Event review: Paintings Group Event - "Johannes Vermeer Up Close"

Read Katarina Trajkovic's Event Review for the Paintings Group "Johannes Vermeer Up Close" event

12 Mar 2024

Event Review - “Johannes Vermeer Up Close” Paintings Group Event, 16th November 2023 
by Katarina Trajkovic

The Rijksmuseum’s technical research team has been conducting an extensive study on the works of the renowned artist Vermeer. The project, started in 2020 and anticipated to end in 2025, delves deep into Vermeer’s painting techniques and materials, with a focus on 37 of his paintings. The team’s multifaceted approach includes non-invasive imaging techniques and micro-sample analysis, providing insights into Vermeer’s canvas supports, compositional changes, and pigment choices.

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The Milkmaid under the microscope. Photo: Rijksmuseum/Kelly Schenk.

Ige Versylpe, the paintings conservator, highlighted the crucial role of weave maps in understanding Vermeer’s canvas supports. The Counting Vermeer project, led by Rick Johnson, examined 34 canvases through computer-generated weave maps, revealing instances where multiple paintings shared the same canvas. Weave maps, derived from x-radiographs, displayed thread density variations, aiding in dating and authenticating artworks. Notably, The Geographer (1669) and The Astronomer (1668) were identified as sharing a canvas based on matching vertical thread density maps.

The analysis also considered cusping patterns, distinguishing between primary cusping from stretching and secondary cusping from canvas cutting. This differentiation helped determine whether Vermeer individually stretched canvases or used commercially prepared ones. Out of 34 canvases, 18 were individually stretched, while 16 were cut from larger pre-primed canvases, showcasing Vermeer’s diverse canvas utilisation. Archival evidence supported Vermeer’s access to professionally primed canvases. Weave data analysis allowed researchers to identify paintings cut from specific canvas strips, revealing insights into Vermeer’s canvas acquisition practices. In conclusion, the research shed light on Vermeer’s use of commercially prepared canvases, impacting dating and understanding relationships between his paintings.

Francesca Gabrielli's exploration of Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy (RIS) brought a fresh perspective to understanding Vermeer’s masterpieces. RIS, functioning in the visible and near-infrared ranges, delved into the chemical composition of each pixel. The Rijksmuseum utilised two spectrometers, one sensitive to pigments in the visible range and another with higher penetration in the short-wave infrared (SWIR), enabling full-colour image reconstruction. The resultant 3D data cube (images every 3-6nm, one image per wavelength) facilitated false colour images, unravelling intriguing details about composition changes and Vermeer’s underpainting techniques.

In The Milkmaid (c. 1660), the dark underpainting hinted at Vermeer’s early mastery of shadows, while RIS unveiled concealed elements like jug shelves and a potential fire basket. Diana and her Nymphs (c. 1656–1657) revealed a shift in the nymph’s head orientation through RIS, challenging prior assumptions. The technique also played a pivotal role in pigment mapping, particularly in exploring Vermeer’s predominant use of ultramarine. For instance, in The Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c. 1663), RIS uncovered a nuanced layering process—from dark underpaint to glazes—shedding light on Vermeer’s intricate artistic methodology and providing deeper insights into his creative choices.

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Macro-XRPD scanning of The Milkmaid. Photo: Rijksmuseum/Kelly Schenk.

Anna Krekeler’s research delves into the evolution of Vermeer’s compositions, pointing out the artist’s dynamic creative process. In the absence of Vermeer’s drawings, the canvas becomes a space for compositional experimentation. Using advanced imaging techniques such as RIS and Macro X-ray Fluorescent Imaging (MA-XRF), researchers uncovered intricate changes in Vermeer’s works. Illustrated by the example of The Little Street (c. 1658-1659), the researcher showcased Vermeer’s alterations, emphasising the significance of closed shutters, the addition of playing children, and the delayed inclusion of a red shutter. RIS and MA-XRF not only enhanced visibility but also revealed hidden layers, contributing to a deeper understanding of Vermeer’s decision-making during the creative process.

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Paintings conservator Anna Krekeler examines The Little Street. Photo: Rijksmuseum/Kelly Schenk.

The collaboration with the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden on Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (c. 1657-1658) further exemplified Vermeer’s quest for the perfect composition. Through MA-XRF, the researchers outlined four distinct stages in the painting’s development. From the initial layout to the final adjustments made under the constraints of a fitted picture frame, the research explained Vermeer’s nuanced decision-making. The study emphasised that these cutting-edge imaging techniques enrich our comprehension of Vermeer’s artistic choices and the evolution of his compositions.

Annelise van Loon’s research focuses on the technical aspects of Vermeer’s artistic palette, particularly exploring the blues and greens in his works. Vermeer’s renowned use of ultramarine was a signature element in creating various tones of blue and green. Through the examination of nine paintings, a timeline revealed trends in Vermeer’s technique, highlighting distinct periods in his career.

In Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, ultramarine dominates, appearing unexpectedly in the light back wall and skin tones. The Little Street showcases Vermeer’s use of ultramarine in a monochrome underlayer, visible in laminated surface damage. Another example, Diana and her Nymphs, reveals Vermeer’s cost-effective use of smalt, a less stable alternative to ultramarine, primarily found in his early works. An intriguing aspect is Vermeer’s manipulation of ultramarine, often combining it with yellow lake or other pigments. The study uncovered unique methods, such as the application of a green copper glaze in textiles, a distinct feature of his work. Additionally, the use of green earth in skin tones, observed in the second half of his career, further distinguishes Vermeer’s technique. The analysis of 11 paintings showcases the evolution in Vermeer’s use of pigments, aiding in dating and attribution, while emphasising the dynamic range of blue and green tones present in his masterpieces.

The Rijksmuseum’s technical research team meticulously examined 37 Vermeer paintings, employing diverse techniques to unravel the artist’s methods. Weave maps, as emphasised by Ige Versylpe, identified shared canvases, reshaping our understanding of Vermeer’s canvas practices. Francesca Gabrielli’s Reflectance Imaging Spectroscopy exposed hidden details and intricate layering in masterpieces like The Milkmaid, while Anna Krekeler’s use of advanced imaging unveiled Vermeer’s compositional evolution. Annelise van Loon’s focus on Vermeer’s palette highlighted trends and unique pigment manipulations, aiding in dating and attribution. This collaborative effort offers a profound comprehension of Vermeer’s artistic career, refining our knowledge of his techniques and enriching our ability to interpret and attribute his masterpieces.