We think of the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) as precise because it’s so clear. But the clarity comes from artful simplification, not pursuit of detail. Hold up your hand, and inspect it bit by bit from light side to dark. You will distinguish dozens of little gradations from dark to light–as in this contemporary portrait by Chuck Close, where his intention is to describe the complexity of the surface.
Vermeer, by contrast, divides forms into as few gradations as possible in the progression from dark and light. Modeling within each shape, while sensitive, is minimal, so that each shape remains distinct. The transition from one to the next is delayed until the last moment. The softness of the edges disguises the decisiveness of the shapes.
When they finally come, the transitions are in the interests of bold design rather than description of reality. The shadow side of the girl’s face is back-lit from some unseen source that also illuminates the back of her hat but not her hair or the back of her dress. The lion’s head by her right hand is directly lit from the window; some secondary source within the room illuminates the one by her elbow without touching the dark dress immediately behind it.
And so on. Vermeer has torqued and nudged reality to make the effect more intense–a process we saw before, if not quite so delicately, with John F. Peto (September 1).
This shot of elephants was taken in 1959 by Eliot Elisofon, the noted Life photographer, at the Amboseli game reserve in Kenya. I became his guide and driver there for a few days. He paid me with instruction: he composed his shots using a tripod, and when he had something going he would step aside for five seconds so I could peer through the viewfinder and see exactly what, out of all the information in front of us, he was selecting. I was at his elbow when he took this one.
What struck me was how tightly he composed the shot—the foreground compressed into a thin, hard shape of white ground along the bottom supporting the dark solidity of the herd—and then that glorious cascade of light and diagonal lines falling from the central adult down over the standing calf and then the recumbent, contrary, watchful one, all against the loose, wavy pattern of the trees.
It was only quite recently that I happened to look at the Elisofon and Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic #57,” painted at about the same time, in close proximity. Not the same thing, of course, but not quite a different one either. The longer you look, the more similarities you find. Begin with the white shape along the bottom, and the tusk shapes in both pieces.
(San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)
Detail decisions make a huge difference in results. William Harnett (1848-1892) and John F. Peto (1854-1907) painted such similar works that the two were often confused, but there are lively differences between them. Harnett aims for the convincing trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) effect. His colors are naturalistic, his tonal distinctions subtle and minutely observed.
Peto’s hit is less literal and more decisive. He doesn’t model as realistically as Harnett does. He doesn’t use highlights. His colors are brighter, his shapes flatter, his tonal gradations more abrupt. His shadows are harder and constitute positive shapes in themselves rather than merely evoking the decaying of light: compare the shadow cast by Harnett’s projecting piece of paper with Peto’s projecting books. Peto’s effect is not so much one of objects lovingly observed but a lively, almost abstract pattern of shapes and colors.