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Theories on Vermeer’s art: Lawrence Gowing and Daniel Arasse

copertinadi Paola Barbuzzi [*]

Since the end of the nineteenth century the increasing interest in Vermeer’s art has produced an enormous amount of writings.  Lawrence Gowing’s monograph on Vermeer, Vermeer, 1952, and Daniel Arasse’s Vermeer: faith in the painting, 1994, represent ‘two moments’ in the 20th century art historical method on Vermeer.

Gowing, an artist himself, attempts to give a personal and psychological interpretation of Vermeer’s art, while Arasse, an art historian, builds up a systematic and logical theory on how to «look closely at the canvases, following the labour of the painter along the paths of his creation»[1].

 My intent is to demonstrate through an analysis of these books why Vermeer’s art has become a focus of complex art historical methods. These books are used principally to experience the way ‘art’ is felt, perceived and lived by these authors.

The artistic ability of Vermeer to transform the classic Dutch iconography of domestic   motifs into what has been understood in terms of a personal view, and analysed with a particular investment in the representation of pictorial effects of the light, is the pre-conditions for dealing with traditional art issues. These issues are the relationship between the painter and his paintings, the act of painting, the transcription of the reality into the image and the methodology of reading the painting and other factors that the British and French authors embody. My purpose focuses  on the attempt to understand how, through Vermeer’s art, Gowing and Arasse construct patterns on the way ‘art’ is read.

il_794xn-1686303608_qnwuVermeer by Gowing Lawrence

Lawrence Gowing offers an intense and passionate interpretation of   Vermeer’s art through his own personal experience as a painter. From the beginning, the British author shows the reader the “complexity” of reading Vermeer’s art through his paintings. He   attempts to explain Vermeer’s art by means of the exposition of tone, light and their effects within the painting.

Gowing’s analysis focuses on the   ability of the Dutch painter to create his own style. «Tone itself and pure visual phenomena were not in any earlier century capable of the autonomy he allowed them»[2]. The pictorial effects of the light become instruments of identification and explanation of Vermeer’s style. The ways in which they are being used are not connected to any local reference such as the Delft art and other schools of that time. «The vision, which his style reflects, […], follows its own logic and reaches its own characteristics and unique solution»[3], through the aptitude of transforming the traditional Dutch iconographic motifs into a personal style. The style, then, leads the artist to the transcription of a still life into human experiences [4].Vermeer  «suspends the human matter in his pictures» in which «the conceptual world of names and knowledge is forgotten»[5].  His world reflects a psychological seclusion from the world itself and the represented world of his contemporaries. The difficulties in dealing with human issues are detected by Gowing as the essence of Vermeer’s particular way of interpreting the common Dutch iconography. As a result, this interpretation provides Gowing the way of understanding the development of Vermeer’s art from the beginning until the end of his artistic path. «His observation of tone is so impersonal, yet so efficient»[6], that the only palpable device in his pictures is the constant presence of the visibility of the objects through the variety of tonality of light. Svetlana Alpers sees in Gowing’s concepts of “detachment” and “impersonal” the Keplerian strategy in which the actual world is turned   away to a representation of itself on the retina. By that Alpers assumes that the Keplerian strategy «involves an extraordinary objectivity and an unwillingness to prejudice» [7], the same as Gowing’s concepts implicitly imply. If Gowing might have applied unconsciously the Keplerian theory, however, he slipped into psychological accounts. In short, what Vermeer does is not just a transcription of the representation of the world, but also a description of a world influenced by his mental issues. Gowing sees these mental issues arising from the world of Vermeer’s household in which he sees young women as the main protagonists of his dilemma.

AM-1336_Vermeer, Johannes - Brieflesendes Mädchen am offenen Fenster; Zustand während der Restaurierung 300419, Restaurator Dr. Christoph Schölzel


Girl reading a letter by an Open Window, c. 1659, Staatliche Kunstammlungen, Dresden, Germany

For Gowing, the darkness and silenced atmospheres of the interior scenes of his early domestic genre paintings emphasize the lack of communication of Vermeer’s women, who are absorbed in their task. The stillness of their movement, the suspension of speech and the depiction of their silhouette figures, seen from the side of the body, accentuate the feeling of intimacy and retreat.  This is the context depicted in Girl reading a letter by an Open Window, which is one of Vermeer early works.

