Johannes Vermeer's short but prolific career can be summed up in hs artwork The Art of Painting, started in 1666. This article will analyse the relation between his life and this painting, concentrating on his mastered technique of hyper-realism, differentiating him from his compeers.
The Art of Painting depicts an artist painting a young woman. This painting explores the Dutch Golden Area’s new artistic techniques, shifting from realism to hyperrealism. To understand the image, we need to understand the difference between these terms. A realistic painting is inspired by daily life, portrayed in a way to reflect reality, as the term suggests. Although hyper-realism is very similar to realism in that it shares the same principles of copying the outside world and transferring it onto a canvas, not every detail must match reality: the depiction of colours and objects mirror reality, but the size and setting may differ. Individual parts of the painting are depicted in the most realistic way possible, but the composition may not be as natural. For example, in one of his works, Vermeer painted flowers that do not correspond to the season of the reat of image. The Art of Painting is a key work in which Vermeer practiced this style of painting.
Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, the Netherlands, to a middle-class family. His mother was the innkeeper of their family-run inn, and his father was an art dealer. It is unclear what kind of artistic education Vermeer received growing up, but he probably went to public school where he would have been exposed to art lessons. Little is known, but there are theories that he could have been taught by Evert Van Aelst, who allegedly gave him free lessons to settle his debt with Vermeer's father (Snyder, 2015, p 28). Vermeer could have furthered his artistic education by moving to Amsterdam, the centre of art in the 1600s. He was most likely taught perspective and how to paint from life. Despite the exposure to art from a young age, his artistic career only began after 40 because, regardless of marrying a wealthy woman, 11 children to maintain brought financial hardship to the family (Walsh, 1973, p. 5). His late start compared to other painters of his time explains why there is a significantly smaller number of paintings he produced.
The Art of Painting depicts a well-dressed artist painting a young woman dressed in a light blue, fancy dress holding a trumpet and a book. The curtain is drawn open, allowing the viewer to sneak a peek into the scenery. We are invited to observe whilst at a distance. The two figures are in an alcove of a room, suggesting a study. The lack of art supplies and the overall elegant and lavish feel of what is shown of the room suggest it is not the artist's studio, an example of hyper-realism. The painter and his subject are Vermeer and one of his daughters. Vermeer has depicted himself in the best way possible: it is unusual for an artist to be so well dressed, considering the mess that comes from painting. The artist would be wearing an apron and less elegant clothes. Because of how Vermeer has portrayed the artist, it is clear the painting does not follow traditional realism norms but rather hyperrealist ones. The clothes the artist is wearing are realistic in the way they look real, but they do not belong in this setting; therefore, it cannot be a realistic artwork.
The portrayal of light shows the indispensable role in Vermeer’s piece. We, as viewers, do not see the window from which the light comes, but we can follow its path quite easily thanks to the inclusion of shadows and their effect on the folds of the clothes. Vermeer’s love and pursuit for detail go beyond the obvious, for example, the map. Vermeer included all the creeks the paper may bear, giving the map a story. He also included small boats and the names of seas, which are unnoticeable at first glance. Thanks to Vermeer’s perfection of chiaroscuro and the use of shadows to create a three-dimensional look, the map looks real. The chandelier is another example. The light shines from the left side of the painting onto the object highlighting its shape and giving it motion, allowing the chandelier (and every object depicted) to have its own importance and role. Even the bolts on the leather chair in the foreground authentically reflect light. The use of chiaroscuro is crucial because it intensifies the colours, influential in Vermeer’s interest in painting. There is an additional motion to the image with the inclusion of the three out of four legs of the stool touching the ground, showing he is rocking on the seat while he paints. It reiterates the notion that the figures in the artwork are real, engaging in the scene which is being depicted. By making it clear to the viewer, Vermeer has involved us even more.
Vermeer’s attention to detail advocates his view of the art of painting. It is almost as if he painted to achieve perfection. Most of his artworks follow the same theme and depict the same objects. For example, there are portrayals of maps in nine paintings, women reading or writing in six, music-related objects in eight, and black and white tiles ten times (Snyder, 2015, p. 311). His approach is more critical and technical than his pursuit of a career (Welu, 1978 p. 9), unlike other contemporary artists of his. Vermeer’s attention to detail and willingness to achieve perfection is evident in all his paintings. It can even be seen in the small grey lines of the marble tiles.
The Art of Painting is considered to be one of Vermeer's favourite works due to the fact he never sold it. This reiterates the importance it had to him, a testament to his quest for excellence in delineating the effects light has when shone and the vitality it wrecks on the artwork. It is clear from the composition that the objects chosen do not reveal a realistic painting. An artist's studio would not be as glorious as the room the two subjects find themselves in; the painter's clothes would not be as sumptuous. The lack of coherence in this piece adds to its beauty: Vermeer made ill-fitting details conform.
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Snyder, L. J. (2015). Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. W. W. Norton & Company.
Walsh, J. (1973). Vermeer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 31(4), 181–219. https://doi.org/10.2307/3258580.
Welu, J. A., & Vermeer. (1978). The Map in Vermeer’s “Art of Painting.” Imago Mundi, 30, 9–2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1150701.
The Art of Painting, Johannes Vermeer, 1666-1668, sourced from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html
The Glass of Wine, Vermeer, c. 1658–1661, sourced from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html
Woman with a Lute, Vermeer, c. 1662–1665 sourced from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html
Allegory of Faith, Vermeer, c. 1670–1674 sourced from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html
Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, Vermeer, c. 1670–1671 sourced from http://www.essentialvermeer.com/vermeer_painting_part_one.html