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Unlocking the Secrets of Vermeer

Unlocking the Secrets of Vermeer

What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer? Is it Johannes Vermeer’s remarkable, painstaking precision in depicting even the most minute details of his scenes—he, the ultimate craftsman? Is it his breathtaking skill at portraying the effects of light and shadow in his signature interiors?

Marjorie (Betsy) Wieseman, the National Gallery’s curator and head of the department of Northern European paintings, explains that experts and the public alike correctly see Vermeer as an obsessive perfectionist, working “slowly, every molecule of the painting painstakingly done.” That, she notes, is how some art historians explain why only 36 confirmed Vermeer paintings exist today, a relatively meager output. Although, Wieseman adds, “his 11 children may have had something to do with it.”

But that is not the whole story of Johannes Vermeer’s technique. Enter the scientists.

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.97

For several months in 2020, with the museum closed to the public because of the pandemic, the National Gallery’s chemical imaging lab was able to host all four of the National Gallery’s Vermeers—three confirmed, one attributed. Normally, the popular masterpieces are seldom removed from the walls, never all at the same time. In June 2021 the team shared their preliminary findings with staff. The conclusion: Vermeer was not the painstakingly slow perfectionist he is reputed to be—not entirely.

Senior imaging scientist John Delaney and imaging scientist Kate Dooley, internationally recognized for their groundbreaking analysis of art and artists’ techniques, use technologically advanced equipment to generate hundreds of chemical images that allow them to “see” into the paint layers and better understand the painting process. The scientists and their colleagues can then analyze the resulting data to reveal how the artist worked—how and where he applied the different and complementary colors, paint layers, and drying agents. It is something like creating a detailed chemical map of the artist’s creative technique.

“It is like looking over the artist’s shoulder as he works,” says Wieseman. “The imaging lab process is amazing to me—I nearly flunked chemistry in high school. But here, to toss out a curator’s question like, ‘Why does this section of the painting look like this?’ And then to get an answer from colleagues who really know the science. There is such synergy in the room, working with colleagues at the top of their game, the depth of experience and creative thinking, it’s like there’s a thousand years of brain power involved. It’s just incredible to be a part of that.” Besides Delaney, Dooley, and Wieseman, the team includes associate painting conservator Dina Anchin, research conservator of painting technology Melanie Gifford, conservation scientist Lisha Glinsman, and associate curator of Northern European paintings Alexandra Libby.

High-energy X-rays that penetrate deep into the paint layers reveal chemical elements in the underpaint. The textured appearance of the tablecloth results from Vermeer's initial, quickly applied brushstrokes.

The surface of a Vermeer such as the National Gallery’s Woman Holding a Balance still looks “perfect and inevitable,” Wieseman explains. But microscopic examination of the museum’s Vermeers conducted since the 1990s have shown that Vermeer worked in discrete stages. The most recent analyses offer more complete images of these stages in the painting process. Beneath the finished exterior, scientists are now able to provide images of the preparatory sketch (a monochrome painted sketch) and the underpaint.

Textured brushstrokes in the underpaint (right) don't correlate to folds in the surface paint (left), indicating that Vermeer revised the folds as he worked. 

Here is the revelation that left the team wide-eyed. Under the surface, they can see evidence of quick, sketchy, spontaneous, and sometimes thickly textured brushstrokes. It’s as if Vermeer shifted elements around in an impetuous process of discovery, trying and rejecting different approaches—the opposite of the painstakingly slow perfectionist who proceeded molecule by molecule to achieve the timeless beauty of his finished surface.

So, what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer? An initial energetic, inspired, creative phase, it seems. For Vermeer, arriving at that signature effervescent depiction of light turns out to have been a complex, multiphase journey, creating and revising layers that serve as a foundation for the finished work we see today.

Thanks to the team’s latest advanced scientific analysis, it may be time to reevaluate Vermeer’s technique. And perhaps Vermeer himself.