A young girl is reading next to an open window with inner concentration. Nothing seems to disturb her intimacy. She is safely protected by the table, which prevents the viewer from interfering with her private matters.  Besides, the depiction of one side of her silhouette seems to stress that her nature, at least to some extent, is asocial. A similar atmosphere is seen in the   Woman reading a Letter. Even the woman in blue, who seems to be pregnant, as the shape of the body suggests, is attentively immersed in her reading and facing the window, which is not visible, but intimated through the presence of the light that brightens   the wall on the left.

vermeer_johannes_-_woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca-_1662-1663

Woman reading a letter, c. 1663, Rijksmusem, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Both pictures are devoid of a narrative; their appealing beauty derives from the impossibility of understanding what is going on the minds of its subjects. This inaccessible world, in which Vermeer’s subjects live, is also seen as the world of the “intimist” [8]. If the intimate world also expresses the difficulty of Vermeer to relate to human issues, as Gowing argues, it might be that the stillness of these scenes simply attempts to convey in pictures how the attentiveness of reading letters can be shown. In other words, given Gowing’s investment in Vermeer as a particular kind of person, it can be conjectured that Vermeer is trying to communicate through images mental abstractions of conceiving objects.

Absence of communication or action with the viewer constructs a hermetic system in which the ladies’ feelings are hidden by the distribution of the colour through the variety of tones. «The motion of withdrawal which complicates his approach to the world persists throughout»[9].

the-music-lesson-by-vermeer

Lady at the virginal with a gentleman,’The Music Lesson,c. 1662-1665,
Royal Collection Trust, London, United Kingdom

The difficulty in describing life and its manifestations becomes even more manifest in The Music lesson. The use of perspective and “geometrical intersections” produce distances, immobility and silenced scenes. The world painted by Vermeer is «autonomous and independent, not described, but describing itself»[10]. Therefore, in this context of stillness, according to Gowing, the light evokes signs of life in his paintings. As a result, this feature becomes the key in understanding Vermeer’s difficulty in dealing with human experience. Given that, then, what emerges from Gowing’s theory is the transposition of the 17th century Dutch artist into the categories of 20th century art. Vermeer becomes  ‘modern’ through fascinating methods of analysis of his art. This analysis carries over some of the formalist aesthetic of abstraction and post- abstraction that can also be seen in a collection of   some texts assembled in Vermeer Studies, edited by Ivan Gaskell. Indeed, the aim of this collection of studies, according to Gaskell, is to give an overview on how the distinction of Vermeer as real and Vermeer as a complex field of art has proliferated the production of the construction of Vermeer or the construction of the interpretation of his art. «Insofar as ideas about   him and his work, and his and their circumstances are continually fashioned and circulate socially, Vermeer was and continues to be constructed» [11].

Certainly, Gowing skilfully builds a convincing interpretation of Vermeer’s art in which his own personal artistic experience overlaps with Vermeer’s style. Thus, Vermeer’s identity as an artist and man slips into an ontological and personal discourse of Gowing in which the depicted idea of Vermeer as an autistic painter, reluctant to deal with human experiences, becomes the explanation of the geniality of his art.

Since the ‘rediscovery’ of Vermeer’s art in 1866, the interest in him has encouraged a fertile and complex production of discourses concerning his personality and style through the analysis of his thirty-five authenticated paintings. His canvases constitute to some extend the field in which Vermeer’s existence and thought are dissolved into a network of Meta discourses. Since these discourses are subjected to temporal and spatial epistemological contexts, their contents provide different parameters of analyses. Gowing’s monograph on Vermeer is a compelling example of how a psychological methodology attempts to find reasons for the origin of Vermeer’s art.

arasseVermeer. Faith in the painting by Daniel Arasse

Daniel Arasse’s book of 1994 on Vermeer is based on a systematic, rational and historical account of Vermeer’s art.  The purpose of the book is to show how the original “manner of painting” makes Vermeer to modern viewers «less restricted than his contemporaries» and aesthetically more attractive and   mysterious.

