13. Landmark Vermeer literature (in print on paper form).


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


3.10. Landmarks in Vermeer Literature

From the 1880’s onwards an increasing number of books and articles have been published on Vermeer. As the worldwide interest in Vermeer gradually increased, more and more paintings were discovered – while others were rejected so that the generally accepted corpus of his paintings became gradually known.

A number of authors on Vermeer focused on his particular painterly qualities. These writers probed into way he applied oil paint in order to create in their view either a likeness of the existing world around him or alternatively how he succeeded in creating a new world onto itself. It is this literature, which will be reviewed here. Literature listed below, some ten items, was selected foremost for its particular relevance to Vermeer’s ‘Perception of Reality’.[1] Thus material on his family life and other otherwise relevant data has been ignored here.[2]

Evaluation criteria for regular art history articles and books below have been listed in paragraph 2.2.

3.10.1. Hale, 1939

Philip L Hale (1865-1931) was a painter, teacher and writer who lived in the Boston, Massachusetts, USA area. His own experience as a painter and his painter’s eye allowed him to probe deeply into the craft, inquiring into Vermeer’s aesthetics and workshop practices.
His book on Vermeer, which was first published in 1913 and republished in an expanded posthumous version in 1937, discusses life and work of Johannes Vermeer with particular attention to archival documents and to his painterly qualities.[3] Vermeer is heralded and described by Hale as the “painter’s painter”, even “the supreme painter”, and his work is valued in terms of the visual quality of the paint surface and the composition. Texts by Hale have already been liberally quoted in paragraph 3.2.1 on colour and elsewhere in this text.
In his detailed descriptions, Hale succeeds in putting into words what is so difficult for all authors: outlining and describing those particular qualities that make Vermeer such a remarkable and effective painter.

3.10.2. Swillens,1950.

Pieter T.A. Swillens was a Dutch author who audaciously tackled the question of “Vermeer and Reality”. By 1950, the year in which his book appeared, his research had already taken many decades.[4] His particular method of tackling the question of Vermeer and reality may however be regarded as problematic in many respects.
Swillens’ interesting drawings of floor and elevation projections of the Vermeer interior rooms were finished as early as 1914-1918 and his manuscript was almost ready by 1940, but then upheavals of WWII and the aftermath postponed the publication of the book for a full decade.[5]
Swillens did believe that Vermeer depicted actual interiors in his own home, including all household objects, with a supreme kind of reality, thus giving us an almost photographic view of Vermeer’s seventeenth century private life.
“Everything he painted he saw immediately in front of him. [italics by Swillens] This is proved by: 1. The highly accurate representation of each kind of material, 2. the precise reflection of the shadows and half shadows, 3. the reproduction of details such as nails and their shadows and similar things in the wall, parts of furniture, etc., 4. the exact sharp drawing, 5. the careful way in which he grouped figures and objects and arranged their lighting”.[6]
“The perspective of the interiors […] gives us the opportunity of learning to know the given reality.”[7]
Thus Swillens viewed the interiors painted by Vermeer more or less as ‘early day photographs’ of rooms within the Vermeer’s house and in doing so he actually distinguished five separate type-groups (labelled A, B, C, D, E) of given Vermeer paintings, as relating to certain rooms in the Vermeer home. According to Swillens, room A in the Vermeer house has been used for no less than eleven of his paintings.[8]
“Careful observation of Vermeer’s painting technique does not admit of any other view than that he has attempted to depict space and things as he saw them.” [italics by Swillens].[9]

The line ‘as he saw them’ does not indicate a special type of artistic perception; Swillens believed that Vermeer was literally observing actual rooms and objects in front of him so that he could paint a close likeness. Swillens inferred the room’s measurements and drew his projections, floor plans and elevations, marking the tile patterns, furniture and human figures. In making the case for his particular view, he lists elements of furniture, pictures-within-pictures and wall maps, as well as household items such as tapestries.[10]
“When depicting interiors the painter always confines himself to one room, which he never shows in its entirety.”[11] “Vermeer always sat in front of his easel.” [except in the case of the Dresden Girl].[12]

Although Swillens is to be commended for paying serious attention to Vermeer paintings and disseminating useful knowledge, I feel that many of his ideas are now superseded because of new historical evidence and changing insights.
Just to illustrate this point with the View of Delft (Mauritshuis, The Hague),
Swillens does correctly indicate the point of view chosen by Vermeer as that on Hooikade, now Plein Delftzicht. According to Swillens the oil painting was painted right there by Vermeer, and he even calls it the first plein-air painting, possibly mirroring Hale’s erroneous statement.[13] Knowing what we know now about seventeen-century studio practice this could not have been the case. Scientific research has also shown that the View of Delft is a studio work, the painting being worked on repeatedly and then set aside to dry in the course of many years; this is evident as later paint layers seeped into earlier layers of already cracked paint.
Swillens is also obviously mistaken on a number of other ideas scattered throughout his book.[14] His text becomes increasingly airborne when Swillens discusses matters of psychology and the state of Vermeer’s soul.[15] When Swillens discusses realism he juxtaposes ‘realism’ versus ‘idealism’ and proposes that these two opposites are not only simultaneously contrasting but also overlapping.[16] Most problematic of all, he advocates an interpretation of Vermeer paintings space as a picture of just light and colour, devoid of intelligence and thus almost verging on brainless art.
“…the thought, the idea too, is missing. Is it a loss in Vermeer’s works of art, that he never expressed an idea? … [only] …the purely pictorial element remains…” [17]
In this respect there is a world of difference with the ideas propounded by Ivan Gaskell (see below, paragraph 3.10.12) who advocates quite the opposite – the overriding intelligence of Vermeer’s composition and craft.

