Sunday, September 22, 2013

Life in Delft, gifts for Griet

Acrylic on gessoed hardboard, 12 x 12"
painting #216, 2013

Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the world's most famous paintings. It's has often been called the Dutch Mona Lisa, or the Mona Lisa of the North. This Johannes Vermeer's (b. 1632, d. 1675, Delft, Holland) painting has been copied countless times by other artists or incorporated in various fashion in original pieces of art by many others. Little is known about Vermeer's life. Many of the models whom have posed for his paintings have never been specifically identified. With the passing of time, he was forgotten after his death. His artwork only came to light 200 years later. He is regarded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden age.  

Some speculates that the model used in ''Girl with the Pearl Earring'' might have been Magdalena Van Reijven, an art patron's only daughter or Maria, the artist's eldest daughter of which he had 11 children. My approach for this painting was to explore the unknown model behind the painting that was brought to life in Tracy Chevalier's fictional 1999 novel of the same name whom was given the name of Griet. I first came upon the novel in 2003, just prior to the film release based on the source material. The storyline is from the point of view of Griet, a very young woman who goes to work as a servant in the Vermeer household after her own father, a potter and tile maker suffers severe burns from a kiln explosion. The imaginary narrative leads to how she came to pose for Vermeer and the relation she entertained with the artist and his family during her brief stay there.

Chevalier paints life in Holland with a lot of historical details and nuances giving it a sense of authenticity and believability. I read the book with immense interest. When the film was released in theatres it became a magical visual spectacle of what life in Delft during the mid 17th century might have been like. Being able to venture inside a make believe Vermeer studio and how they brought everything to life is a visual feast for any painter. The movie itself was not filmed in Delft but on an existing movie back lot in Luxenbourg. The period film stars Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in the lead roles, and was directed by Peter Webber. Johansson was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for best actress and did win the BAFTA that year but for another film, Lost in Translation.  I loved the fact that they were able to find an actress to play the role of the other servant named Tanneke, who looks exactly like the model in Vermeer’s ''The Milkmaid''. Other details like Vermeer's possible use of a camera obscura to create source imagery for his painting (click HERE). Description of pigment used for paint colour. In one scene when art patron Master Van Ruijven confronts Vermeer upon viewing the new commission painting his wife Emily, ''Woman with a Pearl Necklace'', he asks, ''Is this Indian yellow.....distilled from the urine of sacred cows fed only on mango leaves? You glazed my wife in dried piss!". Click HERE for movie scene. Interesting titbit, on Wikipedia, Van Ruijven's wife name was named Maria de Knuijt.

My painting, it is as much of an homage to Vermeer, but even more so to Tracy Chevalier. In order to create a visual narrative that was based on the Griet character during the final scene in the novel/film, I had the idea of incorporating a new tile to replace the one given by her father that had been broken by one of Vermeer's jealous daughter. While browsing on eBay I found this amazing hand painted Blue Delft tile with the scene of the city itself. It is also known as Delftware or Delft earthenware. The tear drop pearl earrings I used were also an eBay find from a seller living in China.  In the final scenes of the film, Griet leaves the Vermeers to return home, crosses a canal on a arch bridge and then soon after, Tanneke arrives at her house and she is given the pearl earrings as a gift from the artist. In the book, Griet does receive the earrings as a gift, but the circumstances are much different. Since the Blue Delft tile features row houses, a canal and an arch bridge, it really contributes to the narrative for my composition. 

Girl with Pearl Earring, c. 1665
Johannes Vermeer
Mauritshuis, The Hague

In real life, Pieter Van Ruijven had amassed approximately 20 of Vermeer's paintings during his lifetime. After his death, and that of his heirs these were sold at auction in 1696 for approximately 70 guilders each.  Arnoldus Andries des Tombe, a Dutch army officer later purchased ''Girl with a Pearl Earring'' at an auction in The Hague in 1881, for only two guilders and thirty cents. At the time, it was in poor condition. Des Tombe had no heirs and donated this and other paintings to the Mauritshuis in 1902. In the movie, the painting being acquired by Van Ruijven is ''Woman with a Pearl Necklace'' with his wife Emily modelling the same type of pearl earrings as in ''Girl with a Pearl Earring''. The two models also share the same facial features upon close examination. Personally I think that the model in both of these paintings is the same person. The turban she wears only adds an element to distract the viewer. Furthermore, these two paintings are dated one year apart. Then again, the same pearl earring appear in several other paintings on different models as does the ermine-trimmed yellow jacket shown below. 

Woman with Pearl Necklace, c.1664
Johannes Vermeer
Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The Mauritshuis Museum is undergoing major renovations and is closed until mid 2014. However, a few masterpieces of the museum including ''Girl with a Pearl Earring'' is currently on tour in the USA. Earlier this year these were shown at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. They are currently at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and later next month will be travelling to The Frick Collection in New York City. 

I am a great admirer of Vermeer's artwork. Only 34 paintings have been attributed to him (view them HERE). During my travels, I've had the privilege to see 22 of them. These are housed at the Rejksmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris, the National Gallery in Washington, DC, the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both in New York City. My personal favourite is ''Milkmaid''. 

And yes, I did use Indian Yellow in bringing Griet to life.

This painting will be included in the upcoming group exhibition, The Still Life at the Elliott Fouts Gallery, October 5-31, 2013.



Not all Friday the 13th are unlucky. This past May 13 2016, I've had the immense pleasure of visiting the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The following day, my wife Suzanne and I strolled the canal streets in Delft. My longing to visit the land of Vermeer finally came to be during a 2-week backpacking trip of Belgium, The Netherlands and Norway. 

 The Mauritshuis (Art Museum), The Hague

 Girl with a Pearl Earring - Johannes Vermeer
The Mauritshuis

The Mauritshuis

 Location as featured on the Delft Blue tile in my painting, Delft Holland

Delft, Holland

 One of two tombstones of Johannes Vermeer inside
the Oude Kerk (Old Church), Delft. 

Painting on loan from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Elliott Fouts Gallery
1831 P. Street Sacramento, California, USA , 95811 
Phone (916) 736-1429