Archive for November, 2008

Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #1

November 29th, 2008

Although I had seen the Woman with a Pearl Necklace in temporary exhibitions in Washington and Madrid, both times viewing conditions were near prohibitive due to crowds. Consequentially, my understanding of the picture effectively relied on a dozen or so reproductions.

This situation has improved with the current exhibition in Rome, where one may pretty much have the work to himself from 2 to 3 pm and 7 to 8 pm on weekdays.

Having spent some hours in front of the painting, I hope to share a few of its “secrets” which are not evident from reproductions. Nothing astounding mind you. Art historians need not tremble, I am talking about details. But still, if these details were important enough for Vermeer to paint, perhaps they are important enough to consider.

First of all, in reproductions we see only half of the painting: the upper half to be precise. The lower half, even in state-of-the-art reproductions, results as a dark uniform void. This demonstrates one of the limits of photography (which painting does not have) and one that even amateur photographers are aware of. In conditions of extreme contrast of light, if you correctly capture the lights the darks are sacrificed and vice versa.

In reality, the lower half of Vermeer’s composition is not at all a dark void, it is a penumbra teaming with life. Even at first glance we can clearly make out the massive extendable table with all its ornaments, Vermeer’s signature, a few marble floor tiles and a leather covered chair, perhaps one of the most suggestive passages in the painter’s oeuvre.

The posts which follow will inspect some of the details of the painting’s lost half and how they might influence our perception of the picture as a whole.

Digital art crash

November 26th, 2008

Europe thought too big. As soon as the mother-of-all digital library got launched 20 November, 10 million hits per hour caused the entire system to crash. If curious, check out their laconic apology.

For a timely Google alert and quirk of fate I was able to view all the Vermeer images before the site struck ground and I can guarantee the wait will be worth it for scholars and public alike.

If you want to know exactly what Europeana is, click here.

Why are there no art history blogs?

November 24th, 2008

After a Sunday morning internet survey, I have discovered I am pretty much on my own; there are virtually no art history blogs. The most applicable post, appropriately dated more than year ago, takes a look at the dilemma. It is summed up here:

  1. Art history as a field is more status-conscious, tradition-bound, and more cautious in its attitude toward the public realm than other fields.
  2. Art historians follow art news but are reticent to publicly commenting. In respects to other disciplines, art history has little tradition in engaging in public speech.
  3. Art historians suffer from technophobia, the disdain for computers runs much stronger than in other fields their.
  4. Art historical work simply doesn’t lend itself to blogging.

Dissent or agree as you will, art historians included.

Can this happen again?

November 21st, 2008

The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez is the most penetrating and useful book written about the spectacular Han van Meegeren case of false Vermeers. Among its merits is an articulated answer to the crucial question skated by preceding studies: how could it have happened? In a nutshell here is the author’s answer: “a fake doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail according to the fidelity with which it replicates the distant past but on the basis of its power to sway the contemporary mind.”

This answer arouses a more insidious one: could it happen today? Let’s hear Jonathan’s take:

Well, I think anyone who says, “We could never be fooled again,” is probably a bit naive. Attractively packaged products of little inherent value continue to fool some of the smartest and most knowledgeable people in the world–for instance, the bond traders at Bear Stearns who were haplessly buying and selling bogus mortgage securities. But, that said, I think the possibility of anyone passing off a forged Vermeer today would be virtually nil. And I don’t think it’s just because of the advances that have been made in the scientific examination of pictures, although that’s part of it. The real problem is that you can only fool people if, on some level, they actively want to believe you. With the mortgage securities, for instance, Wall Street wanted to believe that risk could be managed through financial engineering–a kind of narcissism, if you think about it–but it all worked quite profitably for a while, and that made the whole scheme seem credible. In the 1920s and ‘30s, art experts still expected to find more Vermeers because it seemed only logical that such a skillful artist would have produced more works than the thirty-five that we know today. And since Vermeer had really only been rediscovered in the latter half of the 19th century, it seemed completely plausible that more of his paintings would eventually show up. In fact a couple did: The Girl with the Red Hat, for instance, was rediscovered in 1925. Today, there’s absolutely no expectation that any new Vermeers will turn up–and because there is no expectation, any fake would be greeted with intense skepticism. Van Meegeren operated in an entirely different atmosphere: he was making art historians’ dreams come true.

