3. Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics.


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) introduction, terminology
2) Perception, neuroscience
3) Colour in perception
4) Form in perception
5) Face-depth-movement in perception
6) Cognitive science & Vermeer
7) Workshop, paint, palette, fijnschilder, Philips Angel
8) Influence
9) Vermeers Early, Middle, Late period
10) Vermeer interiors seen als reality or construction
11) Literature reappraised: From Hale to Gaskell
12) Digital projects about Johannes Vermeer
13) Other digital Vermeer projects
14) Selected Bibliography

Updated June 9, 2016. Updated 15 February 2017.



CHAPTER 3 Understanding Vermeer’s Perception of Reality; a Discussion of Characteristics

3.1. Fascination almost beyond our grasp

“…seen from a distance, a Vermeer explodes from the wall…” [1]

“…Vermeer has overtaken Rembrandt as the supreme Dutch artist of the seventeenth century […] in informed public opinion.”[2]

Vermeer paintings keep on fascinating and - increasingly during the last decades – these paintings and the elusive artist behind the paintings have triggered an enormous and unprecedented worldwide enthusiasm both in lay persons and fine art specialists.

When persons untrained in seeing and enjoying fine arts paintings first observe one or more paintings by Johannes Vermeer, they may find that these are clear, simple, pleasant and straightforward.
However, upon study and analysis of colour, composition, brushwork and iconology - including psychological contents - this apparent simplicity turns out to be quite deceptive. In fact, Vermeer paintings are quite rich and multi-layered in all of these aspects and may even touch upon philosophy and other areas of human endeavour. In the peculiar way they communicate to the individual viewer they may be among the most intelligently crafted fine art paintings in art history.

Vermeer paintings do work on two levels: both on the Eyckian level[3] of paintings as windows yielding an image on another world and as painted objects, which contain independently visible and aesthetically active paint layers, applied with a personal artistic touch.
The concepts of realism, illusionism and trompe l‘oeil are in my view not at the core of Vermeer’s art - as shall be argued later on, and neither is the art of describing.[4]

But what is it then that makes a Vermeer tick so wonderfully in the eyes of beholders? Presently, part of the ‘Secret Vermeer Formula’ seems to be only partly within our intellectual and perceptive reach. We have developed a capacity to analyse elements of his houding and to define his pathways in modulating and expressing qualities of light. Vermeer paintings do much more – they also communicate on a meta-level and in this respect they might be compared to poetry or to the art of the fugue. Just like the best works of those fields they draw us in and seem to voice and embody universal experience and truths. However, beyond the first noticeable layers of colour, composition, and apparent meaning, Vermeer paintings remain evasive and elusive to a high degree and their aesthetic core-quality, which may hit the mark so forcefully for so many people, seems to slip away during dissection, just when a definition may seem within reach. On the reported ‘universal meaning’ present in Vermeer paintings the author Albert Blankert is quite reticent:
"It is gratifying that Vermeer's paintings have been valued. But the belief that they may have universal meaning has caused needless mystification and serious misunderstandings. For all values are based on context.[ ...] To ignore context is to ignore the basis for a painting's meaning." [...] "For a belief in universals suggest a treacherous short-cut to the understanding of art; it suggests that the most ideal confrontation with a work of art is the most direct one, one unencumbered by ideas and information that come between a work of art and the viewer."[5]

Does Blankert actually mean that context and intellectual knowledge form the foundation and core of aesthetic experience? If he does, I disagree with him for the aesthetic experience entails more than context.

The individual man or woman stands in a museum. He or she is either a novice or a fine art buff (or something in between). On the wall is a great work of art, once created by the effort and gift of the artist. A compelling, intense, many-layered visual, emotional and intellectual experience may then be taking place between the enticing work of art and this single individual readying for an art experience to happen. This sensitive, willing viewer is enticed, taken in, and cannot help responding emotionally to this work of art. Great works of fine art do not work well because we do intellectually grasp, frame and appreciate their artistic contents and context– they stand firm on their own many-layered grounds and do not cease to cause amazement by their rightness.[6]

This quality of people experiencing and responding to an image of inner rightness may be illustrated with one small example. When comparing two similar paintings from the same era, one being the Gold Weigher (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) by Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) with Johannes Vermeer’s Woman Weighing Gold (National Gallery, Washington DC) they are from the same Dutch Golden age and both painters share a similar cultural background and even some stylistic features as they present the same subject matter, but their works are indeed worlds apart in terms of artistic, aesthetic and intellectual impact. Both paintings have recently been juxtaposed in print and both were on show during the 2003 Vermeer exhibition in the Prado, Madrid.