The thirty-five paintings become the field of analysis and comprehension of the mystery of Vermeer’s art. Arasse furnishes observations and hypotheses about the management of historical materials and frequent comparisons of «the aspects of Vermeer’s work that make use of the commonplace pictorial and intellectual material»[12] with other contemporary painters of Dutch art in the seventeenth century.

One hypothesis on Vermeer’s originality, which is supported by Arasse in the first chapter, is influenced by the fact that Vermeer always escaped commercial conditions and art market rules in order to pursue his own personal pictorial research. This attitude   explains why Vermeer did not produce a large amount of paintings and why his motifs and representations changed commonly known pictorial scenes into something new and different.

His themes, representations and, especially, the use of the pictures-within-the pictures belong to the heritage of Dutch genre painting.  Indeed, Arasse does not dislocate Vermeer out of his social and cultural context, but   he simply highlights how the common style and technique of the Dutch genre painting has been transformed in Vermeer’s hands into an inscrutable, original and unique style. In order to explain this distinctiveness, he develops the idea, in the third chapter, that the pictures-within-pictures, which «allowed the artist to develop iconographic illusions» [13], are applied in a particular way by Vermeer.

The disposition of these pictures within the paintings forms the “Vermeer structure”. From this point of view, Arasse’s method is meant to penetrate into the Vermeer structure in order to reveal the system of this art. The main problem of reading Vermeer is linked to his ability to turn the meanings of his allegories towards the picture rather than towards the external world. So, the picture becomes “reflexive”, a ‘cosa mentale’ instead of “contemplative”.[14] In other words, the meaning of a picture, which is reflexive (implicit), «is played out within itself and it is there, if anywhere, that it is so to be revealed»[15]. As a result, the issues, according to Arasse, are found in the impossibility of grasping the meaning that Vermeer has given to it.

In conclusion, the blurred lines, the implicit iconographic pictures and the ‘cosa mentale’, placed in Vermeer’s paintings, have increased perceptions of mystery. What is difficult to understand, according to Arasse, is the mental attitude of Vermeer and his choice of applying indecipherable pictorial scenes in common narrative representations of his time.

Arasse does not offer his opinions. He tries to maintain a lucid analysis of Vermeer through his historical approach, but also through citations from several and different interpretations of illustrious contemporary commentators   on Vermeer of the 20th century.

In a way, he shows how the modern patterns of interpreting Vermeer’s style unsuccessfully attempt to produce possibilities of understanding   the aura of mystery placed behind the representations of the pictures.  If the painter has deliberately applied a hermetic style, the presence of mystery seems to become in Arasse’s book a permanent feature inserted into the structure of Vermeer’s art. The impasse of providing clear interpretations of   Vermeer’s art   leads   Arasse to see Vermeer’s art as a mystery, an effect, which might have been used deliberately by Vermeer in order to create this effect. Then, Arasse’s aim is to explain how this mystery might be illuminated through a closer look at Vermeer’s paintings.

6Vermeer’s art as an instrument of critical artistic views

Vermeer depicts the faculty of observing things and the mental process of describing them through an extraordinary deployment of light and its tonalities. The visibility of the objects and their way of being represented on canvases shows, according to Gowing, the likeness of appearance: «With Vermeer the likeness was not primarily to a material texture but to the whole configuration of light that constituted an image […]»[16].

In Vermeer’s art, light is not only employed as an instrument of revealing the world depicted by Vermeer, but it is also seen as a field   in which philosophical, psychological, technical, historical and other sorts of theories provide us with a plethora of accounts in the pursuit of the understanding of the origin of Vermeer’s represented world.

«Paintings are made of various tangible materials which with effort can be identified and described. We recognised them as paintings and treat them accordingly not only because of their material physical characteristics, but because we have learned to recognise and respond to their means of depiction, such as perspective»[17]. With the observation of the painterly effects of light, which are considered by scholars the most attractive device to approach Vermeer’s art, the attention is   drawn to the ‘particular’ such as the luminous sfumato, distributed around the contours of the objects. This special feature, according to JØrden Wadum, confirms not only the ability of Vermeer to be an attentive observer of light and its effects upon objects, but it also helps to reveal other effects of light such as the spatial illusion seen in many of Vermeer’s paintings.  Wadum explains the spatial illusion by consulting Leonardo da Vinci’s theories from his book Il Trattato Della pittura.

