Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #2

December 1st, 2008

Although the signature on Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace cannot be made out in any reproduction, one has no problem finding it when directly viewing the work. It is discreetly positioned on the side of the massive extendable oak table (parallel to the picture plane) slightly to the right on the slate-blue tablecloth (click on the image to the left to enlarge the schematic drawing I recently made of the area in question). It is executed with a delicate but firm touch using a slightly darker pigment than the base tone of the background. The typical monogram (IVM in ligature) is a bit clearer than the following ”eer”.

On those mature canvases which bear signatures, Vermeer declined to adopt the conventional formulae of signing in the lower left- or right-hand corner where it presumably might not disturb the aesthetic balance of the composition. Instead he positioned it in assorted places subtly varying its size, tonality and style. At times it is more prominent and at times more discreet always but it is always done with an infallible sense of pictorial design.

One senses that for Vermeer, the signature may have had an additional function other than simply claiming authorship.

Another curious little “secret” in this work that cannot be seen in reproductions is the presence of two circle-like forms to the right of the signature. Although they are clearly deliberate, they are so faint that they can easily be missed, I failed to spot them both times I had previously viewed the canvas. On close inspection, the upper one is composed of two tiny concentric circles which suggest a doughnut like form. The lower one appears to describe a delicately semi-spherical relief.

I have not a clue what these forms represent but they must have meant something otherwise Vermeer would not have painted them with such finesse.

2 Responses to “Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #2”

  1. ARech

    Thanks so much for all these fine details – there can’t be a better preparation to view this enigmatic painting!

    As to Vermeer’s placement of his signature it seems not so unusual to me. As far as I have observed even still-life painters did quite similar. I remember several of Willem Kalf’s masterworks signed by him at exactly the same place – at the right side of a table top – executed with the same discretion and delicacy.

    These two puzzling circle-like forms seems to me part – maybe a kind of knob – of the technical device to extend the table (perhaps with springs or rods inside to fasten resp. to release that part of the table top). When being in Delft the next time I will have a closer look to such tables in the Prinsenhof- or Lambert van Meerten-museum.

    Keenly awaiting further details!


  2. Jonathan Janson

    Thanks ARech…I was thinking along the same lines. These forms seem to be of the same color – a dull brown – as the wooden table. What amazed me viewing the work was the precision with which they were executed. Perhaps someone in the Rijksmuseum might be able to help. CODART has a list of curators. In the mean time, I will look at some slides I took years ago at the Rijksmuseum of a similar table and see if there is anything analogous.

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