Archive for the ‘Essential Vermeer Website News’ Category

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.


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.

Five Vermeer thefts

December 5th, 2013

What do the five people on the left have in common? They are theives. To be precise…Vermeer theives.

The more of I have learned about art theft, the less it interests me. Just the same, I thought it was time to cover the five twentieth-century thefts of Vermeer paintings for the Essential Vermeer. One page for every Vermeer theft and one page for art theft in general.

There is little glamour involved. Forget gentlemen aesthetes who steal art as a sophisticated diversion—art is stolen principally by criminals who use stolen works of art for collateral in drug deals.

Of the five stolen Vermeers, only one has not been recovered. It could easily have rotted by now, although art thieves generally take care to hide and conserve their booty: it may eventually may allow them to strike a deal with police if they are caught.

The first three Vermeer paintings were stolen by individuals who thought of themselves as idealists. Depending on where one’s heart is, one thief could be called a loner. Depending on one’s political orientation, the other thief, who most likely headed two separate Vermeer thefts, could be called a terrorist. The most recent two thefts were the “work” of thugs, one, a brutal underworld Irish gangster, the other someone who has not been captured but whose name is known (only) to the FBI.

So if you like to get into the criminal mind, there plenty to chew on. If not, hold off. I am working on a study of how Vermeer influenced his contemporaries (no great surprises, he really didn’t).

Naturally, let me know how I can make it better.

Master of Light free online

October 6th, 2013

For film people, Master of Light (narrator: Meryl Streep : director Joseph Krakora) is now available on Youtube (57:37). Some fairly interesting commentary if you can wade through the music and atmosphere. But I am no fan of cinema so see please for yourself.

I am getting close to publishing two new studies on Vermeer a Essential Vermeer. Vermeer Thefts and Vermeer: Erroneously Attributions and Forgeries. By and my count there are almost countless false attributions (I have singled out more than 20) and 5 thefts. As soon as the text is edited and all the dates, footnotes names double checked, I’ll give notice.

Vermeer gallery box preview

April 27th, 2013
Vermeer Gallery Box

Click here for a preview of the Vermeer gallery box that I have been working on for hat last week or so. It should be completely finished ready in a few days. You can slide through all 36 Vermeer paintings in four modes: in chronological order, with their frames, in scale and a detail of each work. It still loads slowly but I am working on that. Would enjoy hearing any comments or suggestions before I upload it to the Essential Vermeer.

Coming soon to a movie theater near you: Johannes Vermeer

April 11th, 2013

After traveling blockbuster art exhibitions, art enthusiasts can begin queuing up to enjoy the great masters in front of their local cinema. The silver screen, let’s remember, has traditionally dodged the company of great painters except for a few Hollywood films of questionable educational value: Rembrandt, 1936 starring Charles Laughton; Van Gogh, 1956 starring Kirk Douglas and Vermeer, 2003 starring Colin Firth.

Three new movies, featuring “superstars” (lets get used to the hard-earned status) Manet, Munch and our man Johannes Vermeer, will air in over 1,000 theaters worldwide. The art art historian-narrator Tim Marlow calls them “VIP guided tours.” Aside from the fact that the domination “VIP” is overwhelmingly synonymous with bad taste, the high-definition documentaries aim at bringing the arts closer to unsuspecting millions around the world.

The films will feature Marlow explaining why each artist, sorry, superstar, is special, interlaced with curator interviews, artist profiles and backstage tours in 90-minutes, for an average price of $12.50. Julie Borchard-Young, co-owner of BY Experience, the company distributing the broadcasts, believes it is “a way for an armchair traveler to come to the arts world, have it brought to them.” The new BY Experience films will attempt to build upon niche success of its live series from the Met Opera and London’s National Theatre.

Whether one can define cinema and blockbuster art exhibitions as private or public experiences, it would be interesting to investigate if they factually stimulate viewers to seek out art on their own and form individual points of view or encourage them to take a passive posture and wait for the prepackaged experiences to be delivered at their door like the latest Amazon order via FedEx.

In any case, marketing fine art seems to be good money. The MET realized $11 million from the opera broadcasts last year, Rigoletto took in $2.6 million in North America, ranking it No. 12 in the weekend box office, beating Argo and Lincoln. Next stop, Vermeer vs. Transformers IV.

A reminder, the paintings are still there, where they always were.

Art historian? Painter? Art buff? Critic? Neophyte? Vermeer fan? Connoisseur? Student? Copyist? Dabbler? Philosopher? Newby? Gallerist? Conservator? Wannabe? Art collector? Art novelist?

April 5th, 2013

Copying Vermeer's Lacemaker in the Louvre

I have just enabled comments on Essential Vermeer Time. So if you belong to any of the groups above (or in some altogether new category I haven’t heard of yet) AND have any thoughts about Vermeer, Dutch art, painting, art exhibitions, Essential Vermeer Time or about anything more or less related…why not leave a comment, criticism or question?

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Jonathan Janson

Carousel viewer of Vermeer’s complete paintings

April 4th, 2013

I have just uploaded to Essential Vermeer a very simple JQuery carousel viewer of all of Vermeer’s paintings. To slide through painting by painting in chronological order,  just click on the “previous” or “next”  inks below the information box. Yes I know, it’s definitely not rocket science, but  it can be used to track down a painting by Vermeer  that you once saw but can’t indentify.

