Archive for June, 2014

Unwrapping a Vermeer

June 28th, 2014

Tim’s Vermeer…from a painter’s point of view

June 21st, 2014

After I posted various reports about the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, a few readers encouraged me to give a scholarly assessment of Jenison’s claim that Vermeer had used an optical device called a comparator mirror as an aid to his painting. Given my limited knowledge of the use of optics in seventeenth-century painting, I found it more appropriate to examine the issue from a technical viewpoint, since I am by profession a painter. The fact that I have studied Vermeer’s painting technique and attempted to emulate his manner for over 40 years, I hope, might give me a discreet edge over non-painters in evaluating if Jenison’s device is or is not compatible with what we know of Vermeer’s pictorial strategy and technical procedures.

Following some lively discussions with Mr. Jenison on the finer points of Vermeer’s painting procedures, I was able to meet him in Texas and experiment with the comparator mirror on the premises of a full-scale mockup of scene of Vermeer’s Music Lesson which Jenison had built in order to test his hypothesis by paintings his own Vermeer.

My first attempt to use the comparator mirror was frustrating. Not only was I unable to produce acceptable pencil outlines of a black and white photograph with which Jenison had used in his first experiments, I was utterly incapable of matching on paper any of the photograph’s tonal values. To use the comparator, at least as I was attempting to use it at the moment, one is constrained to work within an extremely small area of the drawing, along a thin edge where the image of the comparator mirror abuts on the drawing below and the two can be compared. Initially I found this procedure mentally and visually stressing, and at odds with my experience in conceiving and making paintings.

With a little more practice I was able to produce a few acceptable contours, even though they lacked any sort of artistic quality. However, seeing that I am not particularly skilled with a pencil, I though it best to test the device with paint and brush with which I have greater familiarity, even though on first consideration the oil painting technique seemed even more at odds with the mirror’s limitations than with dry drawing.

Surprisingly, I made rapid progress with the oil medium. Although with a certain fatigue, I learned to define first simple and then complex contours with a fine-tipped brush and began, even more surprisingly, to marvel at how it was possible to match with utmost precision both the chromatic and tonal values of my painting with those of the mirror in a completely objective manner.

Having made substantial progress in coordinating mind, eye, brush and mirror after a few painting sessions, I started afresh and began to depict a small portion of Jenison’s Vermeer mockup Vermeer room following what I have come to understand of Vermeer’s multi-step painting technique. Beginning with a schematic line drawing which served to fixed the most salient contours of the scene, I first underpainted the lights and darks with monochrome brown (raw umber plus black) and white paints without, however, systematically consulting the comparator mirror. I was, in fact, interested in testing how close I could get to the correct values on my own.

Once the underpainting was thoroughly dry, I began to apply the final colors over it using thick opaque paint in the lights and thinner paint in the shadows, according to seventeenth-century prescription. In order to render a given passage I first mixed, as all painters do, the proper paints on the palette attempting to match them as closely as possible to the color and tonal value combining what I perceived in nature with I had learned through practice. I then applied the mixture to the canvas and compared the values of my paint to those of the corresponding passage in the mirror. I sometimes discovered that both the color and tone of my mixture were very close to those seen in the mirror, but just as often I was struck by how poorly I had interpreted nature notwithstanding my decades of experience. In a back and forth manner I was able to register the erred values of my work with those of the mirror and return to painting. Once the proper values were firmly in place, I freehanded most of the modelling as I would have done without using an optical aid, taking care to verify the accuracy of my progress via the comparator mirror at regular intervals. The comparator mirror was also of help in verifying difficult contours and defining the smallest details that I had been unable to capture by freehand.

In any case, once I had registered the values of my painting with those of the mirror, the passage appeared much more true to life (painters simply say “right”).

Although the set of mirrors and lens (Jenison’s used a double convex lens of the camera obscura in coordination with a concave mirror and a comparator mirror) requires periodic adjustments in order to view the different areas of the scene, this does not unduly interrupt the painting process once one has acquired the necessary skill maneuver them.

Conclusion

Given Jenison’s complete lack of painting experience, he painted his Vermeer employing the comparator mirror, as would be expected, in the most literal of manners. He painstakingly matched what he saw in the mirror with paint applied directly, alla prima, forgoing any sort of layering techniques that we know Vermeer and his more accomplished colleagues sometimes employed. This aspect of Jenison’s approach provoked considerable criticism, including my own. It was reasoned that Vermeer could not have used the comparator mirror because Jenison’s essentially paint-by-numbers technique, and the consequential one-layer paint structure gotten by such an approach, is completely at odds with the multi-layered structure of Vermeer’s paintings.

According to my experience the comparator mirror neither dictates nor limits the painter to any fixed procedure or techniques, including those used by Vermeer. Certainly, it would interfere no more with the creative painting process than a systematic use of the camera obscura.

