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2.5.4 Compositional changes

The study of X-radiographs also provides exceptional insight into the way Vermeer developed his compositions. In contrast to what is suggested by the serene atmosphere, the compositions of the majority of Vermeer’s paintings were not established right from the beginning. Rather Vermeer carefully constructed his compositions during the painting process by changing, adding and removing elements. While these changes are not always visible with the naked eye, they can be revealed by careful study of X-radiographs. When such changes become visible to the naked eye they are often referred to as ‘pentimenti’.

The many small adjustments in the size or positioning of the different elements can be found in nearly all Vermeer’s paintings and provide evidence of his creative process. For instance in View of Delft (L12), Vermeer enlarged the reflection of the twin towers of the Rotterdam Gate in the water, extending the shadow all the way to the bottom edge of the painting (Figures 2.19a,b). Initially Vermeer also included another man to the right of the two women in the foreground, but later painted him out.

Figure 2.19a: Detail of the twin towers of the Rotterdam gate in Vermeer’s
View of Delft (L12).

Figure 2.19b: Detail of the X-ray of View of Delft (L12), showing the reflection of the twin towers was initially smaller.

In the carefully composed Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (L13), the map was originally placed behind the head of the woman and was later shifted to the right, an intervention that sets the woman off against the light surface of the wall. Likewise in Woman Reading a Letter (L17), the X-ray reveals that Vermeer extended the map some 3 cm to the left over the background paint. This is visible in the X-ray as a light band due to the X-ray absorption of the extra paint layer (Figures 2.20a,b). That Vermeer initially left a reserve for the map in the lead-white containing paint of the wall is evident from the dark rectangle behind the woman in the X-ray. The X-radiograph also reveals that Vermeer altered the initially flared shape of the woman’s jacket (the original reserve of the jacket in the background paint is visible in the X-ray as a slightly darker shape). This revision serves to unify and reinforce the areas of the white wall to the left and right of the woman and create a more harmonious and balanced composition. The white shape along the bottom of the jacket also suggests the painter initially planned a fur trim that was left out in the final paint (Figures 2.21a,b).

Figure 2.20a: Detail of Woman Reading a Letter (L17)

Figure 2.20b: Detail of the X-ray of Woman Reading a Letter (L17). A narrow band of increased radio-absorbency (see arrows) is visible in the X-radiograph where the map was extended over the background.

Figure 2.21a: Detail of Woman Reading a Letter (L17)

Figure 2.21b: Detail of the X-ray of
Woman Reading a Letter (L17) showing the initial flared shape of the jacket (red arrows).

In addition to these subtle compositional refinements, Vermeer also made more significant changes to his compositions by removing or adding elements. For instance, in the above mentioned Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (L13), a chair with lion-head finials originally in the left foreground, was entirely painted out. This simplified the composition by framing the woman with larger areas of white wall. In the X-ray of the Woman with a Pearl Necklace (L18) a map on the rear wall was added behind the woman and more of the floor tiles were visible than we now see in the final painting.

Sometimes these changes even have iconographic implications. In the X-radiograph of A Maid Asleep (L04), Vermeer initially planned a standing figure with a wide brimmed hat in the background room with a dog looking at him from the doorway. The head of the man was later painted over with a mirror in the final version, and the dog with a chair in the lower right corner. Wheelock argued that by leaving out these narrative elements, the viewer is left with no clear explanation for the woman’s mood, showing Vermeer was searching for a poetic approach to his subject matter rather than for an explicit narrative.1 Also a vague rectangular shape in the background of the X-radiograph of The Milkmaid (L07), shows Vermeer painted out a shelf or mantelpiece on the back wall and replaced a clothesbasket in the lower right with a foot warmer. These changes can have iconographic implications. In this case, the foot warmer can be associated with desire, and relates to the images of cupids on the row of tiles behind.2

Surprisingly, no changes can be observed in the X-ray of the large and complex The Art of Painting (L26) from 1666-1668. This would seem to suggest, that for this painting, Vermeer worked out his composition beforehand.3 The absence of changes in other large works, such as Diana and her Nymphs (L01) and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (L02) is also notable, although for these early paintings, works by other artists may have served as examples and therefore can explain the absence of compositional changes.4 That Vermeer worked-out the composition beforehand or looked to other examples is certainly not the case for all large works. This is evident from the compositional changes visible in the X-radiograph of The Procuress (L03) or the earlier described changes in View of Delft (L12).


 A.K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting, New Haven 1995, pp. 41-43; Kahr was the first to connect compositional changes in A Maid Asleep (as detected with X-radiography) with the intention of the artist and meaning of the painting. See: M.M. Kahr, ‘Vermeer's Girl Asleep: A Moral Emblem’, Metropolitan Museum Journal 6 (1972), pp. 115-132, esp. pp. 127-128.


 A.K. Wheelock Jr. (ed.), Johannes Vermeer, Washington, D.C. (National Gallery of Art)/The Hague (Mauritshuis) 1995, pp. 110, 154.


R. Wald, ‘Die Malkunst. Betrachtungen zum künstlerischen Ansatz und zur Technik’, in: S. Haag, E. Oberthaler and S. Pénot (eds.), Vermeer. Die Malkunst. Spurensicherung an einem Meisterwerk, Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum) 2010, pp. 193-213, esp. p. 198.


E. Kolfin, C. Pottasch, and R. Hoppe, ‘The Metamorphosis of Diana: Changing Perceptions of the Young Vermeer’s Painting Technique’, Art Matters. Netherlands Technical Studies in Art 1 (2002), pp. 90-103, esp. p. 100.

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