It should however be pointed out to his credit, that Swillens has tackled the subject of reality value and that did show his sensitivity for the peculiar nature of Vermeer’s artistry and Vermeer’s painterly qualities, stating that “Vermeer’s great and special importance lay in his purely pictorial vision.”[18]
“In Vermeer’s works of art there are countless particulars, which have received attention for the first time since the growth of modern science and which are also explained by it, but which Vermeer solely arrived at by intense, lengthy and serious observation.” [Italics by Swillens].[19]

3.10.3 Gowing, 1952

The art historian Lawrence Gowings book focuses on the aesthetics of Vermeer paintings and he succeeds in making a great number of astute and yet unconventional observations. Gowing shows no need for a proper framework of art theory for Dutch seventeenth century art, as he succeeds in dealing with the formal qualities and image language of Vermeer in a framework devised by himself,[20] This book may thus be regarded as one of the cornerstones for understanding the art of Vermeer.[21] His insights have already been quoted liberally in the former chapters. Gowing marries his observation with poetic expression; in recent literature this book has been described as less than clear-cut for this reason.[22]

3.10.4 Blankert, 1975 (Dutch edition) and 1978 (English edition)

The book ‘Johannes Vermeer’ by art historian Albert Blankert, which has appeared in many language editions, was widely acclaimed when it was first published in Dutch in 1975.[23] It set out to present all basic information on Vermeer, well organized in the following three elements, making it one of the all time great books on the subject.
First, it shows all known and accepted Vermeer paintings, partly in colour, partly in black and white, plus a set of images of related contemporary paintings.[24]
Second, it presents a basic but useful survey of Vermeer’s artistic development and the reception history of his art.
Third, it provides a wide selection of archival handwritten documents and early printed texts.[25] In the 1978 English edition these sources have been translated and are thus even more accessible to the general reader, as the first Dutch edition did not explain the intricacies of the seventeenth century Dutch language entries.

Blankert discusses the theme of illusionism and does pay attention to the theme of ‘Vermeer and Reality’. He describes the Dutch seventeenth century fascination with trompe-l’oeil painting and those odd paintings, which were enclosed in peep-boxes. In particular he discusses the successful Delft group of painters in which Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) played a major part. Blankert points out that the sudden heightening, by 1658-59, of the level of illusionism in Delft may have been an outcome of local competition between Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), who resided in Delft from 1653 to 1663, and Johannes Vermeer.[26] In order to attempt to define the greatness and poetry of Vermeer works, Blankert juxtaposes Vermeer’s works produced after 1658 with those of his contemporaries such as Frans van Mieris and Gerrit Dou. He also stresses that Vermeer is actually perfecting, not inventing, styles and that he builds on known compositional schemes. According to Blankert, Vermeer is however unique in that he has succeeded in striving for profound consequences. In his handling of oil paint, Blankert states, he is seeking unity and inner logic, and in the texture and surface rendering of various materials he attains visual perfection.
What may be regarded as a weak point in these 1975 / 1978 books and of the later expanded version of 1987[27] is that Blankert does neither attempt nor succeeds to explain how Vermeer paintings do actually succeed in being so much better, creating works that are so visually fascinating and stunning, compared to those works of his contemporaries. Rudy Fuchs rightly makes this critical point in a Dutch newspaper review.[28]

3.10.5 Welu articles, 1975 and 1978

Two articles by James A. Welu, ‘Vermeer, his cartographic sources’ [29] and ‘The map in Vermeer’s Art of painting’ [30] are exemplary studies of how Vermeer chose to render extremely precise depictions of actual cartography. I will discuss these articles here as they provide first-class knowledge of how Vermeer handled depicting actual items.
Welu succeeds in showing what exciting new facts we may learn from combining knowledge of Vermeer paintings and cartography. He proves that all maps and globes shown by Vermeer can be identified with known present-day copies. He also makes the point that the way certain maps and globes have been depicted in Vermeer paintings increases our knowledge of both Vermeer at work and our knowledge of historic cartography.

