Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #4

December 18th, 2008

It is surprising to discover that the stark white-washed wall in Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace was not a part of the artist’s original plan. Neutron radiography reveals that the girl’s silhouette was initially embraced by a large, decorative wall map of the United Provinces (identical to the one in The Art of Painting). Modern viewers do not regret the map’s disappearance. Other than being an extraordinary poetic statement in itself, Vermeer’s blank wall is a tour de force of pictorial technique.

Portraying the volume and play of natural light on white objects has always been problematic for painters. Aside from the rendering human flesh, no other motif challenges an artist’s technical skills and visual sensitivity more than a banal but elusive expanse of flat, uniformly blank wall illuminated with raking light. By comparison, analogous passages in Dutch genre paintings seem merely descriptive.

Although there are many ways to portray a nude white wall, Dutch 17th century painters habitually used a simple combination of three common pigments: white lead (a bulky pigment made by the renowned Dutch stack process), raw umber (a low-key, greenish brown made of natural earth) and black (usually selected wood, vegetable prod­uct or animal bones which have been calcinated).

Obviously, the most intensely illuminated area near the widow is painted with the greatest quantity of lead white although pure white pigment seems to be reserved for the shiny lid of a nondescript container of the still life. As the wall receives less light moving from left to right, the near-white paint mixture must be gradually toned down by adding small quantities of brown and black. However, it is extremely difficult to calculate the correct proportion of the base pigments so that the wall appears darkened rather than simply dirtied. Too much black creates a sullen, brackish effect which bears little relation with the overall warm harmony of the painting spoiling the illusion of light. If too much brown is added the wall fails distance itself from the foreground figure and create the subtle pocket of air which flows throughout the painting. At the same time, the paint must be carefully brushed on and delicately blended without overworking the paint layer so as to avoid producing a mechanical smoothness.

As much as I have observed Vermeer’s wall and probably understood how it was painted, in front of the real painting its effect is so commanding that I am unable to separate the pictorial artifice from the illusion of a sunlit white wall, perhaps the most perfect wall ever painted.

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