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!
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.”
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Ashley of No Onion Extra Pickles – A Celebration of Light: Ghent in 2015
- Murissa of Wandertraveler – Learning to See the Light in Vicenza Italy
- Pal & Lydian of Art Weekenders – Vija Celmins Photorealistic Double Reality
- Jenna of This is My Happiness – The Light of Venice