In his 1975 article, Welu states:
“… the scientific objectivity of Vermeer’s cartographic portrayal should be considered in relationship to Vermeer’s “realism” .. .”[31]
Welu explains that in the Officer and the Laughing Girl (Frick, NYC, dated 1658-59) the cartography of the map has been depicted extremely accurately but it does appear to be smaller and less rectangular in the painting.[32] This may be learned from comparison with the actual printed map [116 x 172 cm], a copy of which has been preserved in the Westfries Museum, Hoorn, North-Holland. In the Vermeer painting the landmass of this map has however oddly been coloured blue, whereas this colour was normally reserved for lakes or sea.[33] The same map, now depicted in dark, ochre tones was re-used by Vermeer in the background of the Young Woman in Blue dated 1662-5 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,). This map was used yet again in The Love Letter dated 1667 (also Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). Small folds on both renderings of this map do show that the same map has been used again and again by Vermeer, painting with the actual object before his eyes.[34] Here, Vermeer’s realism is shown to be a blend of close observation and painterly freedom.

By 1960, as a result of advancing cartographic research, all globes and most maps in Vermeer paintings had been identified. Subsequently in 1962 the original map of that shown by Vermeer in The Art of Painting (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was identified in the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. This unique print of the map by Claes Jansz. Visscher (1587-1652) consists of nine separate sheets, which have never been assembled into a large wall set and thus have survived in very good condition. When combined into a whole, this map itself would measure 111 x 153 cm.[35]
At that time of this identification, the whereabouts of the two strips of ten town views each, shown by Vermeer on either side to the map, still remained a mystery. Subsequently, Welu succeeded in tracing no less than eighteen out of these twenty views shown by Vermeer. Given their position and that of the ornamental border strip on each print, and of the arrangement of the perspective within each view, all of these twenty views, each about 14 x 25 cm. in size, seem to have been specially designed and produced for mounting with this actual map.
The overall size of the entire set-up shown by Vermeer - including the map, views and text has been determined as 140 x 204 cm. The title band at the top, 9 x 153 cm in size appears to have been typeset from a large woodcut typeface, not with raised letters but in sunken letters, which results in a print in a black continuous band and white letters. The large blocks of small text at the bottom, about 20 x 153 cm. in size, were undoubtedly typeset in columns and printed from small moveable metal type.

Thus it is evident that Vermeer in his Vienna painting has succeeded extremely well in showing the map as a three-dimensional physical object showing signs of aging, the map being also markedly creased forward in the middle. The total calculated size of 140 x 204 cm. corresponds well with the apparent size of other objects in this painting. Thus in the Art of Painting, Vermeer did choose to closely adhere to both the image and size of the map. In other paintings Vermeer did however feel free to manipulate the size and colour hues of the maps that he shows on the walls, in order to suit his own compositional needs.

The repeated use within his paintings of cartographic maps, both land maps, and sea charts, show that Vermeer had developed an active interest in - and even a lifelong fascination for cartography. Apart from showing regular land and sea maps Vermeer depicts a number of globes – notably a pair produced in 1600 by Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612) in various paintings. Vermeer goes all-out on The Geographer (Städelsches Museum, Frankfurt am Main) in which he depicts sea charts both on the wall and as a vellum roll on the table, and seafaring instruments such as the square, the divider (compass) and the cross-staff hanging in the upper window.[36] In the counterpart The Astronomer (Louvre, Paris) he shows a scientist working with a pair of dividers and an astrolabe. On the background, tacked against the cupboard is a paper or a board with a three circular projections and on top of the cupboard stands a heavenly globe, again by Hondius. Showing the world of knowledge and exhibiting instruments of learning was obviously a matter close to Vermeer’s heart. Given what we know now about the wealth in the Vermeer House[37] it is clear that he owned an impressive collection of books but most likely he did not own the set of globes, which then sold at the high price of 32 guilders or the equivalent of 15 days income for a trained artisan.[38]

In seventeenth century Holland, wall maps were in vogue as decorative objects for household walls. Perhaps once a number of maps had been part of the Vermeer household, but we do not find them in the 1676 inventory.[39] If they were once in the household then during the economically difficult years 1672-1676 they may well have been sold or transferred as goods belonging to Vermeer’s art dealers’ stock. The question whether there may have been a symbolic meaning in his use of maps is open for learned discussion and the same goes for the reasons for burghers to display these objects in their homes and for painters to depict them as objects-within-paintings.

As indicated by Welu, the study of those wall maps, depicted as objects within paintings forms a prime source of knowledge in the science of cartography. Actual mounted wall maps were exposed to light and smoke and thus were very likely to deteriorate over the decades to be discarded in the end. Only a few have survived the ages.[40]

For middle class Delft citizens, wall maps were a regular and a reasonably affordable commodity. New maps were for sale in the bookstores run by book printers. Within Delft maps were also sold regularly in the spacious inner entrance hall of Citizens hall (Stadhuis), a fact that has been curiously omitted in the detailed discussion by Welu.[41] This entrance hall was a fine sheltered place for walking and waiting for those citizens who had business with the mayors or aldermen. During fairs and cheese markets a number of merchants were allowed to trade there in books, maps, paintings, prints and artful paper cuttings as it was essential to shelter these costly and fragile trade objects from the rain and wind.
As second-hand articles they may also have been on sale from the homes of painters, who often acted as small-scale dealers in paintings.

