Reconsidering Vermeer’s Perfectionism
What can we learn by examining Vermeer's paintings?
oil on panel
painted surface: 22.8 x 18 cm (9 x 7 1/16 in.)
support: 23.2 x 18.1 cm (9 1/8 x 7 1/8 in.)
framed: 40.3 x 35.6 x 4.4 cm (15 7/8 x 14 x 1 3/4 in.)
Johannes Vermeer (artist) Dutch, 1632 - 1675
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Girl with the Red Hat has long puzzled scholars of Johannes Vermeer. Although widely loved, the work’s attribution has proved problematic.
The attribution of Girl with the Red Hat to Vermeer has been doubted by Frithjof van Thienen, Jan Vermeer of Delft (New York, 1949), 23. The painting was rejected by P. T. A. Swillens, Johannes Vermeer: Painter of Delft, 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1950), 65; Albert Blankert, Rob Ruurs, and Willem L. van de Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1975; English ed., 1978), 167–172; Yvonne Brentjens, “Twee meisjes van Vermeer in Washington,” Tableau 7 (February 1985): 54–58; and Gilles Aillaud, Albert Blankert, and John Michael Montias, Vermeer (Paris, 1986), 200–201. For reactions to Blankert’s rejection of this painting, see the reviews by Christopher Brown, review of Albert Blankert, Rob Ruurs, and Willem L. van de Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1975), Simiolus 9 (1977): 56–58, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., review of Albert Blankert, Rob Ruurs, and Willem L. van de Watering, Johannes Vermeer van Delft 1632–1675 (Utrecht, 1975), Art Bulletin 59 (September 1977): 439–441. Benjamin Binstock has attributed Girl with the Red Hat to Vermeer’s daughter Maria Vermeer; see Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice (New York, 2009), 247–257.
For a comparative analysis of the paintings, see Marjorie E. Wieseman, “Johannes Vermeer/Girl with a Flute/c. 1669/1675,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions (October 7, 2022), https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/1237.
The motif of a girl looking over her shoulder at the viewer is common in Vermeer’s oeuvre, although in no other instance does she lean an arm on the back of a chair. The orientation of this chair has long puzzled scholars, who, under the assumption that it belongs to the seated woman, have complained that the left finial is much larger than the right and angled too far to the right. The finials, moreover, face toward the viewer. But if they belonged to the chair upon which the girl sits, they should face toward her, as in, for example, Frans Hals’s
The first art historian to note this discrepancy was Reginald Howard Wilenski, An Introduction to Dutch Art (New York, 1929), 284–285. He hypothesized that the peculiar arrangement of the finials arose from Vermeer’s use of a mirror. His reconstruction of Vermeer’s painting procedure, however, is untenable. Albert Blankert, Rob Ruurs, and Willem L. van de Watering (Johannes Vermeer van Delft 1632–1675 [Utrecht, 1975; English ed., 1978], 109) emphasize the position of the finials in their arguments against the attribution of the painting to Vermeer.
The most convincing explanation is that the chair faces out of the picture space; its seat, out of view below the frame, extends into the viewer’s space. Thus, the repoussoir on which the woman leans is meant to be the back of the viewer’s chair—a crucial component of the artist’s strategy to capture our attention and draw us into the scene. Vermeer most frequently depicted an empty chair seen from the back, which distances the viewer from the scene. A chair turned toward the viewer appears in his earlier work A Maid Asleep
An indistinct shape on the chair next to the woman resembles a visitor’s cloak. X-radiographs of the painting show that Vermeer originally placed a standing figure with a wide-brimmed hat in the background, but ultimately painted over him.
Girl with the Red Hat is Vermeer’s only known work painted on panel and his first known foray into the schematic rendering of forms that characterizes his late style, in which he exaggerated contrasts of light and dark and used broad, brushy paint strokes.
Alexandra Libby, E. Melanie Gifford, Dina Anchin, Marjorie E. Wieseman, Kathryn A. Dooley, Lisha Deming Glinsman, and John K. Delaney, “Experimentation and Innovation in Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat: New Findings from the National Gallery of Art,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 14, no. 2 (Summer 2022), https://doi.org/10.5092/jhna.2022.14.2.2.
