Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #3

December 8th, 2008

The first time I saw the Woman with a Pearl Necklace was at the block-buster exhibit of 21 Vermeer paintings in Washington. The room where it hung was so congested that I barely resisted an hour. Under the circumstances the work left no impression and the mental image I had previously drawn from scores of reproductions remained unscathed.

My next encounter was 7 years later at the Madrid Vermeer and the Dutch Interior exhibition. Again, it was a jam-packed event with a minimum of 5 viewers per painting. This time, however, I was resolved to make the best of the situation and held my viewing ground as much as good manners permitted.

The picture made an unforgettable impression but one particular passage left me puzzled: on the left-hand side the girl’s gray gown was a dark rectangular area that made little sense (it cannot be seen in any reproduction). At first glance it suggested a dark recess in the woman’s gown but, in effect, it was far too wide and too dark for that. Was it Vermeer caught in an off-moment, the consequence of decay, faulty restoration or something else?

Recently, I was once again able to observe the picture which is on temporarily loan here in Rome. Even though the lighting is dreadfully low, a pair of strong reading glasses allowed me to draw close the canvas without tripping the alarm and see more than I had before.

The paint layer of the passage in question does not appear flawed; on the contrary, it seemed to have been deliberately and carefully executed. After a few moments of close inspection I noticed the presence of a very fine blurred line of light gray paint that runs parallel to the area’s right-hand edge dividing the dark into two parallel strips. Click on the schematic drawing above for an enlargement and see what I mean.

It struck me that instead of representing a part of the girl’s gown altered by some variance of illumination or fold, this passage might describe two decorative strips of black or near-black fabric sewn down the front of the gown. One such gown is worn by the seated lady in Gerrit Terborch’s Lady Peeling an Apple in Vienna (see detail left). Vermeer himself may have rendered a similar, but darker garment in his early Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window.

While knowing exactly what kind of gown the young lady adorns hardly alters the “meaning” of the painting, to me it helps to underline the care with which Vermeer treated the accouterments of the women he loved to paint.

2 Responses to “Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #3”

  1. Richard A. Smith RAS

    Terborch knew, personally, Vermeer very well, I’m convinced.
    The dress’s decorative panels in the Lady with a Pearl Necklace and the question of the circular enigmas on the table’s edge remind of another Terborch anomaly. In “The Dispatch”, on the toe of the left boot of the messenger waiting for a letter, sits a RED SPHERE. Why?
    The officer writing the letter has been identified as Netscher, Terborch’s famous student. The comical figure of the messenger, waiting patiently, and being sniffed by the officer’s hound, is Vermeer! Why?
    Terborch is, undeniably, one of the greatest portraitists of the Golden Age. If this messenger’s head is mirrored and placed magically beside the head of Vermeer’s Geographer, the two heads compare favourably. (more favourably than Mr. Wheelock’s comparison to van Lieuenhoek?) Since the Geographer and the Astronomer are the same man (by the same hand), then the Geographer is the Astronomer, who identifies himself within the painting by indicating his birth month. How? The following was a previous response to the assertion that Van Lieuenhoek is the subject of the “scientists” Vermeer painted:

    “The men are the same age. Both born in 1632 as we can surmise by the usual Christian practice of early Baptism after birth. I doubt that they were born “twins” of the same month, which would need to be the case, in regards to The Astronomer. I doubt that Mr. Wheelock, whose work is very much admired, would rest his laurels on his speculation regarding this identity.
    The Astronomer, himself, reveals his identity within the picture. He points to it with, not an index finger, but a THUMB. The thumb, in common usage, is a phallic symbol of the era, which Vermeer revealed in his picture “The Lady and Her Maid”. The thumb being larger by a knuckle than reality would have it. Her other hand had no such problem. But, I digress, to introduce the Astronomer’s thumb as symbol and its placement on the celestial globe as significant.
    The thumb rests on the Aquarian symbol of the water bearer. Thus, the approximation of January to February is clearly indicated. The painting-within-a-painting of Moses being taken from the water by the daughter of Pharoah, which, incidentally, is the meaning of the name, Moses -”taken from the water”, aligns perfectly with this astrological speculation as well as the Name of the Astronomer. Who is HE? One need only count the full gestation period of a human from “the conception” (THUMB)to “the delivery”, which is painted for us in the dead centre of the globe, albeit below centre, to ascertain the month of birth which is indicated by the Scales of LIBRA – the month of OCTOBER – the same Month that our hero was baptised. VERMEER, whose name means “OF THE SEA”!

    Please take the time to investigate this assertion with the Hondius celestial globe and other sources at your disposal to assure yourself of the position of Vermeer’s thumb.
    My take on the RED SPHERE is that red is one of two colours which, symbolically, are associated with sensuality. Yellow, being the other, was often used by Vermeer in close proximity particularly in the dress of women (skirts, underskirts), whereas, Terborch used red for the indicator of sensuality, in empty chairs, etc.
    Using a sphere of this colour can be assumed to have a knowing audience, which, most likely, would include the model for the messenger in The Dispatch – who is Vermeer.

  2. Richard A. Smith RAS

    I neglected to mention that the SPHERE and likewise, the circle were well known as symbols of PERFECTION by the Emblemata or Emblem Books extant at that time and popular with and made for artists. Alciato, the Italian lawyer hoped to pass on ancient wisdom through the emblems that he published in 1533, which were then illustrated to a standard formula by Venius and others in the 17th century. They evolved over the years and country to country by enthusiasts for both religious and secular use. The Cupids of Vermeer are taken from this pastime.
    The RED SPHERE may be Terborch’s way of patting-himself-on-the-back for the sensual JOKE in which he has compromisingly placed his friends. (and possibly students!)

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