The very precise, almost documentary way in which Vermeer paints existing objects was again indicated in yet another article Welu, in which he has succeeded in pinpointing both the title and edition of the open book by Adriaen Metius (1571-1635) displayed in the Astronomer (Louvre, Paris).[42] The book is opened at the page showing an engraving of the astrolabe invented by Metius himself.

3.10.6 Wheelock 1977

The 1977 thesis study on Perspective, Optics and Delft Artists Around 1650 published by the art historian Arthur K. Wheelock, jr. was his first survey of this fascinating field and has become a source of inspiration for further study of this subject.[43] Subsequently Wheelock has published a series of important books and articles on Vermeer.

3.10.7 Wheelock & Kaldenbach, 1982

This article focuses on just one Vermeer painting, the impressive painting the View of Delft.[44] Based on my initial image research, the co-authors Wheelock and Kaldenbach have subjected he painting to a ‘close reading’. John Michael Montias, to call in a witness, states that these two authors have analysed the painting in “extraordinary detail”.[45] The 1982 article starts out like this:
“Vermeer's View of Delft is a glorious image of a city, so lifelike yet so hauntingly still and different that it never ceases to amaze the viewer. It is as though we are seeing the city on a Sunday morning before the activity of life overwhelms the quiet beauty of the setting.”
About its aim the text continues:
“The intent of this article is to examine the nature of Vermeer's image, both to understand the manner in which he created such a naturalistic impression and how he has transformed a topographical view into one that is powerful and audacious in the way Thoré-Bürger and others have described.”

With regards to the question whether Vermeer painted a realistic, almost photographic likeliness of Delft – a thought entertained by many 20th century writers on Vermeer, the authors Wheelock and Kaldenbach have jointly come to the conclusion that the painter has consciously altered a number of townscape elements. The most visible manipulation results are the elongated large roof on the left hand side, the flattened bridge and the sideways shifted angle of the twin towered fore-gate (barbican) of the Rotterdam gate towards the right hand side. Thus the net result was the creation of a flattened horizontal frieze-like effect. Oddly, the sun-lit tower of the New Church has been depicted too wide.
In this painting Vermeer has succeeded in depicting what I consider the most striking and emotionally moving city view in art history. He worked wonders in lighting by applying a few small areas of high-key luminosity.[46] Depth-promoting light effects were intensified by the application of cloud shade in the foreground middle distance, leaving a low-light band of shaded buildings in the middle distance. Vermeer applied a number of compositional alterations, as compared to the actual set of buildings, almost as if he was reworking the image in a Photoshop session on a computer. He also applied tricks of the painters’ trade such as adding the light halo just above the buildings, by applying a grainy impasto in some paint layers, particularly in tiles and brickwork.
In this article, a number of arguments have also been put forward in favour of his use of a camera obscura during the phase of preparing the painting.
Wheelock and Kaldenbach have based their findings in this article on a large collection of maps, prints, drawings and other archival material, culled mostly from the Image and Sound Department of the Delft Municipal Archives. This abundant material allowed them to come to grips with the topographical and physical reality in the 1660’s and to come up with hard evidence of Vermeer’s tendency to alter the scene to suit his compositional and expressive needs.

3.10.8 Wheelock 1995

One of the outstanding sources for our present theme of Vermeer & Reality, Wheelock’s 1995 book Vermeer & the Art of Painting forms an in-depth analysis of no less than seventeen of Vermeer’s paintings. Representing about half of the painters oeuvre, across chronology and themes, these paintings were mainly picked for the availability of recent laboratory examination results, such as microscopic cross-layer specimens, and technical images made by such technologies as x-ray and infrared reflectography.[47] Thus Vermeer & the Art of Painting shows quite a different approach than the run of the mill books on Vermeer. It sets out to reappraise half of the currently known Vermeer works by giving a fresh description of colour, composition and technique.[48] For this thesis on Vermeer & Reality this book is an important one as it probably is the most analytical one available.
Of all seventeen discussions of paintings only two will be discussed here: that of The Little Street and The View of Delft as it provides ample comparison material with other elements of this thesis.

3.10.9 Kaldenbach 2000-st (Little Street).

In the article on The Little Street, I propose that the precise site of this painting has been found on the Delft location Nieuwe Langendijk 22-26.[49] The historic buildings, which once stood there, were both identified and then swiftly demolished in 1982.

