Traces of Vermeer
“The appeal of Jelley’s elegant book is the product of her literary style and the abundant reproductions of Vermeer’s work and that of his contemporaries. Jelley’s volume is a work of art in itself.”
In her exquisite new book, Traces of Vermeer, Jane Jelley explores the work life of Johannes Vermeer, the stellar 17th century Dutch painter. Most narratives about great artists focus only on a painter’s landscapes and portraits, exploring technique and historical context. Jelley does that, but the distinctive chapters of her volume travel through the construction of this artist’s medium. How did he produce his canvases? How were his brilliant colors fabricated? How did the artist produce his brushes? Most importantly, how did Vermeer bring his portraits alive with light?
Today, artists buy their supplies from retail outlets. That was not possible three or four centuries ago when Vermeer and his contemporaries painted some of the world’s greatest works. The quality of their finished products depended on how the artists accumulated and assembled their work tools. Jane Jelley, an artist herself whose studio is in Oxford, England, is an expert in the ways artists work and how they carry out their craft.
Jelley’s admiration for Johannes Vermeer’s work is evident throughout this small volume. He produced relatively few paintings, some 35 at most. Although not a wealthy man, Vermeer was an important citizen of Delft, Holland, known to other townspeople. Although he did not enjoy the reputation of one of the masters such as his contemporary Rembrandt, Vermeer’s work was appreciated during the Dutch golden age of painting. However, few Europeans took notice of his work after his death. He was only “rediscovered” centuries later.
Jelley’s historical work relies on diaries and journal entries. She also mines the scholarly work of 20th century art historians on Vermeer’s life. She uses every source available to construct a portrait of this skillful artist. There are gaps in the history, of course, but Jelley fills them in with informed conclusions from circumstantial evidence and her own comprehensive experience as an artist.
One notable aspect of this volume is Jane Jelley’s beautiful use of language to set the scene for each chapter. Anyone familiar with Vermeer’s work knows the perspective he repeats again and again. A male or female figure is lit by the light of a window on the left of the indoor environment. Jelley starts Chapter 8: The Brightness of Day as follows: “It rains. Brewing in darkness, the storms roll huge, heavy clouds across saturated land, and it rains relentlessly, filing the dykes and ditches.” Vermeer overcomes the downpours, the damp and the cold when the rain stops and the sun illuminates the setting. Jelley’s descriptive language is as luminous as Vermeer’s paintings.
One of the many remaining mysteries about Johannes Vermeer’s work is whether he used a camera obscura, a large-scale pinhole camera that projected a view through a lens on to a darkened space. Vermeer’s camera obscura projected an image on to a white board. The artist then painted an “under drawing” on the sheet with wet oil pigment, which was then transferred to the canvas. Others made use of lenses, but few achieved the results of this master.
The appeal of Jelley’s elegant book is the product of her literary style and the abundant reproductions of Vermeer’s work and that of his contemporaries. Jelley’s volume is a work of art in itself.