11. Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura.


Part of an essay on Vermeer, brain channels, neural stimulus, visual perception and art appreciation

A 20,000-word essay on the interface between the fields of Vermeer, Art History and cognitive science, neuroscience and neuresthetics

written by Vermeer specialist, art historian Drs. Kees Kaldenbach, Amsterdam.


1) Foreword
2) Introduction and terminology. houding, perception of reality, realism, illusionism and trompe l’oeil
3) Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics
4) Brain and colour
5) Form as registered by the brain
6) Facial recognition, depth, movement, fine vs broad
7) Using this knowledge in studying and appreciating Vermeer
8) Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel
9) Naturalness, enticing the viewers
10) Delft artists influencing Vermeer
11) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura
12) Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction
13) Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form)
14) Digital Art History Studies and Presentations on Questions - on Perception of Reality in Vermeer Paintings
15) External CD-Rom, DVD, film material on Vermeer
16) Selected Bibliography

Updated June 9, 2016. Updated 15 February 2017.

3.8. Vermeer’s Periods

In the body of Vermeer’s work known to us, three artistic periods may be broadly distinguished: early, middle and late.

3.8.1. Early Period

During his first youthful artistic period, which may have already started while being apprenticed, and which lasted for about ten years from circa 1648 onwards, Vermeer painted mostly monumental works in which he depicted scenes of Greek mythology and the Bible. Their monumental character stems both from the large-scale, and in the sense of gravity and a certain grandeur. In art history, these works are generally referred to as ‘history painting’.[1] In what would later turn out to be quite characteristic for Vermeer, he already chose to predominantly depict women.
These early paintings include Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (in the National Gallery, Edinburgh); Diana and her Companions (Mauritshuis, The Hague). Unfortunately lost to us is the history painting of the Visit to the Tomb, which was listed in the collection of an art dealer of the time, the title indicating a scene of the visit of the three holy women to the tomb of Christ. Another lost early painting, mentioned in an 18th century auction catalogue was entitled Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. If the writer of the catalogue was correct in identifying these three particular gods, then this threesome was quite unconventional. Brushwork

All of these works (at least the known works) have been painted in a broad Italianate style. They show an Italian flavour both in a strong sense of colour and a chiaroscuro – possibly by way of the Utrecht followers of Caravaggio (1671-1610). In Diana and her Companions he took inspiration from an example by the painter Van Loo. He did already succeed in finding his own artistic expression:
"Unlike any of his predecessors Vermeer was able to create the mood that is that once elegiac and dreamlike, a very personal and private response to a primeval scene secretly espied".[2]

The young Vermeer is unafraid of a grand scale, and keeps searching to come up with working solutions in colour, composition, design and painterly execution, succeeding better in some parts of some paintings than in others. A sense of solidity, gravity and quiet grandeur pervades all of these works. Composition and Perspective

Perspective and a sense of depth is not Vermeer’s forte in this period, but he may not have wanted to stress this quality within his paintings. Other expressive qualities came forward.
There is a shallow definition of depth in the interior of include Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (in the National Gallery, Edinburgh) and the whole interior has been indicated only in the vaguest manner.

In Diana and her Companions (Mauritshuis, The Hague) the foreground shows a dog in proper perspective but a brass plate next to it does not quite make it perspectivally. The grouping of women has its own rather shallow and unstressed setting of depth. Since the blue section in the right hand top has been covered with black paint just a few years ago (the blue may still seen in many reproductions) the whole sense of light and space has been shifted.

3.8.2. Middle period

Then, from circa 1658-1659 onwards Vermeer dramatically shifted his artistic endeavours and began producing a number of medium- to small-scale works, mainly interiors views with one or more human figures, but also three townscape views and finally some ‘tronie’ character portraits. All seem to be painted in a style of highly finished realism, which in literature has been described alternatively as ‘realism’ and ‘illusionism’ but also as ‘schijnrealisme’ or seeming realism. I feel this is besides the point as I do not believe Vermeer sought to paint “reality”. He painted those forms of nature which he saw emerging out from the light; he did so with a poet’s sense of intensity. By the latter I mean he distilled his images down to their essence and surrounded them with paradoxical groupings - other images and many kinds of space, both schematic and perspectival - to give his works rhythm. He balanced this rhythm in the way he coloured and placed his images around his surface to achieve in his best paintings a sense of equipoise and tonal harmony. Others have long noted the “there/not there” aspect of Vermeer’s paintings—the nails in the wall, for example, along with the nail holes. This kind of dialectical rhythm dominates his work. In this way, Vermeer achieved the most intelligently crafted fine art paintings in history.[3]
It is central to my reading of Vermeer that the paint surface always keeps its own independent role.[4]