In 1982 a group of houses on Nieuwe Langendijk 22-26 in Delft was the subject of research by a team from the Delft Polytechnic University [TUD], assisted by a group of amateur archaeologists. This research occurred shortly before demolition as these houses seemed an interesting subject; on first survey it was clear that this group of buildings seemed to date form the sixteenth century or even earlier. One building in this group, located in the back yard of these houses, was an uncommonly large one, set out of alignment in relationship to houses along the street.
In the course of this research Wim Weve, active in 1982 as a student-assistant in the Architecture department of the Delft Polytechnic, realized that some architectural details of the houses on this location were similar to those depicted by Vermeer to such a degree that identification was possible. His private "Provisional Report" was published on February 14, 1982, before actual demolition had commenced.[50] As his findings had been reported as a private individual and as his report was only distributed in limited circles, his warnings were ignored by the three authorities directly in charge being the real estate owner and developer, the City Magistrates and finally the National Bureau of Monuments (Rijksdienst voor de Monumentenzorg). A permit for demolition had already been granted by the City to make space for the building of an old age home on the site. At the time Weve's remarks may have been considered "too vague" and “unsupported” by solid research evidence.

Right at that moment the team researching the architecture on Nieuwe Langendijk 22-26 was photographing and analysing what they encountered. During this first phase they described and measured on-site; this work being architectural-historic in nature. Later on, in June and July 1982, after the building had been torn down, its foundations were excavated and the research phase became of an archaeological nature. Carried out by a team, which was supervised by student-assistant Claes-Joris van Haaften, the on-site research lasted until August 1982. Results were presented five years later on by Van Haaften in his three-volume book published by the Delft University Press.[51] Subsequently, this extremely detailed research served as a handbook for students of architectural restoration. The total body of evidence led Van Haaften to support the initial identification as the houses painted by Vermeer.
As the book was known mainly in restoration circles, Weve's and Van Haaften's publications remained largely unread by art historians and thus remained out of mainstream Vermeer literature.

Having received firsthand information from Weve, both during conversations and in photocopies of documents, I initially doubted his information and reasoning. This doubt did not feel right and prompted me to do further research on this proposed Little Street site, expanding from the data provided by both Weve and Van Haaften. For this research I consulted the Sound and Image Department of the Delft Municipal Archives and I also communicated with professor Temminck Groll, emeritus professor of Architectural Restoration at Delft Polytechnic, as well as with both Weve and Van Haaften.[52] The amount of data generated convinced me that indeed in 1982 an important Delft building was demolished.
In the resulting cover article in a 2000 issue of Bulletin KNOB, I presented all points, combining and weighing all indications, listing a total of 14 arguments to support the identification. Taken individually, each of the arguments presented would be inconclusive in identifying the architecture of Nieuwe Langendijk 22-26 as that shown by Vermeer. However, considering this total set of information it has now become almost certain that Weve's tentative conclusions and Van Haaften's body of data concerning the location for The Little Street are indeed valid. Their study enables us to broaden our understanding and appreciation of this Vermeer painting. Cumulatively these concrete indications yield a tapestry of evidence, which I feel scarcely contains any margin of error.
Research by Claes Joris van Haaften and the text and drawings presented by him and his team, form an exciting and convincing argument. It enables us to upgrade the way in which we see, understand and value Vermeer's painting with regards to the level of realism involved. I think their research should be properly acknowledged.

3.10.10 Kaldenbach 2000-sh (Ships on the View of Delft).

This article discusses the various types of ships depicted in the View of Delft and thus sheds light on the way in which Vermeer chose to depict the ships. Just like the two-way street shown in the Welu article on mapping, it tells us about Vermeer’s choices and also increases our knowledge of the types of ships shown within this painting.[53]
In studying literature on inland waterway shipping in The Netherlands it became clear to me that very little had been published. Having a zero starting knowledge of ships myself, I digested all of this literature on historic Dutch shipping and received some expert help from the library staff and scientific staff of the Maritime museum [Scheepvaartmuseum] Amsterdam.

In the article, each type of ship visible has been determined and discussed as to its, shape, size and uses and the way it has been depicted by Vermeer. Information is also given on the separate group of tow barges, forming an early day ‘water bus’ public transport system. On this tow barge public transportation system I presented some unpublished archival documents, which deal with their rules and regulations in Delft from 1655 onwards. The article also discusses another type of ships, the herring busses on the right hand side and finally and to my surprise proposes a precise dating for the scene of Vermeer's painting View of Delft to within half a month in a given year.[54]
The most unexpected single oddity is that the tow barge visible on the far left hand side has its opening for boarding not on the quayside on which it is moored, but at the side of the water. This inconsistency shows that Vermeer may have positioned the ship right there for compositional reasons, knowing very well that that position was not functional.
This detailed analysis serves to indicate the way Vermeer went to great lengths not to alter and ‘photoshop’ but to present a documentary type of rendering of the physical world of shipping. On the other hand he did not shrink from manipulation the placement of ships for compositional or expressive purposes.

