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Painting with Light: Vermeer’s Interior Scenes

The monthly ArtSmart Roundtable brings together some of the best art-focused travel blogs to post on a common theme.  This month we picked an abstract topic – Light.  Check out all the creative stories below!

I timed my last international trip perfectly.  My entire 12 hour lay-over in Amsterdam would be devoted to seeing the newly renovated Rijksmuseum.  It was definitely worth powering through the jet-lag to visit this incredible collection in its elegant new galleries!

Vermeer, "Woman Reading a Letter",  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Johannes Vermeer, “Woman Reading a Letter”, 1664, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

While looking at the Dutch masterpieces in the main gallery including Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter, Mr. Tourist asked innocently, “So why are Vermeer’s paintings so famous?

Without even hesitating I answered, “It’s how he painted light.

Johannes Vermeer, "The Geographer", 1668, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Johannes Vermeer, “The Geographer”, 1668, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

The painter Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) was active during the Golden Age of Dutch art.  While a contemporary of Aelbert Cuyp, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt, Vermeer’s style and aesthetic was very unique.  In general, his paintings are small and depict intimate domestic scenes focusing on a single figure.  The majority of Vermeer’s 35 paintings appear to have been set in the exact same room and for good reason.  This room has a big window that not only illuminates but creates the critical atmosphere of each painting.

Vermeer, "Woman Reading a Letter", Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Detail from “Woman Reading a Letter”

Vermeer’s work shows an masterful understanding of how to depict light on objects.  Most days in Vermeer’s room the light is indirect and so figures and objects are depicted in a soft focus as the light rolls over them.  Sharp details are only obvious in fairly direct light, but painters at the time often ignored this effect in pursuit of realism.  Vermeer also creates delicate shadows in this indirect light.  In “Woman Reading a Letter” for example, the diffuse light from the window creates soft shadows in the woman’s face, hands and clothing.  Vermeer also understood that lighting changes our perception of objects and colors.  The blues, yellows, and flesh tones subtly change hue in the light.

Johannes Vermeer, "Girl with a Lute", Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Johannes Vermeer, “Girl with a Lute”, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Not all of Vermeer’s paintings are done in mid-day light either.  In “Girl with a Lute”, the late afternoon light pulls shadows across the woman’s face and then from the curtains onto the walls.  The scene is intimate, serene and incredibly naturalistic in the accurate portrayal of light.

Johannes Vermeer, "Officer and Laughing Girl", c. 1657, Frick Collection, New York City

Johannes Vermeer, “Officer and Laughing Girl”, c. 1657, Frick Collection, New York City

Vermeer also used light to structure the compositions.  In “Officer and Laughing Girl” above, the shadowed back of the gentleman dominates the lower diagonal of the piece.  This presence contrasts greatly with the illuminated face of the eager young woman.

While at the Rijksmuseum, we walked back and forth between Vermeer and other interior scenes from the same period.  Vermeer’s images seem soft and ephemeral next to the sharper contemporary works.  I should note that these other pieces are gorgeous too, each loaded with detail while still balanced.  The other artists were just focused on depicting everyday life and were not as diligent about capturing the effect of light on materials.

Pieter de Hooch, "A Woman with a Child in a Pantry", Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Pieter de Hooch, “A Woman with a Child in a Pantry”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In Pieter de Hooch, “A Woman with a Child in a Pantry”, there are open windows and shadows in the pantry, but where is the light on the figures coming from?  This image does not explore how light effects the appearance of the woman and her kitchen.  The light is a means of presenting this scene but is definitely not the focus of the piece.  Dutch art collectors at the time like landscapes and interior scenes that looked like their own homes and so images like Pieter de Hooch’s were very popular.

Johannes Vermeer, "Woman Holding a Balance", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Johannes Vermeer, “Woman Holding a Balance”, 1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Many great artists have made there career on the depiction of light.  Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) and his followers used extreme light and dark to create drama.  In many ways, I much rather prefer Vermeer’s subtle use of light.  Still, quiet moments may be the most most difficult to capture and convey to viewers.  Standing in the presence of a Vermeer, I find myself slowing down and absorbing the richness of the space.  Suddenly the mundane chore of weighing jewelry becomes very interesting – as long as you view it in the correct light.


For the rest of the June ArtSmart Roundtable, see:

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love Vermeer, really enjoyed this post! Was in Amsterdam in January, got to see his works in the Rijksmuseum – wonderful 🙂


    June 2, 2014
    • Thanks! Isn’t the new Rijksmuseum awesome? Glad you were able to visit!


      June 6, 2014
  2. Gorgeous post, Christina. Vermeer must be one of the world’s most beloved painters. It’s a shame his oeuvre is so small but they are some of the finest things human hands have ever made. A day at the Rijksmuseum is truly one of the best days a person can have on this planet.


    June 2, 2014
  3. Somehow Vermeer is also one of the first painters I would think of within the theme of light and art, he still inspires many! Great to hear you made it to the Rijksmuseum during your lay-over!


    June 8, 2014
    • Great minds think alike! Vermeer is a master!

      Amsterdam is such a lovely city to walk through. I wish I had more time there (and wasn’t quite so jet-lagged that afternoon during the layover…) 🙂


      June 17, 2014

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