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2.5.3 Pigments and paint layer build-up

The presence of lead white in the paint layers of Vermeer paintings (in addition to the ground layers) also means that X-radiographs are particularly useful in the study of the paint layers. In addition to lead white, other pigments, such as lead-tin yellow, frequently used for highlights, and the bright red pigment vermilion used by Vermeer for details such as ribbons and bows, also absorb X-rays and look whitish in X-radiographs. Organic pigments, earth pigments, copper-based pigments and blacks are transparent to X-rays to varying degrees, and depending on admixtures with other pigments appear medium to dark in an X-radiograph. Due to their differences in radio-absorbency certain red and yellow pigments can be distinguished from each other: red and yellow earths will appear dark in an X-ray, while vermilion and lead-tin yellow will appear light. It is therefore important to keep in mind that only a limited range of pigments register in an X-ray.

X-radiographs reveal several interesting features of Vermeer’s painting technique, such as the distribution of light and shade, use of reserves – areas in a painting which were left empty (in reserve), so that a planned feature could be added later – and his characteristic use of underpaints. The lead-white underpaint for instance, below the blue sky in The Little Street (L11) absorbs X-rays and therefore shows up white in the X-radiograph. For the most part, the houses were left in reserve in this lead-white underlayer and therefore register dark in the X-ray. This explains the strong contrast in the X-ray and is characteristic of how Vermeer established areas of light and dark in the early stages of the painting process (Figure 2.14). This is also the case in View of Delft (L12) and tells us something about the order of painting. The townscape, which was left in reserve in the lead-white underlayer of the sky, was first laid in with a dark sketch or underpaint. This explains the strong contrast in the X-ray and is characteristic of how Vermeer established areas of light and dark in the early stages of the painting process (Figures 2.16a,b). Certain details of the buildings, such as the chimney at the far left, however, were not left in reserve, but instead were added later over the sky and explains why they are not visible in the X-ray (Figures 2.16c,d).

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Figure 2.16a: X-ray of View of Delft (L12) showing strong radio-absorbency in the sky from the lead-white underpaint.

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Figure 2.16b: Detail of blue sky in
View of Delft (L12). Here the lead-white underpaint shows through the thin layer of ultramarine blue of the sky painted on top. (Image: Noble et al. 2009, p. 175).

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Figures 2.16c,d: detail of X-ray (the left part of the image is lighter due to the stretcher bar) (c) and corresponding visible light detail (d) of View of Delft (L12). The left chimney is not visible in the X-ray since it was not reserved in the lead-white underpaint of the sky. Instead the chimney was added later, during the painting process, on top of the sky paint. The right chimney, however, was reserved in the lead-white underpaint, which explains why it appears dark in the X-radiograph.

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Figure 2.17: Detail of X-ray of
Girl with a Pearl Earring (L22). The paint build-up and type of pigments used for painting the face have resulted in a strong contrast between the lit and shadow areas of the girl’s face in the X-radiograph, a characteristic feature of Vermeer’s painting technique that is less visible in the painting itself.

Girl with a Pearl Earring (L22) also has a dark sketch or underpaint that consists of radio-transparent pigments and varies in tone and thickness. In dark areas of the figure, the underpaint is thicker and consists of bone black and some brown ochre, while in the lighter areas a thinner layer was applied containing yellow, brown and a little red ochre with a small addition of charcoal black.1 On top of this, the figure was worked up in just one or two paint layers, in some places such as the shadows of the yellow jacket, leaving the dark underlayer to shimmer through. The thick application of lead-white containing flesh paint in the lit areas of the face of the girl explains the strong contrast observed between the light and dark areas of the face in the X-radiograph, a contrast that the painting itself does not display (Figure 2.17). As previously discussed, the strong contrast was one of the arguments used in the Van Meegeren trial to distinguish Van Meegeren’s forgeries from authentic Vermeer paintings.

X-radiographs also reveal the expressive brushwork of Vermeer’s underpaints, a feature of Vermeer’s painting technique that was already pointed out by Burroughs in his 1938 publication. Given the smooth modelling of the final paint layers this is somewhat surprising, and can be discerned for instance, in the underpaint of the wall at the left and right of the woman in the X-radiograph of Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter (L17). In this painting, the lively brushwork originates from the lead-white containing pale yellow underpaint, which partially shows through the thin, smooth, light blue upper paint layer of the wall (Figures 2.18a,b). The combination of a textured underpaint, with a smooth top paint layer is considered a characteristic feature of Vermeer’s painting technique.2 The underpaint in the foreground of View of Delft (L12) also displays expressive brushwork. The broad diagonal brushstrokes of the lead-white containing underpaint are clearly visible in the X-ray image and shimmer through the smooth yellowish rose-colored surface paint (Figures 2.18c,d).

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Figure 2.18a: Woman Reading a Letter (L17)

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Figure 2.18b: X-ray of
Woman Reading a Letter (L17) showing the lively brushwork of the underpaint of the wall to the left and right of the figure, a feature that is not readily visible on the paint surface.

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Figure 2.18c: Detail of the foreground of
View of Delft (L12).

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Figure 2.18d: Detail of the X-ray of
View of Delft (L12) showing the expressive brushwork of the underpaint in the foreground. The lower half of the image is lighter due to the stretcher bar.



[1]

K.M. Groen et al., ‘Scientific Examination of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring’, Vermeer Studies. Studies in the History of Art 55 (1998), pp. 169-183, esp. p. 171.

[2]

E.M. Gifford, ‘Painting Light: Recent Observations on Vermeer’s Technique’, Vermeer Studies. Studies in the History of Art 55 (1998), pp. 185-199, esp. p. 190.

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