Treatment of Colour in Vermeer’s Paintings

Vermeer is known to have been extremely conscious about the real nature of colour, and about the fact that objects change in different circumstances and under different lights. In the film “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, this sharp consciousness is represented through a conversation between the painter and Griet, where he asks the young maid about the colour of the clouds. Her reaction is similar as ours would have been: “White”. However, she soon realises that the answer is not as straightforward as she had thought, and discovers that the clouds actually reflects the colours of the world that expands beneath them.


“The Little Street” is another example of this for, though red is apparently the predominant colour, we realise that most details contain blue: the cracks on the wall, the pavement, the woodwork of the windows, the tree at the left, etc. Appart from Vermeer’s mastery, this is also a sign of his economic status. Art historias from UCL, quoted in Science Blog (accessed on June 5th), pointed out that lapis lazuli was a very expensive material in the 17th century, and that unlike most painters, Vermeer used it in the representation of materials like wood and chairs. This contrasts with the generalised belief that Vermeer belonged to the lower-middle class.

4 responses to “Treatment of Colour in Vermeer’s Paintings

  1. The Little Street is a Wink from Vermeer! It is not a contemptuous supercilious wink; that is, between two haughty friends, for instance, of a third party or the rest of society, who are the IGNORANT or “lesser” human beings because of their lack of perception. (That was the attitude of some I met in Art school) Those, who then become the butt of the joke! No, it is the obvious joke of one who is known to be joking by his audience or friends; or if it is not “caught”, as jokes are “caught”, immediately, by everyone, it is funnier still!
    But jokes have a semblance of reality until they are seen to be “over-the-top” or beyond belief because of some outlandish quality that, suddenly strike us funny because we see how we’ve “been HAD”. This is true of The Little Street (and the THUMB in Lady with her Maid also). That is NOT to say, that Vermeer did not have a serious point to make here!
    The scene, as presented, begs to be believed in the beauty and genius of the painter’s gifted prowess in every aspect of painterly application and consistent light. Why, then, do we not hear from Architects who look at paintings? What,indeed, would De Hooch, Vermeer’s friend and colleague, say to that building. Wouldn’t he immediately get the joke? We are Three-and-one-half centuries away from it and we have the saint-hood of Vermeer to deal with, but De Hooch was close to him and a painter of bricks and walls and neat perspectives. The “critic” in Vermeer may be addressing the question of the necessarity for a perfect perspectival representation of reality as an element of prime concern for realists. Vermeer, certainly, abandoned orthogonals and simplified other elements, such as shadows for an enhanced two-dimensional play within his rectangles.
    After all, it is the inverted triagle of sky that causes the building to stand as an estabished fact, surely. The RED wooden shutter sings a higher note in the strange bottom corner of the same rectangular proportion as the building occupies. The architechture, as architecture begins to look silly as proportions and symmetries are compared on the ground floor. It is almost as incongruous a two-dimensional impossibility as Escher’s staircases and enigmas! The seated lady’s doorway is especially narrow, as compared to the blue-grey double-shuttered windows. as it reaches up to a high arch. This doorway is not centred, but has very unequal widths of brick-work on either side. The red shutter seems to be in place so that, we-the-viewer, will not notice the large area of white wall that it covers! The double-shuttered windows are so large, that they leave only the width of one brick on the alley side as the vertical element. The shutter, if swung open would reach a third way across the alley entrance and the other over part of the lady’s door. The poor arch above the door and high enough for two floors is badly formed as part of a circle, as thoug either Vermeer or the architect did not know the use of compasses! The levels of window ledges are purposely at differtent heights and even in the twin windows of the second floor, the one at the right starts three bricks up from the divide between floors, and the other sill, only two.
    The building, at left of the viewer has been identified as the Old Men’s House, or a retirement place, and the laughable house was converted into the St. Luke’s Guild, where Vermeer was twice the “Headman” of it’s administration. Possibly he was technically involved in the conversion of two houses to one large one to serve the needs of the Guild. Such a change was made, but I am not sure as to when it occured. Did his friends laugh? Yes!

  2. The last paragrapgh’s first sentence, above should read:
    …and the laughable house on the right was converted…

Comments are closed.