Thursday, February 12, 2009

Filed Under V - Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Red Hat"

1666. The Netherlands.

A second floor studio in Maria Thins' house at Oude Langendijk, Delft. The large space is lighted by three north facing windows offering an open view across Market Square. Thirty three-year-old Johannes Vermeer applies the final brushstroke to his latest painting, "Girl with a Red Hat." After cleaning up, he heads wearily downstairs to his wife and children.

June 28, 2007. 11:15 AM. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. West Main Floor.

I hurried upstairs to Gallery 51, a room of Rembrandts, and took a sharp left. There on the far wall, floating in the twilight of Gallery 50C, a tiny painting. An impossible light was emanating from "Girl with a Red Hat." For a moment I thought someone had installed a clever bulb device, and I could see it glowing through the canvas from behind. But this Vermeer was painted on panel. What I was seeing was the genius of a long dead man and the hard evidence of his effort and skill, reaching through time and living still.

The illusion of light in “Girl with a Red Hat” is a result of Vermeer’s technical expertise, vision, and sophisticated use of color. The dramatic and sparing use of white in the composition. How the dark purple in the hat shadow and the red in the hat react to the opposite greenish glaze in the shaded areas of the girl’s right cheek, forehead, eyes and nose. The red-orange tint in the cheeks, a reflection of the hat on flesh. The dark blue robe painted over a red earth ground triggering a subtle retinal reaction, further emphasized by the lead-tin yellow highlights on the folds of the robe. The satisfying placement of elements, the girl's eternally ambiguous expression, and on.

That day at the National Gallery I was fortunate to find myself alone with the 9 1/8” x 7 1/8” painting for a full five minutes. I got down on my knees and was thrilled to examine the surface of the painting very closely and from an extreme low angle, the light from the ceiling glancing off the panel. I could clearly see the areas that had been glazed last over the underpainting, the minute cracks in those areas smaller than the cracks on the rest of the surface. I knew from research that the underpainting of the hat was modeled with vermillion and black and had then been finished in areas with a red madder glaze to create the final cherry red effect. I could also distinctly see the areas where Vermeer applied ultramarine glazing to the dark blue robe.

All the highlight areas of the composition were obviously thicker, built up from repeated applications of lead white and tinted white. The light painted over the dark. The bright collar area, the earring, the reflections on the nose and lips, a luminous dot of turquoise on one eye. The exquisite details on the lion head finials of the chair were raised from layering like pearly beads, yet revealed no detectable proof of brushwork. The edges were feathered out and blurred to create the out of focus effect that some attribute to Vermeer’s fascination with the camera obscura. In truth, the white areas of the painting aren’t even really that bright. It’s Vermeer’s use of context that makes them appear so. The use of color next to color. Color over color. Transparent vs. opaque. Dark and light. Warm and cool. In “Girl with a Red Hat,” Vermeer made the tedious appear unfussy while the truly fussy appears offhand.

Re: Realistic Painting:

Many painters have been, are, and will be highly impressive realists. Let's say two paintings are roughly equally accomplished technically. What makes one painting extraordinary and another not?

Two things:
(1) What the painter chose to paint, and
(2) the individual hand in the work.

(1) What the painter chose to paint:
The overall planning. The subject matter, the composition, the “statement” or absence of one.

Is the placement of elements balanced in an uncommon way? Does the image leave something unsaid, open to interpretation? Is it self-conscious or pretentious at its core? Or is it beyond challenge in its trueness to itself? Was the artist able to allow the image itself to show the way, free of posturing or vanity, almost as if channeling something
already fully formed?

(2) The individual hand in the work:
The actual application of the paint, the choice of tools a
nd how they’re used, the medium itself. All resulting in the surface system, the skin. The naked truth. There’s no hiding from the naked truth.

When we’re familiar with a painting from a reproduction and then see the original in person, so often it’s a disappointment. Did the downsized, Photoshop-enhanced copy we viewed in a book or online have way more impact than the real thing? Many times the original appears chalky, or brittle, or flat like wall paint, or the surface reveals too obviously how the paint was applied. Or it’s so slick or overworked that it’s dead. Or it just doesn’t have any light in it because the artist wasn’t capable of putting it there, either technically or emotionally.

