The Lacemaker by Jan Vermeer
The Lacemaker (c.1669-70)
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The Lacemaker is the smallest genre painting produced by the Dutch artist Johannes (Jan) Vermeer. Completed sometime after 1670, during the artist's final years, it measures roughly 9 inches by 8 inches, and resides in the Louvre Museum, Paris. Despite its small size, it is considered to be one of the greatest genre paintings created during the Golden Age of Dutch Realism (1600-80). It depicts a girl dressed in a yellow jacket with a white collar, head down in concentration as she sews the threads of a dress. An intimate, relatively shallow composition, whose subject is set against a blank wall to minimize distraction, its colour scheme is designed to draw the viewer into the canvas, an engagement further encouraged (with the help of a camera obscura) by the work's unfocused foreground. Vermeer's trademark rendition of detail, along with his exquisite handling of light in order to enhance the three-dimensional contouring of the girl's face and hands, provides us with yet another class in fine art painting.
Comparison with Vermeer's Other Works
To begin with, as with his other specific subject canvases such as The Astronomer (1668, Rothschild Collection, Paris) and The Geographer (1669, Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), Vermeer obviously went to considerable effort to familiarize himself with the subject of his work - in this case the craft of lacemaking.
Although the tapestry on the table is the same as the one found in the The Astronomer (1668), the handling of the paint surface and the intensity of the woman's concentration are more closely related to qualities which appear in Woman Writing a Letter, with Her Maid (c.1672, Alfred Beit Collection). Parallel stylistic elements are also present in another late picture, The Guitar Player (c.1672, Kenwood House, London): namely, the rendering of the figural planes, the elaborate coiffeur, and the fact that the light enters the picture from the right side. There are only four works assigned to Vermeer in which the light enters from this direction; the other two are the tiny portrait panels Girl with a Red Hat (c.1666) and Girl with a Flute (1666-67) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
It seems quite clear when one compares this picture with other late works, that the small format and close-up view of the figure best suited Vermeer's late pictorial vision. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Vermeer himself must have worked at his own craft with an intensity equal to that which he has captured here. In this regard, it's worth noting that several 17th-Century Dutch writers compared a woman's needle to a painter's brush. At any rate, the richly coloured threads which pour from the pillow shaped sewing box, and which are rendered with a thick but fluid paint, seem to confirm this comparison.
One of Vermeer's most interesting compositional techniques is the use of visual contrasts to emphasize a particular feature. The girl's hairstyle for instance, (tight bun and flowing curl), expresses two contradictory features of her character - constrained precision and a creative openness. Another obvious contrast is that between the tightly drawn threads she holds in her hand and the loosely flowing red and white threads in the foreground.
Even more effective is the structured focus on the girl's fingers - the instruments of her creativity. Signposted by her downward gaze, and given added solid form by broad accents of natural light, they form the active centre of the painting.
Like several other subjects painted by Vermeer, her expression remains quite inscrutable as she works. For other sphinx-like figures, see: The Milkmaid (1658, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Woman Holding a Balance (c.1662, National Gallery, Washington DC), and Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c.1662), Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin).
Message and Meaning
Spinning, weaving, and needlework of all kinds have, since biblical days, been seen as activities associated with feminine virtue. The book of Proverbs (31 :10-13), for instance, in a section which contains the lines "Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies," goes on to say: "She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands." In the Odyssey, to cite a classical example, Penelope puts off her anxious suitors, while awaiting Ulysses' return, by weaving by day and unraveling her work by night. Vermeer himself, in The Love Letter (c.1667, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), depicts his woman as having put aside her sewing in favour of a lute. Thus this virtuous activity is often depicted in direct contrast to other more frivolous temptations. The girl's intense concentration, reinforced by her confined pose, as well as the use of a dynamic yellow, makes it quite clear that virtue and industry are what Vermeer is recommending. (For a work promoting chastity, see Girl with a Pearl Earring (1664-6, Mauritshuis).
Nonetheless, while Vermeer - in keeping with the new aesthetics of Protestant Reformation Art (c.1520-1700) - portrays industriousness as a symbol of domestic virtue - a theme bolstered by the inclusion of a prayer book - one can't help feeling that it is secondary to the depiction of the creative craftsmanship of lacemaking. Thus, while The Art of Painting (1665-67, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) is trumpeted as Vermeer's grand allegory of painting, it may be that the tiny Lacemaker offers a far more insightful commentary on the creative act. Curiously, the great Impressionist painter Renoir regarded The Lacemaker as one of the two most beautiful pictures in the world. (See also Miniature Painting.)
Rediscovered in 1866 by the French writer and art critic Theophile Thore (1807-69), after languishing in relative obscurity for two centuries, Vermeer is now regarded as one of the best genre painters - and possibly among the best artists of all time. His reputation as perhaps the foremost exponent of Dutch Baroque art is based on his complete mastery of light and shadow, soft contouring, spatial design, atmospheric colour schemes, the ability to eternalize a pose rather than capture it, and - more than anything - a supreme talent for creating a moment of quiet intimacy.
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