My real goal, however,  is to develop a viewer that would give the navigator various viewing options. For example, one might view the paintings in scale, in their frames, in the their present museum locations, by sibject matter  or even by significant details. One could also display all the faces of the women and men that appear in Vermeer’s interiors. Unfortunately, the tech needed to make a more complicated viewer is over my head for the moment. I enjoy suggestions and comments.

A pat on my own back and a big thanks to you

March 23rd, 2013

In 2012, the Essential Vermeer website received the grand total of 484,998 unique visits and 1,692,344 individual page views (from my E.V. Google stats). If your wondering what the cliff fall-off at the end of the year is about in the graph below, that’s the Christmas and New Year holidays kicking in.


Obviously, we are talking about small-time numbers in absolute: a hot video game watering hole or sports site gets that many in a day. BUT, it huge number for an art-related website, especially for a monographic one.

Thanks for your visit, please know it’s more than a number for me!

Essential Vermeer Facebook: What went wrong?

March 4th, 2013

Despite my doubts, I jumped into Facebook more than a year ago hoping to find out what sense, if any, in social networking might have for art related content. The overall experience was mildly positive: the challenge tailoring one’s ideas for Facebook readers was stimulating, and admittedly, response was enthusiastic.

But the problem I am unable to overcome is that one has virtually no control of the format. After a few posts, everything slides down to the bottom and off the page disappearing for all but those readers armed with unusual dedication and patience.

I’m still undecided as to leave it or insist. It’s hard to juggle with content, private communications, Facebook and now, ESSENTIAL VERMEER TIMES.

To whom it may concern

January 10th, 2010

My Essential Vermeer website gets a pretty lot of traffic, naturally, considering it is dedicated to a single fine artist. It is sobering, but not altogether surprising, to know that any second-tier Hollywood actress, NBA player or recent video game generates infinitely more web traffic than Vermeer, Rembrandt  and  Leonardo da Vinci combined.

To whom it may concern, below is a breakdown of all 37 paintings by Vermeer with the number of page views during December, a slow month. I doubt you could call it a popularity contest in the strictest sense; many people come to study the paintings they need to understand rather than the ones they love.

However, most works are there where I would have expected.  Girl with a Pearl Earring has simply had too much good press not to be number one. The Milkmaid, as it has done for more than 300 years, marvels anyone who has ever seen it whether one knows it is a Vermeer or not.  The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window comes in a comfortable third perhaps more for its captivating  image than for the way it is painted. Odd I would say, is the appearance of the Frick Mistress and Maid near the top. Vermeer specialists rarely cast more than a sidelong glance at it because, perhaps, from an iconographical standpoint, there is not a real lot to talk about.

Frankly, I am a bit surprised that the mesmerizing Woman in Blue Reading a Letter and iconic Little Street are stuck midway down the list. As expected, the two London virginal pictures, much fussed over by critics, lack popular appeal. The Lacemaker, once the artist’s most recognizable image, has fallen from the collective conscience down to 26. Even the newly attributed  and still unfamiliar A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal , now in a New York Private collection, places a bit higher.

I dutifully accept popular verdict  except for the Woman with a Lute, almost last. While I admit the canvas seriously lacks nuance (due its near disastrous state of conservation), it nonetheless overwhelms me every I have the privilege of seeing it again. I find the unspeakable delicacy of the lute player  ever more touching each time I find her still tucked away, even pampered, within  one of Vermeer’s boldest compositions.

  1. Girl with a Pearl Earring  – 3,892
  2. The Milkmaid – 2,481
  3. Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window  –  2,058
  4. Girl with a Wine Glass – 1,623
  5. Mistress and Maid – 1,589
  6. Woman with a Pearl Necklace – 1,524
  7. The Astronomer – 1,513
  8. Woman with a Water Pitcher – 1,477
  9. The Lover Letter – 1,473
  10. A Lady Writing – 1,465
  11. The Art of Painting – 1,459
  12. The Geographer – 1,410
  13. The Concert – 1,377
  14. View of Delft – 1,331
  15. Officer and Laughing Girl – 1,326
  16. St Praxedis – 1,316
  17. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter – 1,301
  18. The Procuress – 1,276
  19. The Little Street – 1,253
  20. Girl with a Red Hat – 1,181
  21. The Music Lesson  – 1,172
  22. Diana and her Companions  – 1,158
  23. A Young Woman Seated at the Virginal – 1,131
  24. Girl Interrupted in her Music – 1,131
  25. Woman Holding a Balance – 1,121
  26. The Lacemaker – 1,041
  27. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – 1,015
  28. Allegory of Faith – 960
  29. Lady Wring a Letter with her Maid – 958
  30. Guitar Player – 955
  31. Maid Asleep – 924
  32. A Lady Standing at the Virginals – 890
  33. A Lady Seated at the Virginals – 918
  34. Study of a Young Woman – 913
  35. Woman with a Lute  – 832
  36. Girl with a Flute – 798
  37. The Glass of Wine – 788