Archive for June, 2009

New National Gallery website re-make

June 28th, 2009

After years of stagnation, the London National Gallery has updated its internet presence.

For Vermeer enthusiasts, the re-do offers an improved zoom feature of both the Lady Seated at the Virginals and the Lady Standing at the Virginals, two late works which can be easily overlooked by newcomers.

Other than the restrained graphic re-make, someone at the National Gallery put his hand on his heart and eliminated the hideous watermarks which once “graced” these previous zoom features. If you are partial to detail (like myself) or a painter (like myself), these images provide both food for the eye and mind.

Although politics evidently constrain the gallery staff to aim their sites on the “lower” tier of museum goers (“Plan your visit here,” “Take part as a family,” “Subscribe to out Podcast link” links strategically infest the site), the textual information sorely disappoints. Do not the two ladies merit more than five bland paragraphs? Frankly, my 10-year web experience has taught me to never underestimate the inquisitiveness or intellect of the those who wish to warm up to the masterpieces for the first time. Both of these unobtrusive Vermeers have some pretty compelling stories to tell if one willing to scratch under the surface a bit.

Vermeer echo

June 20th, 2009

Following even Vermeer matters little know to the general public, Pieter Groenewegen’s Mountain Landscape with Travelers has been temporarily loaned by the Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder Gallery (Amsterdam) to the Prinsenhof-Museum, Delft.

Although you may not associate Groenewegen’s rather conventional landscapes with the sublime masterpieces of Vermeer, Vermeer evidently found Groenewegen’s Mountain Landscape with Travelers sufficiently intriguing to incorporate not once, but twice in his Lady Standing at the Virginals. To be fair, the word intriguing should be reserved to Vermeer’s pictorial sleigh of hand rather than to landscape itself. Here is the story in a pill.

Some years ago, Dr Gregor J. M. Weber (Head of the Department of Fine Arts in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) noted that the landscapes which appear on the lid of the virginal and in the gilt frame on the background wall of A Lady Standing at the Virginals showed remarkable similarities. Other than the overall composition, the succession light and dark layers of rocks and trees, the roofs of the houses and the waterfalls of two landscapes were virtually identical. Weber concluded that they were both based on the same painting.

Although many Dutch landscape painters composed their works along these lines, Weber noted a much greater similarity with the work of Pieter Groenewegen from Delft and concluded that the work must have been by him. By coincidence, Weber saw a photograph of Groenewege’s Mountain Landscape with Traveler and informed the two Amsterdam art dealers, John and Willem Jan Hoogstader, of his finding who were amazed when they discovered they were the owners of the very picture in question.

Using computer montage, Weber further analyzed the two depictions in Vermeer’s painting in reference to the real Groenewegen. And although it was evident that Vermeer had used some poetic license in adapting Groenewegen’s landscape to his expressive exigencies, the coincidences were so compelling that the swept away any reasonable doubt of Weber’s original conjecture.

What remains to be understood is the scope of Vermeer’s pictorial trickery. Personally, I have a hunch that the two landscapes were meant to deliberately “echo” each other in order to create a visual analogy to the musical theme which is at the heart of Vermeer’s composition. Visual “echos,” some obvious and some more subtle, seem to be a standard tool in Vermeer’s pictorial repertoire. One example is the curling locks of the youthful Guitar Player which closely well echo the dangling foliage of the landscape behind her. Another is the snow-white cap of the maid and the billowing clouds of the landscape behind her in the Love Letter.

If you would like to dig further into the matter, the Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder has published Weber’s findings with copious diagrams and images in the Hoosteder Journal No 7, Sept, 2000. If you contact them they may send you a free copy. Some information, without images, can be found at <>.

Zooming-in #2: an unfinished picture is worth a thousand words

June 19th, 2009

zoom what it’s about: For a painter who wishes to comprehend the technique of Vermeer, the best imaginable venue would be to spend a day, even an hour, watching him paint.