38552648665_4ec8299a86_b

A lady seated at the Virginal, c.1670-1672, The National Gallery, London, United kingdom

The spatial illusion, according to Leonardo is determined by «objects placed against a light background […] will naturally appear detached from the ground». This is what happens in Vermeer’s blue-skirted women against a white background such as in A Lady seated at the Virginal [18].

The detailed observation of these artistic aspects in Vermeer’s art   surely encourages the increasing interest in the way the effects of light intriguingly surround his subjects.  The aim is to understand what sort of logic leads Vermeer to play with such fine and elegant distribution of chiaroscuro of the colours through the decrease and increase of their tones. On the other hand, if Wadum’s technical account attempts to give a rational explanation about the painterly effects of light, it is somewhat subjected to the same field of knowledge (material sources) and motivation (goal) in which Gowing and Arasse’s theories arise too. In short, the studies of Vermeer’s insight is mainly subjected to the construction of theories on his art, especially, on the investigations into the process of interaction between the painter and the act of painting. Gowing uses an ontological approach to examine this relationship and Arasse does this through an epistemological one.

 With the analysis of the disposition of light on the canvases, Gowing emphasizes how in “Vermeer’s shadow” the lines are deleted in order to change the entire description of the painted objects and also the way «in which the intelligence of»[19] the painter operates. When the painterly effects of light, according to Gowing, «are decided by Vermeer optically […] rather than conceptually»[20], Vermeer is taken out of his 17th century environment and placed into the 20th century debates in contemporary art. Therefore, the appearance of the depicted world seems to be captured by the click of a camera used by Vermeer during his artistic activities.

7

by Johannes Zahn’s, Oculus Artificialis, 1699

The possibility of using the camera obscura for artistic aims in the seventeenth century has created divergences in opinion among scholars. Some believe that Vermeer used the camera obscura and others believe the opposite. Thus, as Jean-Luc Delsaute tries to demonstrate in Johannes Zahn’s book Oculus Artificialis, 1699 [21], as do other books of that time, that the camera obscura was never applied by painters or theoreticians of painting for artistic purposes. Indeed, to support this theory, Delsaute conjectures that the «development in the use of the geometrical prospective […] in the painting of landscapes and architecture, as well as in genre painting», might have   encouraged the scholars to see it «as a parallel to the increasing use of the camera obscura»[22].

The optical basis, Gowing argues, is used by Vermeer to record the light in a way that gives the impression of photographic perspectives of spaces and tones within the pictures. Therefore, the vision of distance, stillness and obliqueness, which characterise the way the world is recorded by Vermeer, convinces Gowing, as stated earlier, that psychological issues inform Vermeer’s art; furthermore, Gowing sees the optical vision also as the reason why Vermeer’s art is a pure visual description. Through his formalist attitude Gowing leads a personal discourse of art; a discourse of the qualities of colour, lines, composition and form in which the main core is focused on the conceptual transcription of all these aspects of a work of art into the act of painting. Principally, in Vermeer the act of painting is the production of «the purity of household light» in which «it retains for ever an unbroken harmony, the inherent value of what is real».

artclive-bellooGowing puts the emphasis on the mental negotiation between the appearance of the represented world (the household) and its essence (the light).Yet, this intrinsic artistic dialectic gives vent to an aesthetic exaltation of a work of art, a “significant form”, as this was defined by Clive Bell in his Art, 1914. Bell’s theory on the explanation of the significant form of a work of art helps somewhat to understand Gowing’s inclination to the ontological view of a work of art into the art of Vermeer. In short, Bell formulates that form itself conveys profound feelings which bring the inspiring emotion of the painter to express the real objects through pure forms.Therefore, the painter does «not feel emotion for a chair as a mean to physical well-being […].  It is for pure form that he feels his inspired emotion»[23]. If one translates this particular state of mind into Gowing’s perception of Vermeer, it can be said that Gowing places Vermeer’s art into an abstract   level of knowledge in which his attempt is to read «the value of what is real» to Vermeer through his act of painting.