The striking light reflections on the right lion-head finial have the diffused look of unfocused points of light in a photograph. This effect is known as halation of highlights. It is unlikely that Vermeer could have achieved this without having witnessed its appearance firsthand in a camera obscura. It may well be that in this painting Vermeer attempted to capture the impression of an image seen in a camera obscura. See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Johannes Vermeer/Girl with the Red Hat/c. 1666/1667,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions (April 24, 2014), https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/60/2014-04-24.
Such artistic choices have no precedent in Vermeer’s oeuvre, but they do foreshadow works like The Lacemaker
This dating reflects a shift in thinking about the place of Girl with the Red Hat in Vermeer’s oeuvre.
The painting’s experimental character has historically stymied scholars seeking to fit it within a linear stylistic development. Shortly after its discovery, Tancred Borenius, “The New Vermeer,” Apollo 2 (July–December 1925): 125–126, and Wilhelm Valentiner, “Zum 300: Geburtstag Jan Vermeers, Oktober 1932; Vermeer und die Meister der Holländischen Genremalerei,” Pantheon 5 (October 1932): 305–324, dated it to about 1660 and 1658, respectively, seeing a likeness with the textured pointillism of Vermeer’s early genre paintings, such as The Milkmaid. Others, including André Malraux, Vermeer de Delft (Paris, 1952), 21–22, 94, 96, 104, no. 27, Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (London, 1952), 56, and Leonard J. Slatkes, Vermeer and His Contemporaries (New York, 1981), 97, preferred to place it later in the artist’s career at the end of the 1660s and beginning of the 1670s. In proposing the painting as an early self-portrait by Vermeer’s eldest daughter, Maria, Benjamin Binstock dates it to 1672; see Benjamin Binstock, Vermeer’s Family Secrets: Genius, Discovery, and the Unknown Apprentice (New York, 2009), 249–257 passim; 293, 298.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Johannes Vermeer/Girl with the Red Hat/c. 1666/1667,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions (April 24, 2014), https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/60/2014-04-24.
Vermeer rarely dated his paintings, but The Astronomer
In The Geographer (but not in The Astronomer) Vermeer developed the fall of light by adding or reemphasizing certain highlights. Where he had first used a dark yellow highlight to suggest light transmitted through paper in the opening of the rolled map below the window, he later amplified this optical effect by building up a schematic patch of thicker and brighter yellow paint. He initially painted the faces of both subjects with similarly blended brushwork ranging from warm highlights to cool, gray-green shadows, but he later reemphasized the light from the nearby window in The Geographer by adding thickly brushed, bright pink paint on the illuminated side of the face, creating a hard-edged, planar highlight curving around the high forehead and tracing the bridge of the nose. This revised patch of light is reminiscent of the final, bright pink highlight on the cheek of Girl with the Red Hat. As in that painting, the highlight in The Geographer amplifies not only the contrast of light and dark but also the chromatic contrast between green and pink tones in the face. It seems most likely that Vermeer began to experiment with abstraction after he completed The Astronomer, first in Girl with the Red Hat and then in The Geographer. Indeed, the deceptively modest Girl with the Red Hat seems to have initiated the heightened abstraction and greater contrasts of both light and color that became hallmarks of Vermeer’s later style.
If Girl with the Red Hat served as an experiment for the brushwork and lighting that would come to characterize Vermeer’s late work, then we may also begin to understand his choice of an oak panel support for that work.
In a past conservation treatment, the reverse of the panel was planed and cradled, and the panel was set into a wooden collar that covers all the original edges. Because of this structure, it has not been possible to carry out analysis of the wood support, however the panel is visually typical of oak.
Possibly relevant in this context is the inventory made of Vermeer’s possessions after his death in his voorkamer (anteroom, probably Vermeer’s studio), which, in addition to canvases, notes “6 paneelen” (unpainted panels). See A. J. J. M. van Peer, “Drie collecties schilderijen van Jan Vermeer,” Oud Holland 72 (1957): 98–103; and John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History (Princeton, 1989), 339–344.
Scientific imaging has revealed what this painting of a man looked like before Vermeer began his work on Girl with the Red Hat. Infrared reflectography shows the black pigment the artist used for the bold, rhythmic brushwork of his hat and curly hair
For more on the imaging and a discussion of this underlying image, see Alexandra Libby, E. Melanie Gifford, Dina Anchin, Marjorie E. Wieseman, Kathryn A. Dooley, Lisha Deming Glinsman, and John K. Delaney, “Experimentation and Innovation in Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat: New Findings from the National Gallery of Art,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 14, no. 2 (Summer 2022), https://doi.org/10.5092/jhna.2022.14.2.2.
