I studied the paint surface and realized a number of things that a picture in a book could never reveal. Vermeer had reconsidered his first pass at the face. He had wiped it back and then scumbled a vague semi- transparent warm to cool skin tone over the shadow area and into the eyes. That feathered rocket ship of a hat was painted in smooth vermillion layers over a grayed alizarin. The few deft brush strokes left intact describe the surface but also slow the eye– kept it from spinning off the hat. The folds of the cloak articulated in three distinct values of blue glazed over a warm dark undertone, compress at the elbow then release the eye to travel up the column like forms that support the head. The yellowish highlights on the shoulder, rendered in liquid brush strokes, sit brazenly on the surface of the painting, but still manage to define the high points of the forms. The cravat, a masterful flick of the wrist in viscous flat lead white, was gently scraped back with the wooden handle of his brush to create the folds by revealing the slightly darker undertone. Vermeer’s touch, his exquisite control of the paint was tugging me in even closer but the spell was broken when the guard tapped me on the shoulder and he asked me to step back.
From a safe tourist’s distance I tried to call up everything I knew about Vermeer’s work so that I could try to understand how this little painting fit in the dynamic of his work.
It’s a well-known fact that Vermeer like many artist of his time experimented with the use of the Camera Obscura. It was not unusual for painters to use the camera as projector to by-pass the difficulties of drawing and composition and then fill in the colors and values from direct observation of the subject. But in the ‘Woman with the Red Hat,’ Vermeer did more than trace a projection. He observed and faithfully painted what the image of a woman with a red hat looked like after the lenses had projected and then flattened it onto the piece of translucent velum in back of the camera. The messy complications of binocular vision and the painter’s task of focusing, gathering the thousand details, then restating them in the right order, had been relinquished to the to the Cyclops eye of the camera. He allowed the camera’s shallow focal zone to resolve the visual field in the painting. That would explain why the lion’s heads are out of focus even though they are the closest object to the painter’s eyes, and the pooling of the highlights. Both effects can be reproduced by selectively focusing with a Single Lense Reflex camera.
In this painting Vermeer manifested supreme faith in the power of science and it’s devices to express objective reality. It was a bold move considering how different it was from what our two eyes insist reality looks like. Vermeer’s choice was ahead of the curve but actually very logical. After all he lived in Delft, the city where the technology for accurately grinding lenses was developed and the revelations of the microscope were leading to a reconsideration of visual reality as perceived by the naked eye. But that was not the only interesting choice Vermeer made in this painting.
Just as I thought I was starting to get a hold on things, a tall woman wearing a red hat, as big Vermeer’s but not as graceful, stepped into my line of sight. I leaned right and managed a glimpse, but then she drifted right too blocking my view. I stepped back to the left, caught a quick peek and there she was again. As I walked away the image of the painting was still ticking. My mind’s eye was clicking along the triangular path between the hat, her blue shoulder and the cravat, drifting over the face unhindered by demanding details, bypassing an area that usually calls for a slow read.
By the time I had squeezed out of the crowded gallery, the image of the hat and the cloak had faded. Only the blazing gesture of white paint under her chin remained.
I breezed through the front doors and as I sat down on the Met’s broad front steps, I was thinking that Vermeer was right to leave her face and eyes impassive and indistinct. They do not inspire us to invent relationships–a narrative, but still we can’t help but be aware of human presence there. Passive, too humble to judge, she watches us as we freely enjoy the painting for its physical qualities– the glow of a color, the graceful interactions of its parts. I pictured Vermeer getting up from behind the easel to stretch his legs, probably intending to sit back down to work into the razor sharp ivory edges, maybe add more information into the shadows of the face, but he didn’t sit back down. He must have seen something that told him that this painting worked. Vermeer, the sensible father of eleven decided to ignore the purse of the patron, the precedent of his own work, and the demands of the narrative. He made the painter’s choice and walked away even though when compared to the high level of finish of his previous work, as well as that of his contemporary’s, it must have looked unfinished to him. He let the paint speak.
Unlike the other clocks in the gallery, Vermeer left this one open so that we could see the gears and springs that move the hands and tell time. We can feel the energy of the painter’s hand driving the precise movements amplified by the compressed space of Vermeer’s tiny room. The sequence of events evident in the painting gives us a glimpse into the painter’s intent and instills a sense of time to our experience of the painting. With this information our brains can synthesize, visualize, and then animate. We can recreate the painting; transform it from an aloof, distant fact, to an immediate performance, taking place in the very intimate space between our ears.
This painting engages us because it speaks to us in a modern language. We have come to accept truth or reality as modified by the lens. Our modern eyes, tuned to high chroma colors, and the hectic motion of our visual world, demand a high-octane fare. In painting, the brush stroke has been set free from the menial task of pulling the story wagon to express itself as pure energy, motion and time. Vermeer’s mining of the novel effects of the lens, expanded the painter’s language to reach beyond the telling of a specific story.
As I watched the woman with the big red hat walk down the steps I wondered how Vermeer knew that the blazing ivory strokes, pure vermillion and the pooling highlights were the beating heart, the tightly wound spring that would keep this little painting ticking into the future.