If it is used in a “painterly” manner, as any experienced painter would be naturally inclined to do, the comparator mirror opens the possibility to study color more precisely than can be done with the camera obscura alone and allows the artist to match with remarkable efficacy the illusive tonal values of nature, which in effect are crucial to Vermeer’s unique brand of realism. Furthermore, I discovered that the erred tonal values of my monochrome underpainting did not compromise the rendering of the proper tones and colors of the final paint layers. The aim of seventeenth-century underpainting, as I understand it, was not to establish the precise tonal values of the final work from the very beginning, but rather to approximate the distribution of darks and lights thereby creating a sort of compositional blueprint which provided a solid base on to which the successive layers of colored paint could be applied in a more efficient manner. Although I used the glazing technique in only one passage (red madder over an underpainting of vermillion), it was evident that with some practice it would be relatively easy for any practiced painter to anticipate the tonal and chromatic values of the colored underpainting so they might eventually match those made visible in the mirror once the passage had been glazed with the final color.

The use of such a simple device as the comparator mirror in tandem with the camera obscura lens, in my opinion, is technically compatible with Vermeer’s known painting techniques (to be distinguished from his “pointillist” mannerism), and it is in line with what Lawrence Gowing appropriately called the artist’s “optical way” as well as the artist’s search for absolute tonal authenticity.

Mauritshuis reopens on June 27, 2014

June 17th, 2014

View of Delft, Johannes Vermeer

Mauritshuis Opening on 27 June 2014

The Mauritshuis will open its doors on Friday 27 June 2014 after a two-year renovation.

The world famous painting collection, including three paintings by Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The View of Delft and Diana and her Companions, will once again be displayed in the fully renovated and expanded Mauritshuis. After a celebratory opening, the museum will be open to the public for visit free of charge until midnight. The renovated Mauritshuis doubles its surface with an underground expansion into a building on the other side of the street. Still, little about the character of the museum will change. The appearance and unique homely atmosphere are preserved, thanks to the design of Hans van Heeswijk architects. The most obvious change is the relocation of the main entrance to the forecourt. Visitors will descend via the stairs or lift to a light foyer, connecting ‘old’ and ‘new’ underground. The new part, the Royal Dutch Shell Wing, will house the exhibition space, the brasserie and the museum shop. Furthermore, it will accommodate the educational Art Workshop, a library, and event rooms.

The museum has also rennovated its website and has added new high-resolution image is their Vermeer’s paintings which can be veiwed with a zoom feature or downloaded to one’s hard disk. The downloadable images are lower resolution than the zoom versions.

zoom features:
Girl with a Pearl Earring
View of Delft
Diana and her Compantions

downloads
:
Girl with a Pearl Earring
View of Delft
Diana and her Compantions

Mauritshuis
Korte Vijverberg 8
2513 AB The Hague
P.O. Box 536
2501 CM The Hague

Young Woman Seated at the Virginals exhibition at Philadelphia Museum of Art extended to September 30

June 17th, 2014

Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at the Virginals
Philadelphia Museuym of Art
October 26, 2013 – September 30, 2014

from the museum website:
Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at the Virginals will be joined by two additional loans from the Leiden Collection: Frans Hals’s Portrait of Samuel Ampzing and The Coat of Many Colors attributed to Rembrandt’s pupil Gerbrand van den Eeckhout. All three paintings are on view in the galleries of European art 1500–1850 on the second floor, in the company of a selection of the Museum’s own paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. The Museum possesses more than three hundred seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, the largest collection of its kind in North America.

For further in formation, click here.

exhibition curator:
Christopher Atkins, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

Another New Vermeer?

June 9th, 2014
Saint Praxedis, Vermeer (?)
A copy (left) of the Saint Praxedis (right) by Felice Ficherelli hung together in Rome, 2012

On June 6, Christie’s announced that it was declaring the Saint Praxedis a Vermeer. According to Henry Pettifer, the head of Old Master paintings at Christie’s, after isotope analysis tests carried out by scientists at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and Free University, it was found that the lead-white of the painting was a precise match for that used in another early Vermeer, Diana and her Companions— “So precise as to suggest that the same batch of paint could have been used.” He stated that the research, including an analysis of the date and signature on the painting, amounted to “a compelling endorsement” of Vermeer’s authorship. In the event that the painting is accepted by art scholars as an authentic Vermeer, it will become the second once-doubted painting in ten years to be accepted into the painter’s thin oeuvre largely on the basis of technical analysis.

The auction house excepts the work could fetch about $13 million when it is auction in early July. The work is part of the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, a Polish-born art-lover who amassed a huge trove of art after marrying Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson. Piasecka died last year.

Auction
Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale
Christie’s
8 King Street, St. James’s, London
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
at 6:00 pm

viewings:
Saturday, July 5 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Sunday, July 6 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Monday, July 7 9:00 am -4:30 pm
Yuesday, July 8 9:00 am – 3:30 pm

Click here to access the Christie’s PDF online catalogue entry for the Saint Praxedis which contains further art historical and technical information.

The Painting

The painting is believed to be a copy of a work by Felice Ficherelli (1605 – 1669 ?) from about 1640–45, now in the Collection Fergmani in Ferrara. It represents the early Roman martyr, Saint Praxedis or Praxedes, who squeezes a martyr’s blood from a sponge into an ornate vessel. The most obvious difference between the copy and the original is that there is no crucifix in the Ferrara work.