Billion euro sunken masterpieces

November 20th, 2008

In 1771, the schooner Frau Maria sank near Finland while it was transporting treasures for the Hermitage Museum purchased at an auction in Amsterdam for Catherine the Great. After its rediscovery in 1991, archival research has turned up papers concerning the auction which reveal that onboard were 27 works by the Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Hendrick Van Balen, Gerrit Terborch (perhaps Vermeer’s most talented colleague) and Jan Van Goyen.

Amazing as it may seem, experts hope the paintings were packed into special lead containers coated with wax for the overseas voyage making it theoretically possible that the canvases might survive in good shape. The Russian imperial riches are said to be the most important underwater discovery ever, presenting unprecedented historical and monetary value. Antiquarians give it the tag of 500 million to 1 billion euros. The Frau Maria will be will be raised to the surface in 2010 but the issue of ownership contended by Russia and Finland has not been settled as yet.

Russia Today

Europeana: think culture (big)

November 19th, 2008

Europe is thinking big and has just launched, a huge digital library with more than 2 million digital items drawn from the museums and galleries, archives, libraries and audio-visual collections of 26 European countries. For Vermeer people, there are already very nice surprises. Click on the links below and then click on the thumbnails for enlargements. Be patient, some of them require lots of loading time, they are very big.

The View of Delft, The Milkmaid. The Love Letter, The Little Street, The Woman in Blue and The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

You have ten seconds to find the Vermeer below

November 18th, 2008
People and a Vermeer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The vast majority of European easel painting can no longer be viewed in its original context. This fact has advantages and disadvantages.

Even though I live in Rome I cannot say I have ever really seen Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew. It hangs in the the original, dim Contarelli Chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi where day in and day out the same pantomime consumes itself in near obscurity. Tourists uncomfortably eye each other attempting to guess who will capitulate and clink the coin into a metal box to trigger a few minutes of artificial light. Although the setting should guarantee a taste of bygone Baroque spirituality, you occasionaly get the same crowd density as you do at the MET at blockbuster exhibitions plus the chapel’s compact dimensions makes your angle of vision problematic.

On the other hand, if you are versed in the science of museum traffic, it is not impossible to be alone with a real Vermeer in a well lit, air-conditioned museum, but such a privilege is getting rarer. Overcrowded conditions are even more at odds with a Vermeer that they are for a Caravaggio which, after all, was meant to be on public display. Oppositely, Vermeer tooled his tiny masterpieces to function in the quiet of a private, cramped 17th Dutch century home. Such pictures demand a private dialogue: 10 people jockeying for a glimpse the pocket-sized Lacemaker makes me wonder.

Another scourge has come inflict itself on some Vermeer paintings: the ominous digital device. At a recent visit to the MET I noticed that the statistical majority of viewers had no qualms about poking digital cameras and cell phones in the face of the Study of a Young Woman without having much looked at the picture. She likely did not take offense; she knows there are worse fates.

The absolute low point of digital aggression took place at the funeral of Pope Giovanni Paolo II. Even though authorities repeatedly requested the public to refrain from taking snapshots of the dead Pope, some of the public repeatedly refused to refrain, held their arms up as the passed by and clicked away their hearts content. The media largely passed over this story.

To glaze or not to glaze

November 15th, 2008

Glazing, once a standard tool in every painter’s repertoire since the invention of oil painting, is not always understood by artists and art historians today since it has fallen into total disuse. In the simplest terms, glazing consists in brushing a transparent layer of paint over another thoroughly dried layer of opaque paint. The effect is analogous to placing a sheet of brightly colored acetate over a monochrome photograph. Glazing creates a unique “shine through” stained glass effect that is not obtainable by direct application of opaque paints no matter how brilliant they might be. The underpainting, on which the glaze is applied, is normally monochromatic but it may also contain some color. Thus, the two separate layers of paint are not physically, but optically mixed. The lower layer determines the form and light while the glaze layer gives it its color.

Glazing technique served chiefly to compensate the pernicious lack of “strong colors” making it particularly adapted for the brightly colored draperies. It should not be forgotten that the masters possessed very few of the brilliant colors that are widely available today. The whole range of cadmiums as well as cobalt and Prussian blue did not exist until the eighteenth century. Glazing was also economical since some of the most important glazing pigments were costly. The principle form and lighting were built up with cheap paint and subsequently glazed over with a minimum of glazing pigment. Thus, a Dutch flower painter might work up his blue flower in white and smalt, a cheap blue, and then glaze with natural ultramarine. Natural ultramarine, the characteristic blue in may of Vermeer’s works and was the costliest pigment of all, was made of powdered lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan.