The next best thing, this one at least theoretically possible, would be to be able study a half-finished work by Vermeer, say somewhere between the underpainting and the final working-up stages. No luck here either.

In fact, to think of it, we rarely come across incomplete paintings in any museums by any author or from any age, not because they are down on the gallery racks out of view, but because very few have survived. Most often, when a painter died or an incomplete work surfaced, either an apprentice or a competent colleague was called in to make it salable. Authorship, even in the case of the most renowned masters, did not have the same aura as it does today.

The third best solution would be able to study an unfinished 17th-century canvas by a competent artist. Wish granted. And not only is there such a picture, it’s viewable in an excellent Zoom on the net. To be frank, there is too much to learn just by looking, so get clicking.

If you are a painter and you need background information to make sense of Del Sarto’s canvas, my book How to Paint Your Own Vermeer on Vermeer’s methods and materials covers quite a bit of common 17th-century studio practices. If you are not a painter and would like to delve in to some of the mysteries of the masters’ workshop, you get the same information in lay terms in my Looking over Vermeer’s Shoulder.

Just Launched: The Complete Interactive, Online Vermeer Catalogue

June 18th, 2009

When I launched the Essential Vermeer website 10 years ago, I was startled by how little was to be found on Johannes Vermeer and by the less-than-lukewarm attitude of the art community towards internet technology. On the other hand, being among the first to get seriously into the field was like turning into new four-lane highway with no cars on it and anywhere to go.

The latest feature of the  the Essential Vermeer Interactive Online Catalogue of Johannes Vermeer. It has been years in the making but only in recent months have I found the impetus to finish the job up having come across JQuery, an amazingly fast and concise JavaScript Library that simplifies HTML event handling and animating (admittedly, only my youngest son’s patience and tech savvy permitted me to take advantage of it, beyond fundamental HTM, Photoshop and CSS, I am lost).

So, instead of me going on about what an online catalogue of paintings can do and all the endless research I have poured into the project, it’s best to simply go to the main page, click to the painting you like most and begin exploring. I hope you will learn and enjoy.

BTW, it’s just up so you may encounter bugs and misspellings that will be ironed out gradually. Please, please let me know of any problems you spot. You will agree with me that any Vermeer catalogue deserves to be perfect. Any suggestions and criticism are gold.

Caesar van who?

June 8th, 2009

Bets are that you don’t know Caesar van Everdingen. Vermeer did.


Art historians believe that Vermeer used a now-lost, large-scale Cupid by Caesar Van Everdingen a good 4 times as a backdrop for his own compositions. The most explicit rendition, impossible to ignore, glares out from the late Lady Standing at a Virginal (see detail left). The other three are more discreet.

In the Maid Asleep, Cupid’s foot dangles in the upper left-hand where we can see the corner of a picture with an ebony frame. If you know he is there, you can see him standing erect in Girl Interrupted in her Music although pretty much obliterated by time and restorations. And had it not been for x-ray photography, we would have never known he hung in all his glory, dominating the background wall of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.

Chances are Vermeer’s Cupid is the one mentioned in the inventory of his widow’s possessions in 1676.


Knowing how exacting Vermeer was in aesthetic matters, the modern viewer might wonder just what Vermeer had in mind. To our tastes Van Everdingen’s Cupid is simply too big, too confrontational, too rhetorical and too nude to have anything to do the values we prize in Vermeer’s art. Historians usually have no problem skimming over aesthetic valuations of the painting that no longer exists. Far more comfortable is to take Cupid as a symbol which 300 years ago meant, and still means, love to anyone.

In common with so many forgotten or underestimated artists, Van Everdingen occupied an important place in the art of his own time. The century-long refusal of critics and connoisseurs to look at his type of art shows signs of coming to an end.

It could not have escaped a young, ambitious painter like Vermeer that Van Everdingen was a superb technician, not only with detail and brushwork, but with his ability to paint portraits, mythological and allegorical pictures in a broad, yet crisp and polished style. His outstanding strength was his ability to simplify complicated forms and convey the sense of volume and surface with great pictorial economy. His treatment of light evokes the fullness of nature; even his shadows are colorful and pleasant to look at.

