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2.5.1 Painting supports and format

Since Vermeer’s ground layers contain lead white, the study of X-radiographs provides much information about the characteristics and condition of the supports. For his paintings on canvas, features visible in the X-ray include thread thickness, thread density (thread count), type of weave, as well as the presence of weave faults from hand-operated looms (such as double or triple threads or so-called weft-snakes, see Chapter 6), selvedges, seams, and deformations along the edges due to stretching of the canvas support, known as cusping. These features are important to study and compare when paintings are suspected of being pendants or possible roll mates (see Chapter 6 for other examples).1 The study of X-radiographs can also provide insight about a painting’s original size, as well as information about the original strainer and the way the painting was mounted onto the strainer, in addition to features relating to past interventions and damages, such as additions, inserts, repairs, folds, tears, holes and even if the painting has been transferred from another support in the past. For panel paintings usually the type of wood can be discerned, along with the direction of the wood grain, as well as the presence of joins, losses, woodworm infestation, cracks, auxilliary supports and old repairs. The visualization of the wood grain or canvas weave is related to the type of ground that is in contact with the support. It is the penetration of the ground between the canvas threads or the grain of the wood that allows the structure of the support to be imaged in a X-ray. In paintings where no radio-absorbent pigment is present in the ground, the structure of the support will be difficult to see in a X-radiograph.

Different kinds of fabrics made from both linen and hemp were available to artists as canvas supports (see Chapter 3). The fibers cannot be identified in an X-radiograph; instead polarized light microscopy is used. Tabby or plain weave is the most common type of weave encountered in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. It is notable that Vermeer painted on plain weave canvas that is remarkably regular and of high quality compared to the canvas supports of many other seventeenth-century Dutch artists, including Rembrandt, whose canvases show many irregularities in thread thickness (Figure 2.12).

Figure 2.12: Irregularities in thread thickness is characteristic of hand-spun fibers of canvas. Weave faults from hand-operated looms used in the seventeenth century are usually also present. On the left is a detail of the X-radiograph of Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid (L31) showing the regular nature of the canvas. The detail of the X-radiograph on the right showing knots and variations in thread thickness is from Rembrandt’s Still Life with Peacocks, circa 1639 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

The majority of Vermeer’s paintings are painted on canvas. Only two (small) paintings are on oak panel (Girl with the Red Hat (L24) (see Figure 2.9a) and Girl with a Flute (L25)). In the case of The Little Street (L11) the canvas fiber has been identified as linen.2 Due to the way canvas was stretched and prepared in the seventeenth century, deformations, known as cusping, can occur along the edges (see Chapter 3). In the past close inspection of the X-ray using a head magnifier was needed to accurately measure and characterize such deformations, but with the recent development of digital methods, cusping can now easily be discerned in so-called ‘thread angle maps’ (see images in Chapters 5 and Chapter 6). In many cases the presence, or absence, of cusping along the margins can help in the determination of the original format of a painting. For View of Delft (L12) cusping is visible in the X-ray on all four sides indicating (along with the unpainted, original tacking edges) that the format of the painting is unchanged. That is not the case, however for Diana and Her Nymphs (L01), where the X-radiograph revealed the absence of cusping on the right edge of the picture suggesting the canvas support may have been cut down. This was confirmed during the 1999-2000 treatment of the painting, when the old lining canvas was removed, revealing an imprint of the presumably original seventeenth-century strainer in a paint layer on the reverse of the original canvas. Comparison of the partial imprint of the corner bar of the strainer in the upper right, with the imprint of the complete corner bar in the upper left, indicated a reduction of some 12 cm had occurred on the right side of the painting. Importantly this meant that the painting was originally the same size as View of Delft (L12).3

Information about the original strainers, and in some cases even the original method of mounting the canvas to the strainer, is often also visible in X-radiographs. Lines of cracks parallel to the edges of a painting, caused by the original strainer bars, can frequently be discerned in X-radiographs (Figures 2.13a,b). This type of crack pattern, often referred to as ‘strainer bar cracks’, gives information on the type and size of seventeenth century strainers, which are rarely preserved. An exception is Vermeer’s The Guitar Player (L35) that has retained its original four-member strainer with bars that vary from 2.1 to 2.7 cm in width (Figure 2.13c).4 The ‘strainer bar cracks’ present in The Milkmaid (L07), Woman in Reading a Letter (L17), Woman with a Pearl Necklace (L18) and Woman Holding a Balance (L19) indicate similar strainers were used in these relatively small pictures, which are all comparable in size with The Guitar Player (L35). In Vermeer’s larger paintings such as the just mentioned Diana and Her Nymphs (L01), View of Delft (L12) and The Art of Painting (L26), the ‘strainer bar cracks’ in the corners of the X-rays indicate these (larger) paintings originally had strainers reinforced with corner bars.5

Figure 2.13a: X-ray of The Guitar Player (L35)

Figure 2.13b: Detail of the X-ray of The Guitar Player (L35) showing cusping along the left edge and a network of cracks running parallel to the edge associated with the original strainer bar (red arrows).

Figure 2.13c: Reverse of The Guitar Player (L35) showing the original wooden strainer.


W. Liedtke, C.R. Johnson Jr., and D.H. Johnson, ‘Canvas Matches in Vermeer: A Case Study in the Computer Analysis of Fabric Supports’, Metropolitan Museum Journal 47 (2012), pp. 101-108; P. Noble, ‘From One Piece of Canvas. The Supports of the Eight Craeyvanger Children’s Portraits’, Oud Holland 127 (2014), pp. 25-30; C.R. Johnson Jr. and W.A. Sethares, ‘Canvas Weave Match Supports Designation of Vermeer's Geographer and Astronomer as a Pendant Pair’, in: Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 9 (2017), issue 1, (DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2017.9.1.17).


 Minuscule samples from both horizontal and vertical threads were taken from the tacking edges of the canvas support of Vermeer’s The Little Street (L11). The fiber cells were separated using distilled water and glycerine (1:1) on a glass slide. The fibrillar orientation determined with polarized light microscopy (modified Herzog test), corresponded to a S-twist, implying flax (linen). The authors wish to thank Bas van Velzen of the University of Amsterdam for his help in the analysis.


 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. 95-96.


 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.


 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. 197 and p. 211 (note 14).

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