Johannes Vermeer, “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1664) (all images courtesy National Gallery of Art)

A popular adage states that one should never compare their insides to someone else’s outsides — that is to say, what looks perfect on the surface usually conceals the same dumpster fire shitshow we all have going on internally. Recent findings reported by the National Gallery of Art suggest that even Vermeer, a painter historically cherished for his perfectionism, might not have been as painstakingly meticulous as believed.

The pandemic offered the National Gallery the rare chance to take all four of the Vermeer paintings in the collection (three confirmed, and one attributed) out of display rotation and into the chemical imaging lab, where imaging scientists John Delaney and scientist Kate Dooley were able to apply some of their unconventional and high-tech approaches to analyze the artist’s technique. The reflectance imaging spectroscopy technique was used to generate hundreds of chemical images allowing researchers to see underlying layers of paint and extrapolate ideas of how the paintings were composed and executed.

High-energy X-rays that penetrate deep into the paint layers reveal chemical elements in the underpaint. The textured appearance of the tablecloth results from Vermeer’s initial, quickly applied brushstrokes.

“It is like looking over the artist’s shoulder as he works,” said Marjorie Wieseman, the National Gallery’s curator and head of the department of Northern European paintings, in a statement on the NGA blog. Wieseman notes that while the surface of a Vermeer, such as the National Gallery’s “Woman Holding a Balance” (c. 1664), still looks “perfect and inevitable,” decades of deeper examination reveal that Vermeer overpainted in several stages — not in a ‘molecule-by-molecule’ approach, as was commonly thought. The most recent analyses shows sketchy, preparatory images by the painter beneath the finished exterior, and now the NGA researchers have produced clear images of a gestural monochrome first pass in the underpaint.

“Here is the revelation that left the team wide-eyed,” writes John Strand for the NGA. “Under the surface, they can see evidence of quick, sketchy, spontaneous, and sometimes thickly textured brushstrokes. It’s as if Vermeer shifted elements around in an impetuous process of discovery, trying and rejecting different approaches — the opposite of the painstakingly slow perfectionist who proceeded molecule by molecule to achieve the timeless beauty of his finished surface.”

Not only do these new research techniques offer fascinating insight into the process behind some of art history’s prized masterworks, they puncture the toxic ideas of effortless genius that haunt every artist who steps up to the challenge of drawing art from the ether.

Johannes Vermeer, “A Lady Writing” (c. 1665), possibly a portrait of the author in a past life, working on the 100th draft of her unpublished novel

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....