’s the final product that counts?” As scholars, we should care about the truth. But knowing how an artist works helps us understand his achievement, how his work fits within the history of art, and most importantly helps us perceive subtleties within the work itself that might otherwise elude our attention. For instance Tim Jenison (“Tim’s Vermeer”) points to extremely subtle curves in certain passages of “The Music Lesson” that he argues were a result of Vermeer’s use of optics. No art historian, curator, conservator in 500 years had identified that fact about Vermeer’s work, which was “there for all to see.” Moreover, knowing how Pollock worked is essential to understanding his art. And other artists as well.

    The “I don’t care how the art was made” reminds me of the luddites who felt that understanding how a rainbow worked somehow detracted from one’s aesthetic appreciation of a rainbow. Hogwash! Those who understand how a rainbow is formed (and how an artwork is created) actually SEE more (especially subtle effects), and I believe strongly APPRECIATE more.

    Incidentally, others might be interested in another review of Jelley’s book here:

    • Hi David, I think you’ve taken the comment out of context.
      Of course ”I care” about how Vermeer painted.” If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have read and reviewed Jane Jelley’s book.
      What I couldn’t care less about is the ongoing argument as to whether or not he used some sort of lens.
      Here’s the quote word for word: ”To be sure, Traces of Vermeer is an invitation for us to not only embrace Vermeer’s world, but to also ask or decipher to what degree he may, or may not have used some sort of lens through a camera obscura.
      Personally, I couldn’t care less. Surely it’s the final product that counts?”
      David Marx

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