When studying Vermeer from multiple reproductions in books it is sometimes amazing how small in scale the actual paintings are. Irrespective of scale, Vermeer works are monumental in character and seem in a sense to be ‘larger than life’ both in their microcosm of illusionism, their refined composition and character - even in the case of the strong, sturdy Milk Maid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Rectangles within his paintings provide a strong visual backbone. Although his clear-cut composition of rectangles and paintings-within paintings would point to an orderly, classical, restrained mind, first and foremost Vermeer’s painting work so well because he is an amazing colourist. His way of bringing the mood and substance of the painting across is in the unique juxtaposition of colour values.
Within most of his interior paintings, Vermeer crafted his human figures as more or less fuzzy, secondary elements set within the seemingly strict geometric dance of the composition; overall he has brought forward colour as the main tool of his composition. As a colourist he crafted the superbly painted layers of oil under-paint, and superimposed layers of oil paints and glazing. Quite spectacular is the force of juxtaposed colour fields as they work their enhanced magic next to each other.

In Vermeer paintings, boundaries between material objects may be hard-edge but they are sometimes crafted soft-edge by painting wet-in-wet areas, which allows minute seeping and thus fuzziness to occur. These fuzzy patches of boundaries of paint trick the human eye and do succeed in a magical way to represent another imagined reality.

Quite another trickery is played by Vermeer allowing an ambiguity of reading several possible stories in one scene, all seemingly worth-while and valid. Brushwork

The large scale Sleeping Maid at the Table (Metropolitan, NYC) of 1657 is considered as the turning point between the early period and his middle period in which genre pieces are predominant.
The best of his middle period works are seem at first view to be ultra-realistic, almost illusionistic, photographs of reality with something extra in them, with some extremely high key luminosity in Officer and a Laughing Girl (Frick, NYC) and The Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), but more often a darker tonality is chosen as in The Glass of Wine (Berlin). Whether realism and illusionism are actually correct labels for his middle period work will be discussed later on.
What he gradually evolved artistically within this middle period was to give up the common encoding in paint of what he knew an object or a person to look like in favour of the visual image of the object or person. A striking example of this transition is in the Girl with Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague). The girl’s nose and cheek are shown next to each other as one single colour field without any demarcation line, which is a mind blowing innovation. This stunning detail of the painting shows that Vermeer was inviting the viewer to actively partake in the decoding process of paint into forming an image. The way the head is positioned in the painting and the way gaze of the girl’s eyes meet the viewer also contributes to a deep sensation of near physical and psychological contact.

The art historian and art critic are both seriously handicapped in precisely describing colours in a text like this one, using mere words and phrases while not actually standing in front of the real painting.
Colour is at the centre of what makes a Vermeer a Vermeer but in a text it is not easy to adequately phrase the character, the miracle and the magic of these colour modulations, the depth of the layered paint field and their demarcations. Reproductions, whether in print or on a screen, only show part of the true surface quality and effect. Good quality large size digital images shown on a computer screen do allow for magnification and allow the viewer to zoom in, pan and zoom out, while retaining an approximation of the colour values when the colours are well calibrated and adjusted.

Vermeer applied at least three enticing, highly crafted and finished paint layers, combining three types of painterly craftsmanship:

a) the under-painting which we may observe in the painting-within-a-painting on the easel shown in The Art of Painting (Vienna); this paint layer consists largely of opaque, solid grey or grey-brown paint, often an admixture of lead white, some lamp black and earth colours to help tone this first layer down. This first layer must have been the standard studio practice of Vermeer, as is shown by numerous technical studies by conservation experts.

b) The next layer of paint consists of the major layers of regular blocks of lighter and darker colours of paint, forming the main framework of the composition in light and dark areas. Areas of human flesh were often prepared with greenish under-paint.

c) Finally many layers of half-translucent or fully translucent glacis layers and at the very and small dots of highlights were applied. These glacis paint layers are combined to form the luminosity and enamel, jewel-like quality final image. Glacis layers exert some miraculous properties. Light entering the painting is reflected within the layers a number of times and in the best cases in oil paintings, such as those by Van Eyck, yield a deep and brilliant shine and a jewel-like 3D effect. Slides, book illustrations and computer screen images do not adequately show the quality of this effect as vision with two eyes and moving the head about causes many varied paint effects and refractions..

