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.

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