3.10.11 Steadman 2001

Philip Steadman in ‘Vermeer’s Camera, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces’ first presents a rather well researched and well-presented history of the camera obscura. After that the main section of the book starts, to which the book title refers as ‘Uncovering the Truth’. Steadman proposes his new theory about rooms in Vermeer’s house, especially about Vermeer using a sit-in booth type of camera obscura. Interestingly and highly unusual, the book is accompanied with a web site.[55]

Another site contains a synopsis of the book’s central argument, written by Steadman himself in reply to various sources of criticism. The self-assured title of the book, successful as it may be from a marketing point of view, has had the odd effect that even professionals in the world of museums and the fine arts, upon just reading the title and realizing the basic concept, will tend to accept the idea of the sit-in camera booth at its face value: as ‘the Truth’. This effect has been noticed to their dismay by both Walter Liedtke curator of the Metropolitan, NYC and Axel Rüger, curator of the National Gallery, London.
Neither of the two adheres to the Steadman theory.[56] Steadman’s proposed setup does also not tally with the Digital Vermeer House presented by myself, itself based on the architectural reconstruction drawn up by Henk Zantkuijl.[57] The Zantkuijl version contains Vermeer’s studio upstairs, at the northern street front of the house and the size of this room, just two windows wide, does not allow for the large sit-in booth described by Steadman.
Another architectural recreation does however exist, thought up and drawn quite independently by Ab Warffemius. In his version of the house the Vermeer studio, shown not two but three windows wide, would just be large enough for such a booth.[58]
On the Digital Vermeer House web site Steadman has been given ample space for a discussion on the merits of his own theory and Warffemius’ drawings have also been shown.
In this case the findings of Zantkuijl on one hand and Warffemius / Steadman on the other hand are best understood as representing two mutually excluding schools of thought. Depending on which school one adheres to it has its own message about the complex way Vermeer handled Perception of Reality.

3.10.12 Gaskell 2000

Ivan Gaskell’s exciting and sometimes even startling book Vermeers Wager is about the relationship between an object or an image on one hand and language or text on the other hand. Gaskell analyses what happens within an observer or a group of observers: how these people respond to objects so that they can imagine a world.[59] The title refers to a particular form of artistic wager, that shown in Woman Standing at a Virginal (London), in which Vermeer, according to Gaskell, succeeds in two feats:
Wager part 1) “…embodying systematic abstract ideas that constitute methodical thought in purely visual form, exclusively employing representations of plausible material reality” [60] To put it in different words, Vermeer once painted a picture of a lady standing in an interior, and after some 340 years this image still succeeds in conveying a coherent train of abstract thought.

Wager part 2) is “…that we apprehend complex pictorial abstraction purely visually by means of the heart and soul directly through visual pathways, evading language, in the manner of love.” Or to phrase this one in different terms as well, the love for art may guide us to increase our capacity for wisdom, reflection and consolation.[61]
“For instance, by painting a representation I do not thereby reliably convey a set of ideas about what is represented, though by means of shared visual conventions a viewer might justifiably infer ideas about choices among the protocols of representation available to me.” [62]

Reliable visual signalling according to Gaskell requires a secondary system of conventions (as codified by Cesare Ripa in Iconologia). Vermeer on the other hand uses a primary set of communication. Gaskell’s train of thought far exceeds the limits of standard practices in art history and it also touches upon my earlier paragraphs on neuroscience in this thesis.
Gaskell’s approach aims to trains of visual thought and knowledge of the soul. This represents a refreshing and a sometimes startling view on how Vermeer handled Perception of Reality.

3.10.13 Other literature on realism / illusionism.

For our purposes, the book Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, Realism Reconsidered is a useful survey of the problem of Realism versus Seeming Realism, an opposition phrased in Dutch as: Realisme versus Schijnrealisme. This book, containing 14 essays by notable authors, and edited by Wayne Franits, was published by the Cambridge University Press in 1997.[63] Most of the articles had previously been published elsewhere.
In his opening chapter Franits discusses the nature of the Erwin Panofsky methods of iconography and iconology. In a three-part scheme, Franits summarizes the theory, which was initially developed in order to improve analysing and understanding Italian Renaissance art[64]:
Franits justly uses the term ‘recalcitrant’ when discussing the application of the latter two concepts of iconography and iconology to the world of northern European Painting. In order to fill this mental gap, Panofsky himself adjusted his theory to include ‘Disguised Symbolism’.[65]
At Utrecht University, Eddy de Jongh has applied this theory to study seventeenth century Dutch painting. One of the landmark publications in his field of study was in the 1976 Amsterdam Rijksmuseum exhibition catalogue ‘tot Lering en Vermaak’. In the introductory essay De Jongh warns the viewer and reader of the gap in psychological perspective – between the visual culture incorporated within those paintings and the cultural understanding of the modern day viewer.[66] He cites the painter Philips Angel who 1641 delivered a eulogy on the fine ‘Art of Painting’[67] for the St. Luke Guild in Leiden, published in 1642 as Lof der Schilder-konst in which he stated that painters are mimicking life - and he exhorted that it is worth going the extra mile “if this assists one in further approaching natural things”.[68] This tendency for deceiving the eye, would also much please the senses of the art lover and would tickle the sense of coveting these works.[69]
One other painter should be marked in this respect. In 1678 Samuel van Hoogstraten defined three characteristics for the Art of painting: “…a perfect painting is as a mirror of nature, and appears to make present things which aren’t there, and deceives the eye in a way which is permitted, amusing and laudable.[70] Van Hoogstraten seeked “to counterfeit nature’s own workings” ; his perspective boxes and trompe l’oeil paintings should “induce in the beholder feelings of wonder, not only of nature but also for the ingenious men who devised them.”[71]
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3.10.14 Closing remarks

As closing remarks for this overview of Vermeer literature two short points may be made.

