Art supply and demand
Where do you go to buy art supplies? Nowadays you can buy pre-primed canvas, tubes of paint and brushes online or from your local store. Where did Vermeer’s art supplies come from? This is one of our research questions within the Girl in the Spotlight project. We can consider this from the global to the local level: from pigments that came from faraway lands, to the apothecary in Delft where Vermeer may have bought them.
Pigments are coloured powders, which an artist would mix with a binding medium, in this case, oil. Some natural pigments come from the earth. Brown and yellow pigments like ochre and umber are literally called ‘earth pigments’. Other pigments, like vermilion and lead white, were made synthetically, even back in the 17th century. The red and yellow lake pigments started as dyes (usually used to dye clothing), then this dye was attached to a white powder to make a pigment.
Pigments that were used in the 17th century, on display at the Rembrandthuis
The pigments found in the Girl with a Pearl Earring include: vermilion, red lake, lead white, carbon blacks, weld, earth pigments, ultramarine, and indigo. In the next few blog entries, I’ll go through the colours one by one and tell you where they came from, the strange methods used to make them, and how and where they were used in the Girl.
Where did Vermeer’s get his art supplies?In the Golden Age (17th century), the Dutch were the global powerhouse of world trade, with huge companies that shipped materials to and from the Far East and the New World. This small country was also close to other European trade centres like Antwerp and Venice.
Some raw materials used to make pigments came from all over the world, like cochineal red made from bugs living on Mexican cactuses, and ultramarine blue made from a rare stone from Afghanistan. Others came from closer to home. The Northern Netherlands developed a thriving industry making, preparing and distributing pigments. Paint material manufacturers produced some of the pigments used in the Girl – vermilion (red) and lead white – in large quantities. Some smaller colourmakers specialized in one or two pigments. These pigments were then delivered to retailers: apothecaries, grocers or spice merchants. An apothecary might seem like a strange place to buy pigments, but back then, many art supplies also had medicinal uses and were categorised as drugs!
Vermeer’s View of Delft, c. 1660-61, Mauritshuis
Who sold Vermeer his painting materials? Koos Levy-van Halm and other researchers have tried to answer this question by digging through archives, including the municipal archives of Delft. In 1664, around the time he painted the Girl, Vermeer owed money to the Delft apothecary Dirck de Cocq. De Cocq was known to sell some painting materials: pigments (lead white, and a yellow called massicot), linseed oil, and Venetian turpentine. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether Vermeer specifically bought art supplies from him, as his debt was for medicines.
The apothecaries and colour merchants in Vermeer’s home town were very knowledgeable. They had lots of experience and producing and selling pigments, because Delft also had a thriving pottery industry: think of the famous Delft blue pottery that inspired the Delftware souvenirs sold today.
Given how many painters worked in Delft in Vermeer’s time ¬– Carel Fabritius, Nicolaes Maes, and Pieter de Hooch, to name a few – we can expect that Delft had several places where artists could buy a wide range of supplies. Vermeer may also have also travelled to (or maybe ordered) materials from nearby cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam.
Modern artwork made of Delftware
How much did pigments cost? We know about the relative price of pigments from account books, receipts and other written sources in historical archives. Earth pigments (browns and yellows) would have been cheap. The price of indigo fluctuated wildly depending on its quality and availability. The most expensive pigment on Vermeer’s palette was definitely ultramarine blue. As I’ll explain, ultramarine was very expensive because it came from only one place in the world, and turning it into a pigment was a laborious process.
Pigments in the GirlHow do we know about the kinds of pigments that Vermeer used in the Girl? Many of the examination methods we are using as part of the Girl in the Spotlight give us information about the appearance, size, chemical composition, and/or distribution of the pigments.
- Kirby, Jo, Susie Nash, Joanna Cannon (eds.) (2010) Trade in artists materials: Markets and commerce in Europe to 1700, Archetype, London.
- Kirby, Jo (1999) ‘The painter’s trade in the Seventeenth Century: Theory and practice,’ National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 20, pp. 5-49.
- Levy-van Halm, Koos (1998) ‘Where did Vermeer buy his painting materials? Theory and practice.’ In: Vermeer Studies: Studies in the History of Art, edited by Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Yale University Press, New Haven/London, 1998, pp. 137-143.