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2.5.2 Grounds

Recent study of Vermeer’s ground layers indicates they are more similar than previously thought.1 The majority of his grounds are composed of one or two layers of light or dark beige paint containing lead white, with the admixture of chalk, earth pigments and fine black, as well as a little umber. Due to the presence of lead white, the grounds are strongly visible in the X-radiographs. This is not always the case. For instance, Rembrandt’s quartz-rich grounds hardly register at all in X-radiographs (Figure 2.15). X-rays can also provide evidence of how the ground layer was applied. For instance, in The Little Street (L11), the X-radiograph provides evidence that the ground was applied in large curved movements with a priming knife. The movements of the priming knife can be deduced from curved thicker ridges of ground that show up lighter in the X-radiograph (see arrows in Figure 2.14).

Figure 2.14: X-ray of The Little Street (L11). The overall lightness in the X-ray is related to the lead white in the ground. The penetration of the ground between the canvas threads is the reason why the canvas structure can be clearly seen in the X-ray. With some difficulty the curved lines from the application of the ground with a priming knife can also be made out (red arrows).

Figure 2.15: Detail of the X-ray of Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, circa 1665 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). The radio-transparent ‘quartz’ ground does not register in the X-ray image. As a result the canvas can hardly be discerned in the X-radiograph.


Re-examination of paint cross-sections with the light microscope showed the light beige grounds on Diana and Her Companions (L01) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (L22) are very similar containing lead white, chalk, red and yellow/or brown ochres and fine black. The ground on A View of Delft (L12) is slightly darker consisting of a mixture of chalk, lead white, umber and fine lamp black. Annelies van Loon and Petria Noble, presentation given at Vermeer Colloquium on Condition and Technique, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, June 29, 2009. Similarities in Vermeer’s grounds were also borne out by Ashok Roy in his comparison of the grounds of three paintings: Young Woman Standing at a Virginal (L33), Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (L34) and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (L36). The beige colored grounds applied in two layers, each contain a mixture of lead white, chalk, red and yellow ochres and a fine lamp black, as well as a little umber. They were found to be an exact match in composition, proportion, pigment particle size and particle distribution. The same type and color of exposed ground visible in Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (L36) was also observed in The Lacemaker (L29) and A View of Delft (L12). See: L. Sheldon and N. Costaras, ‘Johannes Vermeer’s “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal”’, The Burlington Magazine 148 (2006), pp. 89-97, esp. pp. 92-93 and note 21. Earlier studies suggested more variety in Vermeer’s grounds. See: N. Costaras, 'A study of the Materials and Techniques of Johannes Vermeer', Vermeer Studies. Studies in the History of Art 55 (1998), pp. 145-167, esp. p. 146 and H. Kühn, ‘A Study of the Pigments and the Grounds Used by Jan Vermeer’, Report and Studies in the History of Art 2 (1968), pp. 155-202.

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