In his later years, when Vermeer pursued a more classicist agenda, Van Everdingen’s painting became more relevant than just being a convenient prop.

Luckily there are some excellent high resolution images of van Everdingen’s work on the net.

My preferences goes to:

Cupid with a Glass Ball
Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Bacchus with Nymphs and Cupid
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

(this images is a bit laborious to access but very worth the while)

1. click on the “Bekijk alle naakten” link to the lower-right
2. scroll the multiple images to reach the far left-hand border
3. click on the farthest left-hand painting in the second row from the top
4. click on the medium size image of the paintings that appears which brings up an extraordinarily detailed image and use your mouse to explore the painting.

Zooming-in #1: the selected flesh palette

June 2nd, 2009

zoom what is it?Gerrit van Honthorst, like a number of 17th-century Dutch painters, knew his trade and worked well in different genres. He was equally comfortable in history painting, raucous bordello scenes and refined portraiture alike. Although sought-after in his own age, few average museum-goers are familiar with his work even though he was far more influential in his age than Vermeer. He was also far richer. In 1654, he sold his house in The Hague for the astronomical sum of 14,000 guilders (an average Dutch house might have gone for 1,000 or less) and lent Elizebeth, Princess of Hohenzollern no less than 35,000.

zoom what to look for – Although the present canvas may not be particularly inspiring, it is nonetheless a solid piece of 17th-century painterly skill.

The most informative detail is the painter’s “selected” palette on which are disposed two rows of perfectly ordered paints blobs. The top are all the pigments conventionally used for mixing flesh tones. The bottom row presents the ready-to-use basic mixtures. If you don’t believe flesh can be so miraculously evoked with a hand-full of different tones, scroll up and inspect the faces of the lovely painter, the putto and her sitter. Analogous flesh palettes were employed by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The choice of representing the selected flesh palette was far from random. From the very beginning of European tradition of easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance and it still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges until this day. Willem Beur, artist and art writer of Vermeer’s time, wrote: “Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions.”

For the painter and the technically-minded, the top row of pigments probably are (left to right): lead white, yellow ochre, vermillion, red ochre, red madder, raw umber, black and a last unidentified pigment.

Selected palettes were the norm in 17th-century painting when complicated compositions were worked up in a piecemeal fashion, area by area. Painters laid on their palettes only those pigments which were strictly necessary for the day’s work in order to avoid waste of grinding time and raw materials.


June 2nd, 2009

zoom1 Let’s be frank, since the internet began to reach out in the 1990s, the fine art community has made little headway on the web. Art with a capital “A” lags and it lags badly. Serious monographic sites of great artists are exceedingly rare and art collections and institutions are dutifully present but, save exceptions, not much more.

One area where progress is being made is in digital imagery. Major collections and museums are slowly but surely presenting their finest works with various Flash applications such as Zoomify allowing the viewer to scan with ease over good quality images. Some are carefully tucked away where the average viewer will never chance.

Obviously, we cannot expect to experience the impact of a work of art from the computer monitor no matter how high the image’s resolution may be. But zoom-viewing permits close-quarter, detailed observation that can provide its own pleasures and food for thought. Most importantly, considering that we will never, ever in our lives see 99% of these pictures where they are physically housed, high-quality, internet zooms constitute an illuminating resource and not merely eye candy for the curious.

The following Zooming-in columns  will report some of the most interesting zooms on the net, with hopefully, some interesting comments.

Still on the Van Meegeren trail

June 1st, 2009

The name Van Meegeren is still a potent magnet. Eroll Morrris of the New York Times digs in and serves up a useful mulit-part article on the most notorious of all art-theft case including interviews with the authors the two most recent books on the subject, Jonathan Lopez and Edward Dolnick.

See my own Essential Vermeer interview with Lopez here:

and his take on the possibilities of the nightmare happening again: