Dutch masters visit New York, giving a glimpse at the birth of modern artistic vision.
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Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has just been placed on view at the Frick Collection—on loan from the Mauritshuis in The Hague and on view at the Frick Collection in New York through January 19 in the show “Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis”—is surely one of the most magical paintings in the history of art. It’s a painting that has inspired a novel and a related film and any number of purple passages of art history. It’s a painting worth a journey to see.
And of course, this raises a question. Why should a painting so seemingly simple—it merely shows a girl turning her head towards us, while light glistens off her eyes and moist lips and off a dangling pearl earring—have such impact? Why is it that of all 17th-century Dutch painters, Vermeer is the one—and in this work most of all—who speaks to us directly, who seems the most modern?
Interestingly, the painting was not always highly esteemed. The first mention of its existence dates from 1881, when the collector Arnoldus des Tombes purchased it at an auction in The Hague for the grand total of two guilders. In today’s currency this comes to about $1.20, plus a premium to the auction house of 30 cents. At that time none of Vermeer’s work was very well known or very much valued. The first scholarly study of Vermeer, written by a French writer-in-exile, Etienne-Joseph Théophile Thoré, which lifted his work out of complete obscurity, had been published in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts just 15 years earlier.
From that moment of discovery in 1881, however, the fame of the girl with an earring spread rapidly. Just four years later the famous art historian Abraham Bredius, who clearly sensed that the painting was somehow uncanny, praised its “unique glow of light” and concluded that the experience of regarding it was so intense that it made “one forget that one is looking at a canvas.” In an oddly ominous locution, almost as if he feared some sort of challenge to the very art of painting, he declared that “VERMEER slays them all.”
By the time of Des Tombes’ death in 1902, when he bequeathed the girl to the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, the painting was valued at more than 40,000 guilders—over 20,000 times what he had paid for it. And that price (perhaps $20,000 in today’s currency) seems derisory compared to its value now, which is in the neighborhood of a few hundred million dollars.
How can a change so extreme take place so quickly—from a painting lost from sight, and valued at almost nothing, to an icon of the modern age? No doubt accident plays a large part in shifts such as this, but surely there was also something about the painting itself that was peculiar—a quality not so highly esteemed at the beginning of the 19th century or before, but highly valued later. One might propose that in the modern age we see the world differently than we did in early centuries—and that Vermeer was one of the first to discover this new way of seeing.
The first art historian to clearly pinpoint what’s unique about Vermeer was a Yale professor, Charles Seymour. In 1964 Seymour was studying Vermeer’s The Girl with a Red Hat in the National Gallery in Washington when he recognized that the handling of the brightest passages was highly peculiar. The most brightly lit spots have a globular appearance, like droplets of water. And this is not the way highlights look in real life. In a flash of realization, Seymour recognized that Vermeer must have been using a camera obscura, a device similar to a modern camera, which casts an image of the world on a flat surface. Except at the time the camera obscura was devised, light-sensitive film had not yet been developed, so that image needed to be traced or recreated in paint by hand. As the image drifts out of focus, the camera obscura creates distorted, funny-looking highlights such as this—sometimes known as “discs of confusion.”
The principal of a camera obscura—which literally means “darkened room”—was first described by Leonardo Da Vinci. Let light enter a tiny pinhole in one wall of a darkened room and it will create an inverted image on the opposite wall. By the 17th century the room had been reduced in size to a box, a lens was fitted in the pinhole to create a sharper image, and a mirror had been placed at a 45% angle to throw the image up to a sheet of clear glass at the top of the box. Thus, an artist could easily trace the image by laying thin paper over the glass. By adjusting the size of the lens opening you can move the distance at which things appear sharp and change the rate at which things slide in and out of focus.
Vermeer clearly used a device of this general sort. Most likely, in fact, he possessed three or four camera obscuras, each with slightly different optical qualities, ranging from a full-size room equipped with a pinhole to boxes of various sizes. His interest in unusual visual phenomena was surely aided by the fact the town of Delft, where he worked, was a center of research into lens grinding and optics. Indeed, Vermeer seems to have been an acquaintance of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, who helped sort out his tangled financial affairs after his death.
What does the camera obscura reveal to us about the nature of sight? Like the human eye, the camera obscura presents the world with different degrees of clarity of focus. Essentially there’s a “plane of focus,” at right angles to the viewer, where everything is sharp, but as you forward or back from this plane, things grow progressively fuzzier. In other words, the camera obscura sees the world in a “photographic” manner closely analogous to the way we see with a modern camera.
What’s unique about Vermeer’s work is that he used the camera obscura not only to trace outlines, but to explore more subtle optical effects, particularly changes in focus and in depth of field. You can see how this works very clearly in Vermeer’s paintings of interiors, when he made the plane of focus correspond with a back wall. His painting of The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum is a notable instance of this. The back wall is rendered so clearly, accurately and sharply that we can make out tiny nails, nail holes and chips in the plaster, almost as if we were looking through a microscope. But the monumental figure of the woman pouring milk in the middleground is starting to get a little fuzzy, and the loaves of bread on the table in the foreground disintegrate into a little constellation of “discs of confusion,” like an explosion of fireworks.
Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl in the Frick Collection is another instance of this sort of graduated focus, though a little less clearly worked out. We can make out every little detail of the map that hangs on the wall in the background, but the laughing girl in front of it is blurry, and the officer in the foreground blurrier still—though Vermeer partially concealed this fact by placing him in shadow.
In paintings of the Italian Renaissance everything looks sharp, whatever the degree of distance. Vermeer realized that we see the world differently. But after realizing this he faced a serious challenge. He didn’t have light-sensitive film to capture this process mechanically. And rendering nuances of focus and light by hand and eye is extraordinarily difficult. In fact, Vermeer seems to have worked very, very slowly, and only about 30 paintings by him are known. A French visitor to his studio complained that his work was ridiculously overpriced—probably because of his slow and expensive working method. We know that he had trouble selling his work and was deeply in debt at the time of his death.
Like most of his other paintings, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring explores this issue of varying degrees of focus. But it does it in a peculiarly elusive way, since unlike most of Vermeer’s paintings it contains no background wall. We don’t know how far back the space extends or even whether we’re inside or outside. There’s no clearly indicated “plane of focus” where everything is sharp. The depth of field at which the image would be sharp is somewhere a little behind the girl, in an area where the background is completely black.
In the rendering of the girl, while there are different degrees of sharpness, which correspond to degrees of distance, everything is just a little bit out of focus. The girl’s shoulder is painted much more broadly than her eyes and lips, but even they are a bit blurred, and thus a bit elusive, like a slightly blurred snapshot of something caught in motion. The girl has just turned her head towards us; in another instant she will turn away. What we’re seeing is something momentary—a fleeting instant caught in time.
Many of Vermeer’s paintings are photographic, but even within the body of his work this one is “photographic” in a way that’s a little different—that’s elusive and apparition-like and yet intensely real in a way that’s unprecedented. Probably to Vermeer’s contemporaries it looked odd, which is surely why it disappeared from sight after it was made. One thinks of that scene in Back to the Future when Michael J. Fox plays the music of Jimi Hendrix to high schoolers of the 1950s, who react with bewilderment and stunned silence. One wonders whether, when he created the painting, Vermeer himself quite understood what he had made. Two-hundred and twenty-three years before the Kodak, he had created the first snapshot.