“Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” by Vermeer

One day I had an interesting email conversation with my uncle about Vermeer. 

He wrote “Thought you would be interested in this. I was reading a book and found a photo of this painting by Vermeer. The author, Timothy Brook, is not a painter but a historian at St John’s College, Univ. of BC.

The author claims that Vermeer used the pointillist technique in the carpet and fruit in the lower part of the picture… I can’t see any evidence of a pointillist technique. Maybe you can spot it… What do you think?”

He was referring to the above artwork painted ca. 1659 by Johannes Vermeer entitled “Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window.”

Here is my reply… “I think the pointillist technique this author is referring to is the way Vermeer highlights the pattern in the carpet with dots. 

Look at the bottom dark fold of the carpet, in the shadows of the bottom left, you will see flecks of a brighter contrasting colour. Also, look closely at the “J” fold of the carpet in the light, you will notice he gets the texture of the carpet pile by using dots. Dots are again used on the bowl pattern. 

Maybe he used dots to paint the fruit, as well, but you would not be able to tell that without looking at the original as these dots are placed closer together and are blended. A photograph would never be able to differentiate these dotted brushstrokes. You would have to look at the original to make that call.

I don’t think the author is exactly referring to the technique of pointillism that we know to be developed by Seurat. 

See the below artwork painted 1884-1886 by George Seurat entitled “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

During Vermeer’s time period artists would have been looking to capture realism through painting. And if that meant, the artist had to use dots to capture the feel of an object, so be it. 

While Seurat painted closer to the impressionist/expressionist time period. At that time, the artist’s were not so interested in realism but were pushing painting to new limits of creation. Seurat was interested to create new colours, by instead of mixing the paint directly, he mixed dots of colours that blended by the eye the farther back you stand.

The thing that separated these two time periods was the invention of the camera. 

Vermeer painted to capture memories that could not be captured any other way. Hundreds of years later, the camera was invented which enabled people to capture these memories. The need for realism declined and evolved into more expressive and creative periods in art. 

Whereas, after the camera was invented, Seurat painted to push the boundaries of his creative process using coloured dots.

If you define pointillism as simply painting with dots, then both artists painted with dots. 

If you define pointillism as painting using pixilation, then that is also true for both painters. Vermeer used pixilation to capture texture. Seurat used pixilation to capture colour. 

However, I don’t think you can put Vermeer as painting in the same style or art classification as Seurat because their reason for painting separates them into different categories. 

Vermeer painted realism. Seurat painted more as an expression. Also, Vermeer painted without dots as well, blending the brushstrokes into soft transitions of realism. The style Seurat developed was named pointillism because he just used dots. You would not consider Vermeer painting in this same style, even though he painted using a dot technique sporadically on this canvas.

I don’t think this author is redefining the style pointillism, but more pointing out the dot technique of pointillism. 

This just makes you understand that even though Seurat gets credit for developing the style of pointillism, there were other artists before him who painted with the same technique. I am sure there were lots of painters who painted with dots in history when you look closely at the brushstrokes. But that doesn’t mean they used the dots in the same way or pushed the dots to the extreme like in Seurat’s style of pointillism.