Why Vermeer made small works compared to his peers?

I shouted ‘Eureka!’ while working on my version of ‘The Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ.’ With this work, I participated in the Dutch TV program ‘De Nieuwe Vermeer,’ where six missing paintings by Johannes Vermeer were reconstructed. I would never have expected to make this discovery if I hadn’t worked on this large work of 160 x 142 cm (63 x 56 in).

It is generally known that Vermeer’s early works lacked strong perspective skills, which can be noticed in his early work, such as ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,’ where he painted relatively large works. However, this changed in his later work, where researchers discovered tiny nail holes located exactly on the vanishing points in his canvases. He used a nail, which he fixed with a piece of wood behind (or a wooden board), for the vanishing points in the canvas. By connecting a string to this nail, he constructed his astonishing linear perspective. He often had one vanishing point, and hence one nail, in the painting (around the middle). However, he also had vanishing points outside of his painting/canvas, requiring nails outside of his work.

And here is where my discovery comes in. I used Vermeer’s perspective technique in my large painting on canvas and discovered three complications:

  1. Using this technique on a large canvas requires vanishing points that are very far outside of the painting (in my case, over 5 meters). This workflow becomes extremely complicated and requires a very large studio.
  2. Due to the weight of the strings, they sag and create a curvy line instead of a straight line, resulting in inaccurate results.
  3. The hypothesis that the nail is fixed with a little piece of wood is likely not correct. I tried this on my large canvas and found it very hard to fix the nail stably in the canvas, leading again to inaccurate results. More likely, Vermeer fixed his canvas completely on one board, which he placed on his easel, gaining one stable and accurate construction to create his masterpieces.

Conclusion: Vermeer painted small masterpieces using a perspective trick. This technique was likely used by Vermeer as he was also known for scientific innovations like the camera obscura. Due to practical limitations, he only created smaller works than his peers.


Edwin IJpeij

Artist and Scientist

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