Critical Fortunes

The painting’s provenance before the mid-twentieth century is unknown. The collector Jacob Reder bought it at a minor auction house in New York in 1943. The painting was first publically viewed in 1969 when it was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a work by Felice Ficherelli in the exhibition Florentine Baroque Art from American Collections, no. 39. Vermeer’s signature in the lower left was noted in the catalogue after it had been examined by Ted Rousseau and members of the conservation department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After the work appeared in New York exhibition, it was first published (1969) as a Vermeer by Michael Kitson, an art historian with the University of London. Kitson believed the signature was integral with the paint surface and “the form of the signature corresponds exactly to those on Vermeer’s early works, particularly the Maid Asleep.” Kitson likened the Saint Praxedis copy to Vermeer’s Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, for its “breadth of form and handling and a similar gravity (though not sickness) of mood.”*

In 1986, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. enthusiastically embraced the work as an authentic Vermeer** the citing the stylistic and technical similarities with the two early Vermeers and the essentially Dutch character of the modeling of Saint Praxedis’ face, which he compared to the down turned head of Vermeer’s a Maid Asleep. Wheelock noted two signatures. One, at the lower left was the name “Meer ”and the date “1655.” On the suggestion of Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, Wheelock advanced that the other inscription contained the word “Meer,” followed by the letter “N,” the letter “R,” then two lower case “o’s.” Wheelock holds that both the signatures and the date are integral to the paint surface and that the second could be interpreted as: “[Ver]Meer N[aar] R[ip] o [s] o” or “Vermeer after Riposo,” Ficherelli’s Italian nickname (Repose).

However, on the occasion of the 1994-1995 Vermeer Washington/The Hague exhibition where the work was shown by Wheelock as the earliest known painting by Vermeer, its authenticity was seriously contested by a number of art historians and conservators. Jørgen Wadum, then the chief curator of the Mauritshuis, firmly stated that the “Meer 1655” inscription had been added after the painting had been completed. Contrary to Wheelock, he believed the brushwork of Saint Praxedis had nothing to do with the brushwork of either the Diana and her Companions or the Christ in the House of Mary and Martha. He also noted that no smalt smalt, a dull blue pigment which is now obsolete, had been detected in the Saint Praxedis while both the Christ in the House of Mary and Martha and the Diana and her Companions had significant amounts of smalt.

When Saint Praxedis was examined by Marten Jan Bok, a specialist on the 17th-century Utrecht painter Johannes van der Meer, he was unable even to see the second inscription, and in any case, he wrote “nowhere in 17th-century Dutch painting will you find such an inscription on a copied painting.”

Ben Broos found that Wheelock’s interpretation of the signature as “Meer naar Riposo” was “wishful thinking” at best. “In my opinion, Saint Praxedis is the latest wrongly attributed Vermeer of the caliber of Van der Laan and Vrel.” Other experts such as Albert Blankert, Gregor J. M. Weber, and the National Gallery in London’s Christopher Brown have arrived at similar conclusions.

In 2002,  Jon Boone wrote, “In looking at Saint Praxedis one does have a hard time understanding its attribution to Vermeer. It is a second-rate copy of a mediocre painting by an undistinguished artist, with certain features—such as the awkward wrap-around hands—antithetical to Vermeer’s sensibility as well as his draftsmanship. While the face itself is beautiful, certainly more charming than that of the original, it is still a facsimile face, a close copy of the source.” And further: “The Saint Praxedis attribution is severely strained, failing the standard of Ockham’s razor: The simplest explanation covering all the facts of the case is that the painting is a copy executed either by the original painter, Ficherelli, in Florence, or by another artist in Ficherelli’s circle.”***

In fact, there is no evidence that Vermeer had ever visited Italy or that the Ficherelli’s original, or an eventual copy, had ever traveled outside the country.

Ivan Gaskell had written earlier “that as a result of, first, examining the painting while exhibited in Washington (scarcely optimal conditions) in conjunction with Vermeer’s two early history paintings, secondly, of discussing the work with specialist colleagues, and, thirdly, reviewing the published arguments, I feel unable to accept an unqualified attribution of Saint Praxedis to Vermeer.”

In his 2008 complete catalogue of Vermeer’s painting, Walter Liedtke does not even mention the Saint Praxedis, while in 2009 he wrote “the repetition is probably by the Florentine painter [Fichherelli] himself.”****

* KITSON, Michael. “Florentine Baroque Art in New York.” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 111, No. 795 (Jun., 1969). 409-410.

** WHEELOCK, Arthur K. Jr. “‘St. Praxedis’: New Light on the Early Career of Vermeer.” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 7, No. 14 (1986). 71-89.

*** BOONE, Jon. “Saint Praxedis: Missing the Mark.” In Essential Vermeer. 2002 <http://www.essentialvermeer.com/saint_praxedis.html>

**** LIEDTKE, Walter: Vermeer: The Milkmaid. The Metorpolitan Museum of Art, New York. 2009. note 5, 23.