We do however meet the surface of Vermeer paintings not in their prime state but as the partially weathered and thus chemically altered and discoloured paint surface, bearing witness of some 350 years of ageing.
Some paintings have survived pretty much intact whereas others, notably the Interrupted Music (Frick, NYC) has suffered abrasions in the glacis layers.

When seen with the naked eye, these paint layers will often remain puzzling and fascinating as we do not immediately recognize Vermeer’s artistic methods and technical shortcuts. In the best examples of his middle period there is both brilliance and depth of colour and texture, the effect of which comes close to photography at first glance. The surface texture of some paintings – such as the Woman and Two Men (Braunschweig / Brunswick) consists of an amazing deep enamel brilliance while another quite large painting - The Concert (Buckingham Palace) looks almost matte and powdery dry. Composition and Perspective

Another quality concerns the way Vermeer composed and organized the total scene in his particular, visually enticing way – in carefully balanced simplicity of broad light and dark areas, which define the structure of the total composition.

Related to the subject of fields within composition are the outlines, some of which are clearly and sharply defined but most often noticeably soft-edged, especially in the case of flesh colours. This soft edge has been created by painting one wet layer of one colour against another wet layer of another colour and allowing for some mutual seepage. A similar wet-in-wet technique has also employed in creating the form and shine of the strings of pearls. This evidence of the artist-at-work would indicate that Vermeer worked pretty rapidly at certain times.
The larger blocks of light and dark within the composition form the backbone of the composition. Seen against his regular off-white plastered wall, we often see blocks of major forms – and in many cases these blocks are formed and defined by the edges of a map, a map stick, the contours of clothing, and skin.
Remaining sections of the wall may then be observed as negative shapes, and in many instances these complex, abstract shapes are quite beautiful in themselves as intricate forms, adding to the impressive quality of the composition. This effect is particularly obvious in Woman with a Pitcher (Metropolitan, NYC).

Vermeer presents a view of a space, which is largely built according to the rules of central perspective. He is constructing rooms, which because of their visual logic are ready to be entered by us, at least mentally. As viewers we do understand most his spaces, balanced and physically clear-cut. In just a few works painted around 1657-1659 this spatial clarity is faltering and we must wonder what happened. This is obvious in the key transformation painting Sleeping Maid at a Table (Metropolitan, NYC).

In many cases Vermeer composition is strengthened by the careful organization of horizontal and vertical geometric elements in space. This geometry is often formed by elements such as a wall map, a painting-within-a-Vermeer-painting, a cupboard, a chair, and on the left hand side of the composition a part of a window very often exerts a major vertical accent.

Most paintings by Vermeer have a composition structure, which is relatively simple and straightforward, built of large blocks of light and dark areas which can be taken in and understood with a one-second look.
Two marked exceptions to this rule are The Art of Painting (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and The Allegory of Faith (Metropolitan, NYC) both of which are constructed from a number of complex areas and shapes and thus require longer observation for full visual understanding.
In order to reduce visual clutter, Vermeer sometimes chose to leave out obvious and logical elements. The left hand bottom part of the leg of the painters’ easel on The Art of Painting is missing. In that section, just by the foot of the painter, both the composition and readability of the painting have been increased by leaving out this logical part of the easel leg.
Neurologist Gregory writes of the mental capacity of both seeing what is there and seeing what is not there:
“We see that surprising absence of stimulation can serve as data for perception.” [italics by Gregory][5] Optical tools including the Camera Obscura

