A closer look at Vermeer’s paintings, with new technology, has revealed that his perfectionism is in the finish, not the process.
Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch painter behind “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” has long had a reputation of being an obsessive perfectionist among the Baroque painters. We’ve known for a long time that he painted slowly, the first and last strokes of a painting often taken place years apart. He was a master of light and hue, and often used incredibly expensive pigments, ensuring he couldn’t risk making mistakes (and ensuring he left his family in debt).
There are only 50 paintings attributed to him, some of them disputed, and only 34 survive today. He had some success in life, but after his death at only 43, the art world largely forgot him for nearly two hundred years until he was ‘rediscovered’ in the late 1800s and promptly became an influence on a new generation of artists.
New methods of art imaging, called chemical imaging, have been used to take a much closer look at his meticulous works, and they have done what so many artists fear. Exposed his rough drafts.
Under the finish of ‘Woman Holding a Balance,’ for instance, high-energy X-rays looking for specific chemical elements in the paint have revealed his underpainting. The bulk shapes and values of the finished painting were first represented with quick, hasty strokes in paint that was probably neutral and monochrome. Grey, blue, or browns. Vermeer left history no sketches or cartoons of his work – this hasty work on the actual canvas may have been his only preparatory drafts.
In one case, the imaging has added new layer to a disputed Vermeer. When scientists looked at “Girl with a Red Hat,” they found in the underpainting that the girl had originally been a man, before the artist revised it in the final painting. It’s an interesting revelation that certainly warrants another kind of closer look, as Vermeer rarely painted men.