While visiting Rome last winter I had the opportunity to study several Vermeer paintings in the exhibit at the Quirinale. They were part of a larger show called ‘Vermeer and the Golden Age of Dutch Art’ and although there were some other fine pieces in the exhibit, the Vermeers outshone them. They seem to glow from within and the accuracy of the perceived space is extraordinary. Johannes Vermeer has captured modern interest not only for his dreamy women engaged in mundane tasks but also perhaps due to the mystery surrounding his life. We know little about his training, his personal life or his methods. I was intrigued by his use of the camera obscura, which seems to be an accepted fact among art historians, and I purchased a book which discussed his use of lenses, ‘Vermeer’s Camera” by Philip Steadman. This book suggests that Vermeer used a small booth-type of camera which one sits in, and not the tabletop type. I felt Steadman’s work was intriguing and it raised some questions that I wanted to investigate, including how it might have influenced his work and what possibilities it might offer to the contemporary artist.
Advanced painters, those who have already done one semester with us, work on a project with me during the term. This spring I suggested we put our energies into discovering what makes Vermeer unique. His subject matter is neither original nor particular to him; his power lies in his method.
Following Steadman’s investigations and theories of the size and shape of the camera, we built a booth-style camera and procured a lens. We found that inside the booth we had a beautiful painterly projection of our still life and that the light coming from that was enough to see the palette and mix tones. The extraordinary discovery was that a very credible image can be made, despite working in the semi darkness, despite working on a coloured, upside down image, despite the lack of a preliminary tracing. The next step was to add colour once our underpaintings had dried. Again, working entirely inside the camera obscura, we mixed and applied colour, both as glazes and as opaque scumbles.
The purpose of our exercise is not to make fake Vermeers. Sitting in the dark, seeing the painterly vision of light causes nearly all to exclaim at its beauty. We learn so much about surface, transitions of tone and application of paint following in the footsteps of this great artist. We understand more about the potency of colour if restrained in use, the use of selective focus, the beauty of grey. I don’t think we are any closer to answering the final question of whether Vermeer painted inside of a darkened room but we have certainly understood that it would be possible to do so.
Painter, printmaker, and sculptor Jane Pack has been head of studio arts at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts for the past twenty years. Founded by Brett Taylor in 1966 as an independent, not-for-profit institution, the Aegean Center offers small group and individualized study in the visual arts, creative writing and music.
The Spring session is held at the centre’s restored Neoclassical facility in Paroikia, Paros; the Fall session takes place both in Paros and at a 16th century Tuscan villa in the hills above Pistoia, near Florence, Italy. Scholarship and loan programmes are available to assist students who can demonstrate the need for financial assistance. For further information contact director John Pack on 22840-23287.