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Saturday, 11 November 2017

Painting of the Month (76) November 2017: Vermeer

This famous painting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring  by Jan Vermeer has become so familiar as an icon of the art world that it has almost surpassed the recognition level of the Mona Lisa. Now we have another enigmatic almost-half-smile to consider. This makes this post problematic for me because I want to try to see beyond that familiarity.
Girl with a Pearl earring, Johannes (Jan) Vermeer, 1665
The popularity of the Baroque style of art had been encouraged by the Catholic Church at The Council of Trent (1545-1563) as a weapon in the Counter-Reformation's struggle against the rise of Protestantism. It was determined that the arts should communicate religious themes and direct emotional involvement. The Baroque style is characterised by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance and grandeur in the arts. This includes the use of a technique known as chiaroscuro, developed during the Renaissance, which employs exaggerated light contrasts to create the illusion of volume. This all relates to Vermeer's work. His early works were of a religious nature but he soon started to produce genre works - scenes of everyday domestic life - and continued in this way all through his career. Most of his work seems to have been located one or two rooms of his middle-class home and often featuring the same few models repeatedly. Typical of this period is The Milkmaid.
The girl in this portrait is possibly his daughter, Maria who some experts believe may have painted as many as a fifth of the works attributed to her father. Turbans were not fashionable at that time but it gives the artist an opportunity to display his skill with drapes and folds. The large amount of blue paint around her head and at the end of her scarf would have been made from lapis lazuli probably ground by the artist himself. This would have been very costly at that time and usually used in religious paintings but clearly not exclusively. The girl is captured as though looking round in mild surprise to be frozen for eternity. The pearl earring is huge and some have suggested it may have been fashioned from tin but it does seem to have appeared in other paintings. The eyes are like molten liquid, the lips are moist and slightly parted. Oh dear, I think I'm falling in love! 
Of course the novel by Tracey Chevalier and later film have helped to spread her fame over the world. After a sensationally popular world tour the picture is back home in the Mauritshuis in The Hague where it will stay indefinitely, being deemed too fragile to travel again.

                                              Probably Vermeer self-portrait, 1654
Jan Vermeer lived and worked all his life in Delft in The Netherlands where he lived until his death at 43 having achieved some local fame but he was forgotten for two hundred years after his death until being rediscovered in the 19th century. It is fair to say that he is now recognised as one the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age of painting.
He fathered 11 children. So he did have some other interests; always healthy not to be obsessed by one's work I think......
I'm listening to Mahler's Fifth Symphony trying not to think of where it was used in Death in Venice.

14 comments:

Hels said...

Love that turban. One of the joys of Vermeers' paintings was that he could take from a wide array of props that he stored in his studio - exotic-looking clothes, musical instruments, religious objects and household objects. These props added interest to his normally simple themes, plus they saved him a lot of money in not having to pay for real Turks (or whatever) in original gear.

What a shame this great artist only lived till 40+.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - this picture is extraordinary as too his others - the milkmaid - you've pointed us to. It's interesting how art develops ... the chiaroscuro technique is developed - and what a difference that makes. The Dutch Golden Age is a wonderful era of northern art development ... and how they make their paints etc ... I hope to get to The Hague at some stage to visit the Mauritshuis ... cheers Hilary

bazza said...

Hels: There is a pleasing uniformity with his interior scenes although picture is not a portrait and neither is it a domestic scene. I think it's what the Dutch called a 'Tronnie' - not quite a portrait!

bazza said...

Hilary: Chiaroscuro was developed well before Vermeer's time and even before Caravaggio although they both moved it forwards. In those days artists, or someone in their studio, made most of their own pigments. A mortar and pestle became essential!

Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, It is interesting that in this picture, the main focal point is the girl's face, framed by the dark background but also more specifically by the turban, the collar, and the earring. Her face, with its turning expression and parted lips, is the brightest part and main focus of the picture. However, it has its counterpart in a second focal point--the earring itself, framed by the cheek, the cheek, the white collar, the blue turban, and the trailing train of the turban (whatever that is called). Unlike the bright face, this inverted part, which includes her ear itself, is dark and mysterious. It is only illuminated by the glint of the pearl, making us ponder what secret is.
--Jim

All Consuming said...

Cracking post sir, I think a fresh eye on art is something we must try and encompass every now and again, to find the beauty in that which has become almost commonplace. :D

bazza said...

Jim: That's a good analysis. The artist seems to have strong control over where the eye goes. The pearl earring itself draws the viewer in inexorably. This is a very deceptive picture because at first it seems simple and inconsequential but gradually it's charm works on us!

bazza said...

AC: Thanks you. That was exactly my intention with this post. These kind of paintings certainly repay time spent 'looking in' to them.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I love this painting and I thank you for the interesting information about it.

bazza said...

Arleen: Thanks for visiting, I'm glad you found it interesting. It really is is wonderful picture.

Sherry Ellis said...

That's interesting that the girl may be the artist's daughter. I wonder where they got the turban. Was it a costumed dress-up session, or did the girl dress like that all the time? Sometimes paintings cause the viewer to ask more questions than are answered. It certainly is a masterpiece!

Bazza said...

Hi Sherry. I would guess that the artist had a box of studio props from which the turban came. Or it it couldn't be difficult yo make. Really we can all place our own interpretations on any painting!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Thanks for the interesting background info that allows us to see this familiar painting with new eyes. Even the works of art we love the most lose some of their impact when we forget to really LOOK at them and truly appreciate.

Your comment about his eleven children and his "other interests" cracked me up. It's a shame he died at such a young age. He could have painted many other brilliant works... and fathered another dozen children or so... :)

bazza said...

Susan: Yes, you're right - familiarity is a problem. I find it slightly annoying when, say, an author is asked about the writing he or she enjoys. They always choose something extremely obscure; they just can't go for the well-known like us plebs!