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 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 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The panel was initially prepared with a light tan double ground.
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