National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
Vermeer of DelftPainting and Illusionism
The Art of Painting  Technique and Conservation
Art and HistoryThe Painting's Afterlife

Technique and Conservation

Detail of artist at work from The Art of Painting

As Vermeer left behind no drawings or preliminary studies, our information about his artistic process can only be gleaned from the paintings themselves. In this regard, The Art of Painting is particularly valuable for it depicts an artist at work. Not only does it demonstrate that an artist sat rather than stood at his easel, it also shows that he used his mahlstick to steady his hand while painting. Having already covered his canvas with a light gray ground and indicated his composition with white lines, probably chalk, the artist applies flat, unmodulated strokes of color as the underlying tones for the laurel wreath crowning his model's head. At a later stage a variety of glazes and small highlights would model the form.

Technical examinations of Vermeer's paintings have, indeed, shown that he often followed this procedure. Sometimes it appears that he changed his mind during the painting process and made adjustments even after he had blocked in compositional elements, including figures, maps, chairs, and musical instruments. Surprisingly, however, in this large and complex scene not a single compositional change has been discovered, either through microscopic analysis, infrared photography, or x-radiography. Such compositional assurance seems to indicate that Vermeer had worked out his composition beforehand, perhaps with a careful preliminary drawing that he transferred onto his large canvas.

Detail of chandelier from The Art of Painting

Whether or not he was inspired by the optical and spatial effects of the camera obscura, he organized and structured his painting with careful attention to the laws of linear perspective. As seems to have been his standard process, he marked his vanishing point, which is just below the black finial of the pole weighting the map, with a pin. Evidence of the pinhole is still visible on the painting. Strings would then have been attached to the pin to mark the orthogonals of the tiles and table edge. Despite these careful preparations, Vermeer adapted his perspective to enhance the dramatic impact of the scene. To emphasize the artist's central importance within the allegory, Vermeer painted him at a disproportionately large scale: standing, the artist would tower over his model. Even though the artist's face is not visible, the viewer senses both the forcefulness of his personality and the intensity of his gaze.

The artist at his easel is executed with broad strokes that match the boldness of the image. The patterns of the black jacket, red hose, white boot hose, and black slippers are almost abstract in their crisp renderings of light and shadow. At the rear of the room, however, Vermeer has described forms with more attention to light and textural effects. The nuances of light falling across Clio's hands, face, and robe convey the softness of her skin, the smoothness of the leather-bound folio she holds, and the sheen of the blue fabric. Vermeer similarly recorded the worn surface of the wall map as light models its form and reflects its aged appearance. Finally, in one of the most striking passages found in any of his works, he captured the brilliance of sunlight reflecting off the polished surface of the brass chandelier. With sure strokes that range from thick impastos of lead-tin yellow in the highlights to darker and thinner strokes of ocher in the shadows, Vermeer created the illusion of an object that seems almost tangible.

These qualities of light and color are far more vivid today than before the recent conservation efforts undertaken by Hubert Dietrich at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The motivation for the conservation, however, was not primarily aesthetic. Careful examination of the painting prior to the Vermeer exhibition in 1995 revealed severe weaknesses in the paint structure, which could only be corrected by painstakingly cautious treatment over the course of a number of years.

The structural problems apparently arose because of certain peculiarities in the binding medium that Vermeer used when mixing his paints. Analytical examinations determined that the medium was a mixture of oil and protein, often in different concentrations. Perhaps because of this mixed medium, changes in temperature and humidity, as well as earlier restorations in which harsh, alkaline solvents were used, helped create a network of fine cracks throughout the upper paint layers, particularly in the whites. Oil varnishes applied over the years had seeped into these cracks, and, in some instances, had loosened the paint when they expanded upon drying.

Due to the instability of the paint surface, conservation work had to be carried out slowly, with the help of a stereomicroscope. Indeed, a special pliable membrane was devised by Werner Jütte of Vienna to hold the paint layer in place under light suction while the painting was being consolidated. Also, as the old (but not original) stretcher had warped slightly, it was adapted to bring the painting back into plane. The yellowed varnish was reduced and the discolored inpainting that had disfigured the surface removed. As a result of this treatment, the painting is not only secure but also luminous, glowing again with the special light that Vermeer infused into his scenes.

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