Some purist painters agonize endlessly over using this heirloom medium or that, as if medium itself could possibly give an image life. It's true, the choice of mediums and the way they're used can have significant impact on the final look of a piece, on its physical integrity and longevity. Even so, extraordinary paintings can be made using ordinary commercial materials, while use of extraordinary materials will never rescue an ordinary painting. What's the real goal, to have your work be crack-free in 500 years, or to be worry-free enough in the noodle to be able to just have at it? Of course, the two disciplines needn't be mutually exclusive. We can respect and exploit our materials, but be their detached boss.

Thomas Kinsella said the artist had to "freeze the flux," to pause the perpetual movement that is life in order to observe and preserve a bit of it as art. The challenge being to preserve it but not kill it.

Luminosity. I don’t personally care if it’s realistic painting, abstract painting, commercial illustration, comic art, or a doodle. If it was made with "Old Master" materials, mass-produced tube paint, common watercolors, ink, pencils, or crayons. If it's grand or small, on linen or on cardboard. The powerful artist's talent will shine through despite these constraints. For me, beyond subject and the individual hand in the work, light is the biggest thing. If an image has a convincing sense of light, it will command our attention over time, because the light source is permanently inside it. And that's magical.

Transcendent work renders debate about style, subject and medium unnecessary.

Vermeer struggled with a riddle many artists encounter but few solve. How to make art on its own terms and a living at the same time. And how to balance the demands of art-making with the needs of a beloved family. His wife Catharina, whose mother owned the house at Oude Langendijk, gave birth to 14 children, and 11 survived. Vermeer was relatively successful in his own time, but because he was so meticulous, and had such soaring standards, he worked comparatively slowly. Today just 35 paintings are known to exist that are universally attributed to him. When the economy of the Netherlands collapsed in the early 1670’s due to war on two fronts, Vermeer was left without means by which to support his family, either as an artist or an art dealer. These circumstances, tragically beyond his control, forced his family into crippling debt. His personal system rapidly disintegrated, and along with it his health. The master of light died in December 1675 at the age of forty three.

After his death, Vermeer's work went largely unrecognized for 200 years. The value of just one one his paintings today is immeasurable.

"During the ruinous war he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children, having no means of his own, he had lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day or day and a half had gone from being healthy to being dead."

- Vermeer’s widow, Catharina Boines


Dan Leo said...

If only 1% of art writing was this good...

Jennifer said...

Wonderful post (thanks for sending me over, Dan). Reading it made me react as if I were looking at the actual piece or working on something of my own that was for once, going right.

Here's to that elusive spark that makes some art transcendent.

Dean Rohrer said...

Thank you Dan and Jennifer and Johannes and Verve.

kathleenmaher said...

Your distinctions between art and mistakes interested me. Metaphorically, the same could apply to fiction. Except I don't try to "freeze flux," I try to make it, and invariably try too hard.
The painting by Monet interested me, because it looked gorgeous and sweeping. I've long dreaded Monet since a show in Chicago where a curator had arranged his haystack paintings in one small room. Someone was supposed to meet me in that room. I waited longer than an hour.

Well Read Hostess said...

1) I actually like the painting more for having read what you wrote about it.
2) Turns out, I'M VERMEER. I, too, struggle with how to balance the demands of not-a-blogging with the needs of a beloved family. And also with napping needs. And snacking. Beloved Family. Napping. Snacking. In that order.
Did I mention wine? And also wine. Probably somewhere between napping and snacking.
3) Just doing my part to dumb down the art world, apparently.

Dean Rohrer said...

Great to hear from you Well Read Hostess--it's funny, i've always found the girl in "Red Hat" kind of irritating looking for some reason, but the light in the painting won me over and now I hardly even notice that the subject of the painting is a particular person with a particular face ...I just get sucked into the overall feel. Love the "I'm Vermeer" thought..there's a story in there. You can't out-dumb or out-nap me I bet!

Dr. Mel said...

Hi Dean, I was looking for a good photo of Girl w/ a Red Hat and came upon your excellent blog w/ its beautifully written post on said painting. Imagine my surprise when I saw you're from Wallingford! I grew up there, back in the days when the school was still Nether Providence High, though I imagine you're younger than I. I love your whole riff on luminosity in general.