For my final creative project for my Premodernist Art History class last semester, I did a series of mixed media pieces (thread on paper) based on Vermeer’s work (he’s one of my favourite artists). I wrote an artist statement about it, so I’ll just let that do the explaining.
Among the genre paintings and portraits that form almost the entire oeuvre of Jan Vermeer’s works, the two iconic characteristics that constantly resurface are the solitary woman engaged in a private, often domestic activity, and the open window that illuminates the space with a wash of natural light. Either or both of the two are almost always present, and even when the window is not physically painted on the canvas, Vermeer continues to suggest the strong yet delicate sunlight that it lets in.
To pay homage to these features that are so commonly identified with the artist’s works, I have created a series of paper embroidery pieces based on four of his paintings in which both woman and window are present in the composition: A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1657-1659), The Milkmaid (1658-1661), Woman Holding a Balance (1662-1665), and Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662-1665). I picked these four paintings specifically because of the very striking diagonal shafts of light that shone from the windows on the left and illuminated their faces and bodies toward the right. Subtle differences aside, these four paintings share very similar compositional elements that I wished to explore and illustrate with my work.
Although I respect Vermeer’s dignified representation of women (even when alluding to their shortcomings), I have always admired his masterful handling of the glow of natural sunlight above all his skills, such that the women in his paintings seem to be less of his subject matter than the human canvas on which light is reflected. Female grace only seems to elevate the beauty of the light. Though grouped with the Baroque period, the strength in Vermeer’s painted light is not the same strength of the stark spotlight in Caravaggio’s theatrical images. This strength lies in its ability to permeate the space; not to flood it but to flow over and caress all that lies within.
Instead of attempting to emulate Vermeer’s treatment of light, my series serves instead as an exploration of light’s compositional functions in many of Vermeer’s paintings. The use of embroidery on paper references the gentleness and gentility of his female subjects, as well as the domestic spaces that they inhabit. However, this is contrasted with the cold, schematic use of a harsh black paper as the base for white thread, which allows for the focus on the directionality of the light above all other elements in his compositions. The designs themselves are simple and geometric – a far cry from the intricate patterns that can be achieved with embroidery – serving as abstract re-imaginings of Vermeer’s compositions. These were devised by identifying the starting points (windows) and end points (usually the surfaces of the woman’s head, body and arms) of light in each painting, and drawing lines between them. Yet, the female figures are no longer identifiable; there is only a suggestion of their presence in the relatively organic shape formed by the end points of the thread on the right.
The mathematical quality of the process and the materials reflect the deliberate calculation that we know lies behind each composition by Vermeer, something that is only revealed in the original paintings upon closer study, but which has been brought into the foreground in my work. This is echoed by the mechanical nature of arranging each series in terms of their estimated chronology, rather than in terms of each individual piece’s relationship to its neighbors. This led to an effort to counteract what could be perceived as an over-emphasis on the more scientific traits of Vermeer’s style of painting. I decided to further explore the possibility of using color in my work in a revisal of The Milkmaid, replacing the white string with an array of colors that, while still muted, hinted at the yellow, blue, rose and brown in the female figure’s clothing, skin, and pitcher. This method would give the viewer more clues in order to decipher the original paintings to which I referred.Ultimately, I acknowledge that my work is merely a formal exploration of Vermeer’s paintings at this stage, and in fact lies contrary to the artist’s softer treatment of diffused light. To mitigate the severity of this series, I would need to carefully select the appropriate colors of thread, and increase the size of the paper such that the designs could become much more elaborate. Only then can I hope to approach the magical quality of light in Vermeer’s works, albeit by a completely different route.