Vermeer used glazing as other Dutch painters, with parsimony. They knew glazing is not an answer-all technical solution and is most effective in isolated areas of a painting where its characteristics are fully enhanced. By the way, the lemon yellow jackets of Vermeer’s women are not glazed. They are painted with the defunct lead-tin yellow, a rather thick, dullish yellow which pales next to cadmium yellow but through careful juxtaposition shines in Vermeer’s work.

Here is an example of my own work of a fairly common glaze that Vermeer himself never employed. The girl’s jacket was first worked-up in monochrome with white and raw umber and then glazed with red madder, a brilliant ruby red. Once the whole jacket was uniformly glazed, a little white was added in the lightest area to make them “stand up,” it was left entirely transparent in the shadows which produces a rather handsome sense of airy depth. If glazes are too even and too transparent, they tend to create a candy-apple effect.

Vermeer’s lost followers

November 15th, 2008
Vilhelm Hammershøi

Although Vilhelm Hammershøi may or may not be of your liking (he does little for me), his Vermeer-like works inadvertently bring up a question which has always puzzled me: why did Vermeer’s art have such a limited impact on artists of his own time or those who followed?

By my count there exist less than ten paintings by his contemporaries which display unequivocal influence of Vermeer’s hand. Gabriel Metsu scattered a few pointillès here and there in a love letter motif while Michiel Van Musschen, (the kind of enterprising fellow who recycled just about anything he could get his hands on) did a slightly googfy version of Vermeer’s grand Art of Painting. Van Musschen’s version is hardly the stuff which makes the dynamics art history so compelling. As far as we know, Vermeer had no apprentices and not even one of his many children was sufficiently inspired to follow their father’s steps. Bluntly put, Vermeer fathered no school or movement and anticipated not a single formal or expressive development which painters felt called to elaborate upon either in his own time or centuries later. Vermeer’s “lesson” barely extends beyond the area occupied by his easel. Admired yes, occasionally “quoted” yes, but emulated no.

Vermeer’s historical disappearing act is generally explained by the fact that it was the artist himself who corralled his own fame by painting and selling a truly paltry number works in his beloved, but small town Delft. How far could his “lessons” reasonably spread in a pre-photography world where paintings were destined to largely inaccessible private homes? But still, exceptional paintings did get noticed in the Netherlands even if they were done slowly like those of Carel Fabritius, Gerrit Dou, Gerrit Terborch or Frans Van Mieris.

It seems a singular coincidence that Vermeer reached his apotheosis during the twentieth century when art history invested so much energy and enthusiasm defining the causes and effects in the evolution of European painting. He stands out as an artistic father with no children, a domino which fails to knock down the next.


November 10th, 2008
Da Rembrandt a Vermeer: Valori civili nella pittura fiamminga e olandese del '600

It’s not often that a Vermeer travels to Rome but transportation strikes here are frequent enough that I was obliged to take a 50 minute walk from my house instead of the usual 15 minute bus ride downtown to get a preview of a promising exhibition of Dutch and Flemish painting.

After the perfectly straight walk (Via Nomentana/Via del Quirinale) on a perfect day I bounded up the travertine steps of the Museo di Roma, picked up a press kit, slowed down and resigned myself to wait through the press conference until the exhibition doors opened. A quick glance around told me that my friend Paolo, who was supposed to meet me at 12:00 sharp, made a no-show evidently unwilling to take the long midday walk.

With the conference 5 minutes underway, someone called my name from behind: it was Paolo. With a typical Italian gesture he commanded me to desert the conference on the spot and come with him. I obeyed since he possesses an instinctive ability turn a no into a yes, open a closed door, and find things under unturned rocks. While such traits are not an uncommon here in Italy, my friend has another one we both share, one that is rare on this peninsula: he has an unconditional allegiance to the art of Vermeer’s.

Shuffled past a few guards, a left and two rights, down a narrow corridor, up a narrower elevator, past last minute preparations, we got into the exhibit. In fact, Paolo hadn’t been late at all. He had been locked on to the Woman with a Pearl Necklace pretty much to himself since 11:00. The exhibition setting was striking and there were none but a few apathetic cameramen. It is not everyday that ones gets to see a Vermeer painting without the usual hustle bustle. Some observations will follow.