I feel that the author Brian Jay Wolf in his otherwise problematic book Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing goes in the right direction tries to indicate how Vermeer vaults way above his contemporaries who were probing into the art of deceiving the eye by flat paintings in oil paints, like Samuel van Hoogstraten:
“Vermeer deceives in a different fashion. His goal is not to mirror the miracles of the natural world, but to manufacture new ones: to invent what does not exist and to imagine what […] does not exist.”[72]

Indeed Vermeer built new worlds, which to us have become as precious as the existing natural world. These new Vermeer worlds do also succeed in evading our attempts for a precise analysis of meaning. We seem not to be able to put into proper words what he has done.
This lack of words and reasoning is already mirrored in the preface to a 1976 Rijksmuseum catalogue ‘tot Lering en Vermaak’ on art and instruction. [73] In this catalogue the Rijksmuseum director Simon Levie wrote that for all our knowledge, in many cases painted images - or parts of those images - have remained mysterious and have allowed various interpretations. It is even possible, he states, that the artist has intended this ambiguity.
In summing up this survey of literature we have gained a small body of evidence on how Vermeer reflected, altered and shaped reality. We have also gained some insights in his manipulations but we are also left with a vastly greater sense of awe, mystery and amazement for that other world which one painter has crafted.


[1] Major sections of Vermeer literature, quite important in many other respects - such as the early writings of Thoré-Bürger and the recent writings of Montias - are excluded here.
[2] Publications of series of archival documents have also shed some light on his private and professional life of his family circle. Research has yielded just a few documents about the man himself. In the 1970 and 1980s, further articles and books appeared on the wider Delft social circle, dealing with artists, artisans and their patrons in Delft society. This provided us with a much better understanding of his daily business as a painter, art dealer and member of the Guild of St Luke. These combined studies do largely make up for the lack of documents and succeed in giving us insight in the fabric of Delft life. There is quite some circumstantial evidence about Vermeer’s particular role. However important in itself, I feel that this intricate web of social and professional relationships is not relevant to the subject of this thesis.
[3] Hale 1937.
[4] Swillens 1950.
[5] Swillens 1950: 12-13.
[6] Swillens 1950: 77.
[7] Swillens 1950: 69.
[8] Swillens 1950: 70-73.
[9] Swillens 1950: 133.
[10] Swillens 1950: 75 and 77-84.
[11] Swillens 1950: 70.
[12] Swillens 1950: 77.
[13] Swillens 1950: 92-93.
[14] Just to name a few erroneous matters: ideas about of perspective (Swillens 1950: 70), imagining fires burning in the ‘living room’ – where there was no such room in Vermeer’s days (p. 88). The proposed list of original drawings by Vermeer is quite ludicrous indeed (p. 110-111). Chapter 5 on attributions contain some startling misconceptions (pages 154-158).
[15] Swillens 1950: 146-47 and 151.
[16] Swillens 1950: 177-178.
[17] Swillens 1950: 150.
[18] Swillens 1950: 14.
[19] Swillens 1950: 139-140
[20] Gowing disregards the analytical framework often used in dealing with Italian art, see Alpers 1983, xx.
[21] Gowing 1952.
[22] Liedtke 1999??: xxxCHECK
[23] Blankert 1975 / 1978.
[24] The curious addendum to the book lists four B-paintings, two of which are considered problematic because of abrasion and two of which are considered non-autograph. The former two consist of: B1) Woman playing a Lute near the Window, Metropolitan, NYC; B2) Girl Interrupted at her Music , Frick, NYC ; while the latter two consist of B3) Girl with the Red Hat, National Gallery, Washington DC. ; B4) Girl with a Flute, National Gallery, Washington DC. Since then, opinions on whether these works are autograph have evolved.
After 1975, by study, combination an deduction or archival data, important new biographical insights came to light. Montias has even presented a major breaktrough – he succeeded in naming the great Vermeer Patron, being not Dissius (who was only an heir) but the Van Ruyven family.
[25] Ihis section of the book was prepared by Rob Ruurs.
[26] Blankert 1978: 30.
[27] This is the large format book by Blankert, Montias and Aillaud, which appeared at Rizzoli, New York and Meulenhoff Amsterdam.
[28] Fuchs 1987.
[29] Welu 1975.
[30] Welu 1978.
[31] Welu 1975: 530-531.
[32] This map is the Blaeu-van Berckenrode map dating from 1621 or somewhat later.
[33] Welu 1975: 532. In mapmaking there were specialists called ‘afzetters’ who took care of the colouring by hand.
[34] Welu 1975: 532.
[35] Examination of the Paris BN print shows that the copper plates used for printing these sheets had been both etched and engraved.
[36] Welu 1975: 544.
[37] See the Digital Vermeer House on www.johannesvermeer.info