Evaluating the portrait without the benefit of new images that reveal the freedom of Vermeer’s underpaint in his genre paintings, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. considered the boldly handled, unblended brushwork in the man’s face and the great flourish of strokes that represent his long, curly hair incompatible with the characteristic refinement of technique evident in Vermeer’s finished paintings. Martin Bailey echoed Wheelock’s sentiment. See Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Zur Technik zweier Bilder, die Vermeer zugeschrieben sind,” Maltechnik–Restauro 84 (1978): 250; Martin Bailey, Vermeer (London, 1995), 88; and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Johannes Vermeer/Girl with the Red Hat/c. 1666/1667,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions (April 24, 2014), https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/60/2014-04-24. Only Jørgen Wadum has proposed that the free handling of the underlying image bears a resemblance to Vermeer’s forceful brushstrokes in his earliest works, such as The Procuress of 1656 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden), noting in particular the resemblance of the underlying man, with his long curls, to the supposed self-portrait in that work. See Jørgen Wadum, “Contours of Vermeer,” in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, Studies in the History of Art 55 (Washington, DC, 1998), 214.
As the smallest of Vermeer’s extant paintings, the only known work on panel, and the artist’s first real venture into the schematically rendered forms of his late style, Girl with the Red Hat occupies an intriguing place in Vermeer’s oeuvre. It reveals the undiminished creativity and experimentalism with which he approached his craft and provides insight into his evolution as an artist. Yet, as a reused panel, it also reminds us of some of the mysteries left to solve regarding the scope of his work and the range of his clientele.
October 7, 2022
upper center of tapestry in ligature: IVM
Possibly Pieter Claesz van Ruijven [1624-1674], Delft; possibly by inheritance to his wife, Maria de Knuijt [d. 1681]; possibly by inheritance to her daughter, Magdalena van Ruijven [1655-1682], Delft; possibly by inheritance to her husband, Jacob Abrahamsz. Dissius [1653-1695], Delft; (sale, Amsterdam, 16 May 1696, probably no. 39 or 40). Lafontaine collection, Paris; (his sale, Hôtel de Bouillon, Paris, 10-12 December 1822 [postponed from 27-29 November], no. 28). Baron Louis Marie Baptiste Atthalin [1784-1856], Colmar; by inheritance to his nephew and adopted son, Louis Marie Félix Laurent-Atthalin [1818-1893], Colmar and Paris; by inheritance to his son, Baron Gaston Marie Laurent-Atthelin [1848-1912], Paris and Château des Moussets, Limay, Seine-et-Oise; by inheritance to his wife, Baroness Marguerite Chaperon Laurent-Atthalin [1854-1931], Paris; (M. Knoedler & Co., New York and London); sold November 1925 to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 30 March 1932 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
The support is a single wood plank, probably oak, with a vertical grain. A cradle, including a wooden collar around all four sides of the panel, was attached before the painting entered the collection. A partially completed painting exists underneath the present composition oriented 180 degrees with respect to the girl. The X-radiograph reveals the head-and-shoulders portrait of a man wearing a white kerchief around his neck and a button on his garment. Infrared reflectography at 1.1 to 2.5 microns shows a cape across his shoulder, a broad-brimmed hat, locks of long curling hair, and vigorous brushwork in the background.
Infrared reflectography was performed with a Santa Barbara focal plane array InSb camera fitted with H, J, and K astronomy filters.
The panel was initially prepared with a light tan double ground.
The lower ground consists of calcium carbonate, the upper ground of white lead lightly toned with earth and black (see Melanie Gifford, “Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer’s Technique,” in Vermeer Studies, ed. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker [Washington, DC, 1998], 185–199).
The paint used to model the girl was applied with smoothly blended strokes. Layered applications of paint of varying transparencies and thicknesses, often blended wet-into-wet, produced soft contours and diffused lighting effects. The paint in the white kerchief around the girl’s neck has been scraped back to expose darker paint below.
The painting was treated in 1994 to remove discolored varnish and inpaint. The treatment revealed the painting to be in excellent condition with just a few minor losses along the edges. The painting had been treated previously in 1933, probably by Louis de Wild, and in 1942 by Frank Sullivan.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. based on the examination report by Sarah Fisher
April 24, 2014