In the she seventeenth century Republic a number of ‘amateurs of science’ and early scientists were tentatively describing the world and tried finding explanations for natural phenomena and laws of nature. They experimented with fairly simple scientific instruments such as lenses and mirrors. One may think of the lens grinder Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) in Delft, who developed an early form of microscope and corresponded with the Royal Society in London about his findings. Other names that come to mind are the group of Dutch mapmakers and chart makers whose works frequently appear in Vermeer paintings. Other amateurs of science are the quixotic engineer Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633) who successfully operated the first submarine vessel on river Thames, mathematician Simon Stevin (1548-1620) who designed fortifications (((check))) and coined a number of mathematical terms for the general Dutch public, and last but not least Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) who worked with pendulum clocks and developed his startling wave theory of light. In the background one may consider the great minds of René Descartes (1596-1650) who lived in the Republic for some decades and Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677). Their influence on thinking of the literate community may have been appreciable.
None of these gentlemen however were as productive and all-encompassing from a scientific point of view than the English scientist Isaac Newton (1643-1727). In our days the author Jonathan Israel defends the viewpoint that the early start of the Age of Reason can be found in this seventeenth century Dutch republic, in and about this circle of amateurs of science. Vermeer, who shared both the year of birth with Van Leeuwenhoek and lived as a citizen of Delft all of his life, must have logically met and become acquainted with van Leeuwenhoek. No documents are available to us to prove that they did, but the two paintings The Astronomer (Paris) and The Geographer (Frankfurt am Main) strongly indicate Vermeer’s interest in matters scientific and their meeting of minds in the educated class of that small town of Delft must have been inevitable. After Vermeer’s death Van Leeuwenhoek was appointed as trustee for dealing with Vermeer’s poor estate of goods and debts.

Within a number of Vermeer paintings strong indications are found that Vermeer did translate into paint his personal experiences with the effects of optical tools.
It has been noted that Vermeer did not invent new types of compositions. His strength lies not in developing new schemes, but to try out various permutations and to bring existing ones to the pinnacle of perfection.
Most Vermeer paintings exhibit a thorough understanding of linear perspective, contributing to a near perfect spatial illusion, allowing the decoding of a flat painted image into a mentally accessible spatial image.

The striking, almost 'photographic effects' which may be observed in a number of Vermeer paintings have been discussed many times. The basic facts are the following:
In The Little Street (Amsterdam) the sensation is that of the image having been cropped and continuing outside the picture frame. This startlingly modern effect has been described various times.
In preparing The View of Delft (The Hague) Vermeer probably did use a camera obscura during the phase of his preparations – not during the actual process of painting, which would have taken place in his studio. The camera obscura is a wooden box, possibly the size of a shoe box, with a lens which can be moved to and fro for focusing, throwing the image either on a frosted glass pane or even more basic an oiled paper for projection, the glass or paper projection pane being shielded from day light on the other side. Finally there may be an optional mirror in between which reverts the image back from being upside down to the image on top, all though the left-to-right reversal remains - all somewhat comparable to an early type of photographic camera. Alternatively there is also a room-size sit-in version in which the observer sits within a darkened closet or room and observes the projection, ideally projected by a lens on a white surface of tracing paper.

Given these indications it is likely that the camera obscura was used by Vermeer as a source of visual research or inspiration in the making of The View of Delft. However, if in the actual daylight scene of The View of Delft the sun would have hit the wet surface of this ship, the direct sunlight would have sparkled off and a view of this effect through a camera obscura would have presented sets of fuzzy rings - called circles of confusion - on the frosted projection glass. On The View of Delft, Vermeer has copied this optical effect in a shaded area on the side of the ship, outside direct sunlight, thus oddly enough not in a logical spot.
Odd blurry, feathery reddish shapes in he foreground of The Lace Maker (Louvre, Paris) were hardly comprehensible to former generations, but they actually do show the out of focus threads in front of the lace-making pillow.
A play with crispness and blurring of focus is also presented in Girl with The Red Hat (Nat.Gall., Washington DC) in which the light sections of the finial lion heads of the forward pointing chair are quite out of focus, showing the circles of confusion apparent when strong lighting would be present.
Expressive use of dramatic difference foreground and background size in perspective is made in The Officer and the Laughing Girl (Frick, NYC) in which the figure of the officer with his sash is depicted extremely large as he is framed in a close-up.
Many authors of articles and books on Vermeer and camera obscura have made or repeated these observations, broadly agreeing on the phenomena listed above but diverge on the point of the use of the camera obscura in studio practice. Perspective boxes

In her study the Dutch seventeenth century painter and author Samuel van Hoogstraten, the author Celeste Brusati states that perspective boxes and the Camera Obscura were pivotal to him and by extension possibly also to other seventeenth century artists.
“Although Van Hoogstraten joined many seventeenth-century writers in thinking of the camera obscura image as natural painting, he is the only writer known to me who specifically proposed that painters should learn from and adopt its artifice as their model. His recommendation presupposes that painting can and should replicate visible nature by the same means as the image-making eye does. It also speaks to a replicative notion of a picture as a counterfeit vision which is fundamental to both his art and his writing.”[6]