Real is exactly the optical effects of light that transcends the household world from the common Dutch tradition into an original vision of it. And then, through the light, Gowing reveals that original vision as the inner vision. Within this essence of the world, according to Gowing, the picture, which arises through the synthesis of the fusion between the painter and his subject, represents the challenge of the painter in looking for the way the world could be seen at its completeness. Certainly, this attitude reflects Gowing’s enquiries on art arising from a transitive and essential moment of his artistic career. This moment is the 1947, which is the year in which Gowing starts to write his monograph on Vermeer, but is also the time in which he experiments a more direct approach   with his subjects (his representations) on his own art. Indeed, his personal artistic aim sets in the pursuit of understanding the projection of the world on the canvas; a world   in which “its completeness” or likeness of reality can never be grasped by the eye [24]. Moreover, the impasse arrives at the difficulty, for Gowing, in describing that point in which the transcription of the world, which is described by the painter though the act of painting, endeavours to distinguish the imaginative achievement of the painter from the reality itself. It is exactly this moment of creative fusion between the subjectivity of the painter’s view and the objectivity of the reality as commonly seen that brings Gowing to conclude, approximately by the end of his monograph, that Vermeer «was engaged in unfolding the deepest fantasy, the fantasy, as it seems, that visible things in their integrity were capable of coming together in the community of a perfect plane, were capable there of meeting him and of conferring on him all the enrichment of outward thing, the fantasy that on a flat surface the world in essence could become his»[25]. And it is this world in which the grasp of Gowing dissolves itself into the mystery of the creation of a work of art. And it is exactly this mystery, on the other hand, that Arasse applies a different approach, the epistemological one.

8The big question, for Arasse, is to identify «the dominant choices that the painter made in organizing the surface of the picture». Indeed, the decipherment of the Vermeer structure draws Arasse’s attention to the understanding of that “deviation” of meaning that Vermeer applies to the interior paintings in which they show independency from the other contemporary interior paintings. It is undeniable, for Arasse, that the structure of Vermeer’s paintings has changed meaning to the classical pictorial categories in vogue in the second half of the 17th century.The pictures-within-pictures become «instruments for the inner construction of the surface»[26]. By that Arasse attempts to emphasize that the use of the secondary pictures in Vermeer’s representation is not so much intended to focus on the «appearance of objects», but it «permits a glimpse of the painter’s conception of his own creation»[27]. Indeed, one aspect of Vermeer’s creation is seen, for Arasse, in his ability of describing objects by producing new perceptive views of them; one thing is to see the object as it appears at first glance and another thing is to consider it attentively [28] as the painter perceives it. This visual process is a cosa mentale, a mental project that Vermeer applies to his art in order to experiment the multiple ways of seeing the world of everyday life.

The light, for Arasse, serves to unravel through a close look at the details of the paintings Vermeer’s thought. In order to unravel the painter’s thinking Arasse embarks on a new epistemological, but also historical, method of observing the painting. The painting has plenty of details, messages left by the painter or   found by the observer that show a dynamic process of gathering knowledge of the painting itself. Thus, the painting is seen by Arasse as an open field that goes beyond its physical borders, the frames. And within the frame, the detail has the power of breaking classical methods of observing the paintings, i.e the conception, arising since the Renaissance, of looking at the painting from a distance as well as the predominance, among art historians, of analysing the paintings through   texts or the method of similarity among imagines.

Arasse tries to invite art historians to enjoy, every time they approach the painting, the pleasure of reading it, as though it was seen for the first time; this is done by means of details that show the stylistic choices or other secrets left by the painter or made by the historian himself. This dynamic approach draws the perception of a work of art into a historical or critical discourse in which the historian is   continually alerted by an attentive and intimate look at the painting. What is necessary, for Arasse, is to change the basis of the historical interpretation, i.e the predominance of a rigid knowledge against the unpredictability of the act of “seeing” the detail; otherwise, the essential function of the detail as a revelation is destroyed. In short, Arasse   asserts the eternal   amazement of looking at the painting.

