Vermeer – The Lacemaker

Johannes or Jan VERMEER , 1632 – 1675


Renoir considered this masterpiece, which entered the Louvre in 1870, the most beautiful painting in the world, along with Watteau’s Pilgrimage to the Island of Cythera, also in the Louvre. A young lacemaker, undoubtedly a member of the Delft bourgeoisie, is hunched intently over her work, deftly manipulating bobbins, pins and thread on her sewing table. The theme of the lacemaker, frequently depicted in Dutch literature and painting (notably by Caspar Netscher) traditionally illustrated feminine domestic virtues. The small book in the foreground is probably the Bible, which reinforces the picture’s moral and religious interpretation. But this is also, as in Vermeer’s famous Milkmaid (circa 1658, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), one of the peeks into domestic privacy that so fascinated him. He loved to observe the everyday objects around him and paint different combinations of them in his works: he used the same piece of furniture and Dutch carpet with leaf motifs in several of his pictures.

The painting’s intense intimacy stems both from its small format (this is the smallest painting Vermeer painted) and the central framing of the figure. The Delft master’s genius consisted in reproducing the natural optical deformations of the human eye by creating several depths of field. The centre of our attention, the lacemaker’s painstaking work, is shown in great detail and in sharp focus, particularly the fine white thread stretched between the young woman’s fingers. Further away from this visual focus, the forms become more blurred, including, paradoxically, those in the foreground. The white and red threads hanging out of the cushion are rendered in almost abstract dribbles of paint. The tapestry, painted with little "pointillist" dabs of pure colour, is also out of focus. The harmonious colour of this pictorial gem, so characteristic of Vermeer, fascinated Van Gogh, who in a letter to Émile Bernard in 1888 noted the beauty of its " lemon yellow, pale blue and pearl grey arrangement."

Yet, despite the illusion of immediate proximity with the lacemaker, we cannot really penetrate her universe. The forms of the tapestry, sewing cushion and small table come between us and her, and her work is hidden in her right hand. Vermeer’s pictures have a "poetry of silence" which places his figures, caught in an intimate, impalpable moment, in a world removed from ours, in a clear, gentle brightness that seems to cling to objects in soft specks of light.

For larger picture see photo album above


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