It is the singular artist behind the painting who has created this equilibrium of colour, form and contents. The gift of the individual artist does seem to make all the difference for the informed and sensitive viewer. In an e-mail exchange between Jonathan Janson and Jon Boone, two present-day painters both of whom focus on Vermeer’s legacy, the former writes:
“Isn't the direct one-to-one contact the sine qua non of the whole ballgame? Context follows. Context helps us understand and sharpen our vision, but this understanding cannot substitute the initial experience of a single man in front of [the work of] another single man.”[7]

and Boone replies on the effects of being confronted with Vermeer’s genius:
“It enriches continuously and offers novel perspectives, which transcend time and place. Art historians who seek only context do in fact trivialize genius by insisting upon making it ordinary. You are quite right to note that the “cultural” experiences among Ter Borch or Van Mieris and Vermeer were not significantly different. And yet, there is really a universe of art between Vermeer and any of his cultural cohorts. They share many of the same ideas and values and even a similar sense of craft. But... Vermeer’s genius soars above the rest.”[8]

“ [Cultural context] is not enough to explain his genius -- why Vermeer was so much better than his contemporaries. And here I’m not talking about his pictorial conventions or even his technique (although I could). Rather, it is his poetry—how he in his best work amalgamates so many complex ideas (iconography, historical and sociological emblems and allusions, and layers of metaphor) with such amazing grace. Vermeer’s paintings are indeed like “musical architecture,” ephemerally stolid like musical notes played and then gone into the atmosphere.”[9]

Boone and Janson agree on the importance of a personal one-to-one experience of meeting the work of art, allowing a reverberation in experiencing this great art face-to-face, opening oneself to the chemistry of communication between oneself and the work of art (and thus a contact with the personality of the artist behind the painting). The effects thus experienced by a serious viewer facing a Vermeer painting may be strong and sometimes even overwhelming. The deepest, remotest layers of these strong effects of Vermeer’s art of painting on the informed viewer are transcendental, can hardly be touched by common language and mental schemes in the analytical centre of our brain, the neo-cortex.
The human experience of encountering great art, seeking meaning and sensing pleasure and maybe even arousal may be the result of a meta-dance between the senses, cognition and the subconscious, producing a particular state of mind.[10] In order to progress beyond stating this fuzzy description, neuroscience and neuresthetics may have some answers in store for understanding how we perceive, process and enjoy great art in a feast of neural chemical-electric fireworks.

3.2 Neuroscience and neuresthetics

Neuroscience and neuresthetics distinguish a number of areas active in human perception. For the interested layman seeking current knowledge in neuroscience and perception, Richard L. Gregory’ book on Eye and Brain, first published in 1966 and continuously updated since, forms a useful general introduction.[11] Another enlightening book on the subject, Art and the brain written in 1999 by neurobiologist Semir Zeki, specifically analyses what happens in brain circuitry when we are observing fine art. Zeki also reports current neurobiological findings within his field and describes the workings of visual perception through parallel distributed processing in three major areas at the back of the brain, governing three main elements of vision:
- colour;
- form, and related to that the angle and direction of line or movement;
- face recognition.[12]
To which another researcher, the psychologist and neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran adds a fourth and a fifth vision processing system which deal with
- depth;
- movement.[13]
Finally Gregory adds a sixth, more elusive quality which we he calls
- fine versus broad.[14]

All of these authors show that the act of seeing and recognizing is not a passive registration of the objective outer world - but instead the result of a highly active brain activity, involving a continuous mental search for and a construction of constancy and essentials (Zeki) taking in perceptions as hypoessay (Gregory)[15] or to put it differently, forming visual opinions about the outer world (Ramachandran).[16] Many decades before, in his stunning book an art and illusion, Ernst Gombrich cited a definition of perception as “primarily the modification of an anticipation” [my italics].[17]

The brain is multi-tasking all of these computations and within a split-second it reaches a unified hypothetical understanding of the world outside. The sensation of unification succeeds although electrical pulses arrive with distinct speeds in each of the distinct brain areas, in some parts with a relative delay of 1/3 of a second. In a healthy human being these scattered perceptions are nevertheless understood as a unity in perceiving one reality. The multi-tasking processes do stay scattered within the brain[18] while reaching our unified sense of wholeness on perception. There is no such thing as a ‘Grand Central Unifying Centre’ in the brain - in which all of these characteristics are finally worked into one central perception.