This is exactly what happens to his attempt to pierce Vermeer’s mystery. His feeling of wonder does not lead to «another plastic analysis of his art», as he states. Vermeer studies are placed within its historical   context; and within this proper environment that Arasse constructs a systematic look at the way the Dutch iconographic features have been invested with a new mental conception. For Vermeer, according to Arasse, «painting was a specific activity» in which «the real world […] is the world the pictures themselves inhabit, a world of painting»[29].  And within this world, Vermeer differs from the other painters in his originality. The more the analysis tries to get into the comprehension of the Vermeer structure, the more Arasse finds it resistant to be grasped by explanation. Then, in confronted with this resistance, the job of the historian, in this case Arasse, is just to observe Vermeer’s artistic thinking without pretending to find the truth about the aura of mystery, with which his paintings are suffused.

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 40, novembre 2019
 [*] Abstract
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) è considerato uno dei più acclamati pittori olandesi della seconda metà del XVII secolo. La sua capacità di creare uno stile personale attraverso i temi tipici olandesi rendono la sua arte originale e unica rispetto ai suoi contemporanei. E tale caratteristica ha ispirato e spinto molti studiosi d’arte a cimentarsi nella esplorazione e comprensione semantica di quell’arte, inesorabilmente, sfuggente alla chiarezza razionale. E proprio tale sorta di “ermetismo” pittorico, semiologico ed estetico ha continuato a stimolare gli studiosi nella ricerca delle coordinate semantiche della sua poetica. Pertanto, il mio lavoro esercitandosi su una parte della critica, si concentra sulla lettura di due libri: la monografia di Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer, 1952, e Vermeer: faith in the painting di Daniel Arasse, 1994. Il mio intento è quello di dimostrare il motivo per cui l’arte di Vermeer è diventata un luogo di convergenza di complessi studi di approfondimento delle sue caratteristiche più sorprendenti, quali gli effetti pittorici della luce e le particolari qualità tecniche e artistiche che hanno reso Vermeer unico nel suo tempo e oltre.
Note
[1] Arasse Daniel, Vermeer: faith in the painting, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994: 8.
[2] Gowing Lawrence, Vermeer, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles, 1952: 62.
[3] Ibid.: 62.
[4] Ibid.: 30.
[5]  Ibid.:19.
[6] Gowing, Vermeer: 19.
[7] Alpers Svetlana, The art of describing. Dutch art in the seventeenth century, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1983: 37.
[8] Gowing, Vermeer: 48.
[9] Ibid.: 29.
[10]Ibid.: 41.
[11] Gaskell Ivan, Vermeer Studies, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Yale University Press, new Haven and London, 1998: 10
[12] Arasse Daniel, Vermeer. Faith in the painting, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994: 8.
[13] Ibid: 7.
[14] Ibid.: 29.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Gowing: 13.
[17] Gaskell, Vermeer studies:12.
[18] Ibid.: 205.
[19] Gowing, Vermeer: 21.
[20] Ibid:.21.
[21] Gaskell, Vermeer Studies, «This work constitutes a veritable encyclopedia of optical instruments available at the end of the 17thcentury for the study of the camera obscura and it is one of the most interesting early sources for the study of the camera obscura»:112
[22] Ibid.:115.
[23] Bell Clive, Art, (Book Jungle, United Kingdom, 2008): 33.
[24] Spender Stephen, Lawrence Gowing, The Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1983:43
[25] Gowing, Vermeer: 46.
[26] Arasse, Vermeer, Faith in the Painting: 7.
[27] Ibid.: 7.
[28] Ibid.:53.
[29]  Ibid.: 16.
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Paola Barbuzzi, laureatasi in filosofia all’Università di Bologna, dopo qualche anno di insegnamento di L2 a donne migranti, si è trasferita a Londra per frequentare dei master sui diritti umani e la medicalizzazione del corpo femminile. Stabilitasi da oltre un decennio nella capitale britannica, lavora con `NGOs sulla difesa dei diritti umani e la loro violazione, in modo specifico, sulle donne.
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