“A properly functioning camera obscura, like a mirror or concave lens, reduces the scale of images but not the intensity of the colour. The effect is to produce richer and seemingly purer colours than those that appear naturally, an effect accentuated in the camera obscura by the contrast of the brightness of its image with the surrounding darkness.”[7]

(((((((((((add closing remarks))))))))

3.8.3. Late period

In the last part of his career, from circa 1668-1770 onwards to his untimely death in 1675, Vermeer developed a gradually more abstract way of encoding visual images into paint layers. In this phase he seems to have been mostly interested in painting a reduction of the image, showing the purely visual outward appearance of an object or person as it the reaches the human eye and brain. Brushwork

He allowed himself to release the former normal approach of continuous modelling and of gradation and modulation in paint from light to dark and chose instead a free tesserae-like combination of paint surfaces, like a mosaic of paint patches. Liberated into performing their own dance of independent paint patterns, they appear simultaneously as a soaring and monumental liberated mosaic - but at the same time remain functioning as another type of encoding into paint of a scene in reality. An increased tendency may be observed towards simplification and interlocking geometric colour fields, even in delicate areas of skin and textiles. An outstanding example of this tendency is the Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid (National Gallery, Dublin).
This stunning new approach in crafting paint surfaces consists of a shorthand type of abbreviated encoding in of paint, allowing in the viewer to enter into an active decoding process. For the viewer that process can take the breath away. This two-part process of encoding a vision into paint surface by the painter and the decoding of this paint surface by the viewer triggers a heightened sensation vision in the viewer, allowing us to switch perception gears into a heightened level of reality. This encoded set of paint layers we now recognize and value as quite unique to Vermeer.
”Everything of Vermeer is in the Dublin Letter Writer, set out with a deliberation which was never his before. Form is seen plain, free of all that has ever seem particular or accidental. Light carves in flat facets the simplest shapes.”[8]

Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of a 2003 BBC documentary also latches on this quality:
“Vermeer’s art is made up of a multitude of tesserae of paint, an extraordinary optical agglomeration of dabs, touches and blobs – he’s the first optical painter, in that sense, the first painter of pure tone and light, with nary a line in sight. We know him in a similar way, impressionistically and obliquely. We never see him, but we can see what he saw, in many cases know the people whom he knew, and can try to piece him together through their stories. Paint a picture of his world, and maybe we can get closer to understanding his mystery…” [9]

It is remarkable that Blankert in his 1975/1978 book regards this later period with a “schematizing style” as a time of artistic decline.[10]



[1] During the last decades history painting has been written up as the pinnacle of the art of Dutch painting in terms of status and possibly also in terms of income. This position has been challenged by Sluyter. See Sluyter in Franits 1997: 83 and note 46. Houbraken 1753, book 2: 202 and 245 discusses history painting as the heaviest in Art, “...het zwaarste in de Konst.”.
[2] Montias (page number?)
[3] Thanks to Jon Boon for help in rephrasing this section.
[4] Franits 1997:13, and 21-56.
[5] Gregory 1998: 242.
[6] Celeste Brusati, Artifice and Illusion. The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1995, 71-72.
[7] Wheelock, jr., Arthur K. Perspective, Optica and Delft Artists Around 1650. Garland, New York and London, 1977, p. 295-296
[8] Gowing vermeer 1997, p 59.
[9] Text by BBC interviewer Andrew Graham-Dixon, consisting of his private notes made while reading the J.M. Montias 1989.
[10] Blankert 1978: 59.


1) Foreword
2) Introduction and terminology. houding, perception of reality, realism, illusionism and trompe l’oeil
3) Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics
4) Brain and colour
5) Form as registered by the brain
6) Facial recognition, depth, movement, fine vs broad
7) Using this knowledge in studying and appreciating Vermeer
8) Workshop matters, Painters’ Supplies, Palette, The fijnschilder style versus the loose style, fourteen Qualities listed by Philips Angel
9) Naturalness, enticing the viewers
10) Delft artists influencing Vermeer
11) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period. Camera Obscura
12) Vermeer’s World of Interiors: a Reality or a Construction
13) Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form)
14) Digital Art History Studies and Presentations on Questions - on Perception of Reality in Vermeer Paintings
15) External CD-Rom, DVD, film material on Vermeer
16) Selected Bibliography

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Written 2002-2003. Published online, July 17, 2011. Updated July 17, 2011.


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