[38] Welu 1975: 546.
[39] Obreen’s full St Luke’s Guild book transcription is available as well on www.johannesvermeer.info under the tab Delft Artists & Patrons.
[40] Some sets of unmounted and unglued map prints, which were kept between pages of large books, have survived the ages in prime condition – as we saw from the example in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, cited above.
[41] D. van Bleyswijck, Beschrijvinge der Stadt Delft, Delft 1667/1678, which is cited on that web site, tab Delft Artists & Patrons, page Stadhuis: “Voor- zaal of Burgerzaal, de entree-hal. (C). Dit was "een bequame wandel-plaets voor de Burgers en alle andere die in Burgermeesteren ofte Schepenen-Camer yetwes hebbende te doen/ dickwils d'een om d'ander wachten moeten" In de Voorzaal mochten ook "eenige Koop-luyden ofte Kramers op den omme-gangck ofte Kermis en Kase-Marckten voorstaen / met Boecken / Kaerten / Schilderyen / Prenten en Papier-kunst".
[42] Welu 1986. The original book title, not mentioned by Welu, was Adriaen Metius, Institutiones astronomicae et geographicae: fondamentale ende doorgrondelijcke onderwysinge van de sterrekonst ende beschryvinge der aerden door het ghebruyck van de hemelsche en aerdtsche globen (…) Blaeu, Amsterdam, , Book III, second edition, 1621. The book was originally published in 1614.
[43] Wheelock 1977.
[44] Wheelock & Kaldenbach 1982.
[45] Montias 1989:187.
[46] The barbican of the Rotterdam gate was first prepared to be in a full blast of sun light as can be seen from the lead white areas in an X-ray image.
[47] Wheelock 1995: 2.
[48] Wheelock 1995.
[49] Kaldenbach 2000-St.
[50] Weve 1982.
[51] Van Haaften 1987.
[52] Currently the latter two are both working as architectural historians in the Dutch towns of Delft and Groningen.
[53] Kaldenbach 2000-sh.
[54] The actual dating procedure was taken by consecutive steps:
Each year the active season of the herring busses, shown by Vermeer on the far right hand side, was limited by law from June 1st to the end of December. Herring busses were costly investments and these ships were thus optimally used during that legal fishery season.
These two ships are however seen quite far away from their regular harbour of Delfshaven and are clearly under repair, missing a few masts and being otherwise empty, floating extremely high on the water. This in turn indicates an early season for the total scene. Given the orientation of the sun in this scene, the full green foliage and the active maintenance works on these two ships which are moored at the Delft shipyards – they are both getting ready for launching before May 15 or June 1st. It thus follows that the intended scene and / or the actual sketch conception of this painting must be dated at an early morning in late April or in the first half of May.
So it was in the month of April/May of which year? Because of conflicting evidence one cannot tell for sure whether there had been bells visible in the tower of the New Church up until 1660. The delivery by the Hemony firm of the carillon of the New Church tower started in 1660 by hoisting down existing bells of the New Church tower to a shed at ground level. All bells were hoisted up again late in the summer of 1661. Vermeer clearly shows an empty bell tower in his painting. This supports the dating in 1660-1661, a period having being previously suggested on the basis of Vermeer's stylistic development. Thus we are watching a scene during an early morning in the first half of May 1660 or 1661.
As Vermeer worked slowly and meticulously (newer paint layers have filled "premature drying cracks" in older layers) the painting may have been finished somewhere around 1662 to 1665 when it will probably have been delivered to his major patron, art collector Pieter Claesz van Ruijven and his wife Maria de Knuyt. From their collection it was inherited by son-in-law Dissius, leading finally to the famous Amsterdam sale of 1696.
[55] www.vermeerscamera.co.uk
[56] Personal communications.
[57] www.johannesvermeer.info
[58] Warffemius 2001.
[59] Gaskell 2000.
[60] Gaskell 2000: 13.
[61] Gaskell 2000: 14.
[62] Gaskell 2000: 22.
[63] Franits 1997.
[64] Franits1997: 2. 1) Primary or natural subject matter, showing motifs and pure forms, carrying meaning (this is the pre-iconographical description);
2) Secondary conventional representation, comprising of combinations of motifs, which point to particular stories of concepts (this is iconography proper)
3) Intrinsic content, referring to underlying contexts that inform the depiction of these particular stories and concepts . (This method was later on labelled as ‘iconology’.)
[65] Panofsky,1953
[66] Rijksmuseum Lering 1976: 14.
[67] Available online at www.johannesvermeer.info
[68] Rijksmuseum Lering 1976: 14.
[69] Rijksmuseum Lering, 1976: 16.
[70] Hoogstraten 1678: 25.
[71] Brusati 1995:164-167.
[72] Wolf 2001: 248.
[73] Rijksmuseum Lering 1976: 8.


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 12, 2016.


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