On Monday night I watched Vermeer: the Greatest Exhibition. This is described as “a narrated private view of the largest Vermeer Exhibition in history, currently held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.”
The painting that really caught my attention was the Milkmaid. As the narrators explained, Vermeer had given depth to the painting by the use of shadow. Light entered the room from the window the left, shadows can be seen on the woman’s left hand side (the viewer’s right) and in the left corner of the room. The contrast with the light on the woman’s right hand side gives the sense of space. The narrators were at pains to point out that Vermeer painted light, not colour.
The thing that really caught my attention, the thing I’ve been thinking about since Monday, is the wall behind the woman. The narrators mentioned the wall: that blank space that added to the depth of the picture.
The thing about the wall is that it wasn’t always blank. X-ray pictures of the canvas revealed that that Vermeer had originally painted a patterned wall. (I can’t be sure, but looking at the picture now, I think the tiles you can see at the bottom right of the picture extended much further up). There had originally been items on the floor, too. Apparently Vermeer always did this, continually revised the work as he painted.
I thought that was important. He followed his instinct, changing things as it went on.
Most importantly, he didn’t feel the need to fill the canvas with detail. I keep looking at the woman’s left hand side now, seeing the line of shadow that runs down against the wall. And that makes me think about figure and ground, and the settings of stories, and all the things I write about on this blog…
One last thing. Isn’t Wikipedia wonderful? Not just the words, but all those pictures available to look at for free. I make a regular donation to Wikipedia, I use it so much.