Some parts of our vision perception and our biological pattern recognition machinery, now gradually recognized and understood through neurobiology and neuresthetics[19], have been intuitively foreseen over the ages by a number of philosophers, scientists and artists. Zeki includes Vermeer in his shortlist of great fine-art painters who have created marvellous, haunting images triggering particularly strong pathways and responses. However, Zeki’s attempt at explaining why and how a Vermeer painting works so exquisitely well, rests upon just one main argument. According to Zeki, Vermeer triggers our deep human interest in one overriding quality: presenting in each of his paintings a single quite simple scene, which allows for ambiguous, multivalent scenarios, each of which rings completely true in the mind of the observer.
I do feel that this undoubted quality within Vermeer paintings forms just a fragment of what makes a Vermeer actually tick for us. Zeki therefore does not quite succeed in explaining the intricate set of multi-layered visual stimuli in what a Vermeer actually makes a Vermeer. Each of his works is of such a validation of beauty, of affirmation, of elation, of strength and creativity that it hovers way above the work of many contemporary painters.
How does Vermeer actually succeed in touching upon visual poetry and emotions? His effect may be triggered in neurobiological pathways we are partly still unaware of. Vermeer’s secret may be hidden somewhere in between the input of sensory information, through the pathway of our lens, retina, visual nerve system to the many visual number-crunching electro-chemical brain departments. Simultaneously, one floor lower down, the emotional departments of the brain receives and decodes responses about what we consider really important stuff. Both form the networked result of meaningful unified perceptions.[20]
Thus I cannot even begin to state the Secret Vermeer Formula, but I do have an idea that Vermeer is presenting images working in tune with the multi-tasking elements indicated by Zeki and Ramachandran, thus tickling and rewarding the higher and lower pleasure centres in the brain. Either aware or unaware, Vermeer may have capitalized on his own hunch about aesthetics and perception stimulation.

In the following sections of my essay, I will follow their separate elements from psychology and neurology of vision. Within this framework I will attempt to further analyse what may be going on in Vermeer paintings.

[1] Originaly in Dutch: “ vanaf een afstand gezien spat een Vermeer van de muur Reported to have been said circa 1999 by Rudi Fuchs, then director of the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, Amsterdam.
[2] Gaskell 2002: 39
[3] See Chapter 1, Introduction for Jan van Eyck.
[4] Alpers 1983: xxi. Therefore I disagree with the author Svetlana Alpers who feels that there is “an essentially descriptive pictorial mode” at the centre of Vermeer’s art.
[5] Blankert 1978: 70.
[6] This aside is my own text; I am inspired by indebted to both Jonathan Janson and Jon Boone for their e-mail discussions on Vermeer spanning many years.
[7] Private e-mail, April 15, 2003.
[8] Private e-mail, April 15, 2003
[9] Private e-mail, April 17, 2003.
[10] Ramachandran and Hirstein 1999: 74. Also note peer commentary on Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999: 66.
[11] Gregory 1998.
[12] Zeki 1999.
[13] Ramachandran 1998 (Dutch edition page 101). Ramachandran in a subsequent interview with Freeman stated: “Our goal is not so much to propose an entirely new theory of art as to bring together strands of evidence from seemingly unrelated disciplines such as singe unit neurophysiology, ethology, perceptual psychology and evolutionary biology.”
[14] Gregory 1998: 71.
[15] Gregory 1998:10 and 1998: 208.
[16] Ramachandran 1998.
[17] Gombrich 1977: 148.
[18] This may be observed in real-time CT brain activity scans.
[19] www.neuresthetics.org and Hagendoorn 2003.
[20] Goleman 2002.



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


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Research presented in November 2014 about the Amsterdam art collector Mannheimer: he almost bought the best Vermeer: The Art of Painting (now in Vienna)