Vermeer’s Closet

Vermeer: The Concert
Vermeer: The Concert (bodice side view)

One of my favorite painters of all time is Johannes (Jan) Vermeer. I was introduced to Vermeer in college during an art history class. Incidentally, this class was the only college class I ever failed and yet, I remember quite a lot considering. Anyway, during the course of several dark afternoons filled with 600 or so slides, Vermeer and I became good friends.

Vermeer is a mysterious figure. We know he lived from 1632 to 1675, his early demise most likely due to lead poisoning, a typical hazard for fine artists back in those days. He lived the majority of his life in Delft, the Netherlands and had 15 kids, 11 of whom survived long enough to be named. His mother-in-law was a wealthy art dealer, which was very convenient.

It’s been said, that if you wanted to see what life was like in the mid 17th Century, Vermeer’s work is the best representation. Almost all of his work is set in two rooms and features everyday life. The ordinary scenes juxtaposed to the tremendous detail and layers of color is probably what most attracts me to his work. The elevation of domesticity to artistic beauty and the house-life as muse is really quite lovely. My eventual goal, would be to live in an environment that is basically a Vermeer painting come to life. I realize this is tricky in the U.S. I mean, we don’t exactly have circa 1650 homes lying around.

Vermeer: A girl reading a letter by an open window
Vermeer: A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (bodice side view)

Anyway, this brings me to our weekend’s activity. We were very lucky to be invited by our kind friends for an outing to the P.A. Renaissance Faire. Ooooo. Aaaaaah. (those who know, know) It was wonderful! What a really top-notch experience! And we didn’t even come close to seeing everything. I won’t get into what a Renaissance Faire is and why I love going to them, other than that it’s history come to life and you are encouraged to wear period clothing; traveling back in time with modern things at your disposal like privies with flush toilets.

Over the years, I have attended several faires. The first time I didn’t have a costume, if you can imagine that, because I hadn’t learned how to sew yet. I quickly remedied that and by the time I returned, I made what I recently rediscovered was a dress from the mid-17th Century. Due to overheating in all the fabric, I followed with a more modern interpretation that was August weather friendly. But alas, that fell apart which coincided with us moving to Philadelphia, where I hadn’t been to a Ren Faire until this weekend. No Ren Faire? No need for an outfit (sniff).

Thankfully, this weekend was the time traveler weekend during which any old historic thing is acceptable and I could happily roast away in my sacque gown (robe a la francais). But we want to go back, most likely at least twice a year since it’s a long season and not a terribly far drive. I will need a proper gown.

Vermeer: Officer and Laughing Girl
Vermeer: Officer and Laughing Girl (bodice front view)

The Renaissance Faire typically represents anything from 1400 to 1700, with a lurking focus on 1450 to 1550. I have a pattern for an Elizabethan gown and the thought did cross my mind but I wasn’t feeling the English. I’ve also been collecting a lot of German period dress ideas from the 1500s on Pinterest but wasn’t really feeling that either.

Then, I had a revelation! Aren’t the 1660’s sort of just barely the Renaissance? Aren’t women’s garments practically the same? Certainly no worse than the Victorian corsets I saw in abundance this weekend. Seriously, you’re not going to tell me they had metal closure busks in the 1500’s. I mean, the minute you use a machine it’s off anyway, so, what’s a few mere decades in the forward direction? I’m not in the SCA. I don’t work there. I can fudge it ever so slightly.

And then the pieces started to fall into place. I was thinking about these pieces in bed last night which wasn’t good because it kept me up. Nevertheless. I realized the following:

  • I already have a pattern
  • I already have the gold fabric
  • I already have the corset
Vermeer: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher
Vermeer: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (bodice best view)

I can be a Vermeer! Oh supreme joy of joys!

Of course, I went right to the paintings. You see, for all the hype of “The Girl With A Pearl Earring,” you have realize that those earrings are in most of Vermeer’s paintings. The yellow, ermine trimmed mantle is in numerous paintings as well. And the gold and navy bodice, which I will model my next Renaissance Faire gown from, is in five(!) paintings. Luckily for me, all sides of the bodice are shown (see pictures) and will be very helpful as I replicate it.

Vermeer liked blues and golds. Not leaving things to chance, he kept garments in these colors on hand and likely loaned them to his models which may have very likely been his own family. It could be they were his wife’s clothes. Who knows? What we do know for certain is that those garments appear time and time again in the paintings and, if all goes well, in my closet and on my person at the next Ren Faire.

Vermeer: The Music Lesson
Vermeer: The Music Lesson (bodice back)

Painting Information

  • The Concert (Het concert) | c. 1663-1666
  • A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (Brieflezend Meisje bij het Venster) | c. 1657
  • Officer and Laughing Girl (De Soldaat en het Lachende Meisje) | c. 1655-1660
  • Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (Vrouw met waterkan) | c. 1664-1665
  • The Music Lesson (De muziekles) | c. 1662-1664
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