Vermeer’s Secret – A Hypothesis


There are so many things we don’t know about Vermeer such as:

  • How did he paint such realistic paintings?
  • How did he capture light just so?
  • Why did he paint domestic scenes?
  • Why so few paintings?

We’ll never really know but we can sort of guess, which is great fun in itself. Of course, I have my own, imagination-fueled ideas.

Based on studying the bodice for the Girl with a Water Picture project, and how five different women wear the same bodice, which doesn’t exactly fit them all the same way (see photo at right in which the bodice is bigger on the model than the water picture), I concluded that Vermeer probably had a professional closet to access for his paintings. Taking it a step further, the garment probably belonged to his wife, who is very likely a model in at least one of the paintings.

Vermeer wasn’t terribly prolific, only painting about 35 painting during his brief 43 years. My guess is that his kids kept him pretty busy, as he had 11 who made it past infancy. And he was a busy art dealer and managed his family’s inn. That we don’t know under whom he apprenticed, if anyone, may mean that he was a bit of a novelty artist – producing works only for those who specifically asked for them. He was very respected, being elected to the head of the local painters guild several times, and a recognized talent, but perhaps not in the same way contemporary artists were.

I could think about it for hours. I never really, really understood until I had to look at the paintings for several hours to decipher the bodice design and wondered who really are these people? What were their lives like? I have the strongest feeling that these are family portraits, maybe for his daughters to remember their home life after they left? Maybe his patrons really liked his interior design ideas? Think of what people take photos of today. It’s endless really. Would people from that period really be any different?

Taking things a bit further than my bodice project, this fellow decided to reproduce an entire room and possible technique – Coincidentally, the bodice is in the painting he chose to replicate. Although he doesn’t have experience as a fine artist, the copy he creates using the technique presented comes out pretty well. We don’t have any proof that Vermeer used a camera obscura in his works. There wasn’t one listed among his effects when he died and that would have been expensive and worth noting since his wife had to scramble to get funds together. But did he use mirrors? Maybe. Perhaps they helped him get his ideas down quickly, to be perfected later.

No matter how he painted the works, does it make a difference? After all, we admire photographic work as art and photographers use cameras. For me, it doesn’t matter. If they were photos, I would still love them. There is just something about how the light and colors work together, and the people. You sense love, tranquility, peace…

Another of my favorites is Pieter de Hooch. Similarly, once he settled down and had kids, he also started painting realistic interpretations of domestic life. The styles are similar although I think Vermeer has a better grasp of color, perhaps a larger budget for pigments.

In the end, I don’t believe the technique makes or breaks an artist. So many things go into a work of art: medium, texture, subject, motivation, technique… It’s really a sum.


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