Jan Vermeer, The Artist in His Studio, 1665-1670, Oil on canvas, 52 x 44 inches, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna
For a long time in my early development as a painter I regretted that the medium did not arm its practitioners to control movement in time as the time-based arts, music, poetry and dance, did. It was mostly Vermeer, however, who taught me I was mistaken about that.
First of all, I became aware that one of the glories of his great paintings was precisely that they didn’t move; they stay put and yield their contemplative splendors without interruption. And yet we are already, perhaps unconsciously, acknowledging in them the factor of time when we speak of Vermeer’s vital compositional “rhythms”.
Beyond that, however, I find in all of his works, and in this piece specifically, a sequentially paced structure that directs a journey for the probing eye. Its entry is inevitably from the bottom edge because it is from there that, as crawling infants, we all enter spaces. But we do not plunge into this imaged one quickly; we must first visually feast on a barricade of furniture on the left and cross the two-point-perspective diagonals of the square floor tiles on the right, which retard our speed by thrusting us into deep space from both lateral directions simultaneously.
The sturdy horizontals in the painting’s middle band, formed by a table’s edges and the painter’s stool seat and pantaloons are also a stabilizing slowdown but not a halt because they attach to the strongest diagonal of all, the extreme foreground curtain’s edge against the white wall. This in turn lifts us up to and then horizontally across, via the dark ceiling beams, back down the right border area which contains (with a series of verticals in the tapestry and the artist’s canvas) all of this compositional energy that spills out of the right edge.
We might also note that at no point in the pattern of strikingly abstract negative shapes on the back wall is the white quite the same in temperature or tone. In fact, it becomes so dark in the shadow of the tapestry that, if isolated, we would see that it isn’t white at all.
Although we know that Vermeer used as a tool some kind of early camera obscura, I cannot believe that it, and not he, was capable of marshaling this brilliant level of pictorial invention. Nor do I believe that his painting “handwriting” is photo-realist-copy tight. It is actually painterly and gestural, but at a scale so concentrated that it is not even observable in most reproductions, though very evident to the eye in person.
James McGarrell, Ercolano, 1989, Oil on canvas, 62 x 80 inches, Private Collection
James McGarrell has been living and working in Newbury Vermont since 1993. Paintings by him are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, MOMA, the Whitney Museum, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC among others.