Fine Art: Vermeer’s Lacemaker


Figure 1. This print is from my collection and measures 7” x 8-5/8”. It is very difficult to find a print of this piece that is true to all the colors and details – this one isn’t bad. The holes along the side of the stand are more obscure than in other reproductions.

When sold at auction in 1696, the catalog listed this painting as “demoiselle faisant de la dentelle aux fuseaux”. If Vermeer ever gave it a name, it is now lost. Most people do not realize how small this work actually is 8-1/4” x 9-5/8”. It was acquired by Napoleon III and given to the Louvre in April, 1870. You can see the framed original at: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/framed/framed_lacemaker.html. This site also has a nice interactive feature where you can move your cursor over the painting and bring up commentary.

The following comments are summarized from the excellent Vermeer site, http://www.essentialvermeer.com/index.html.  Joannis, Johannes, or Jan Vermeer was born in Delft in October 1632, and died in there in December 1675. Only the dates of his baptism (Oct 31, 1632), and burial (December 16, 1675) are actually known. The Lacemaker was painted between 1669-1671, oil on canvas. The signature on the painting is much faded, and is located on the right, halfway between the woman and the canvas edge, about the level of her hairline. It is thought that the lacemaker might be one of Vermeer’s daughters, Maria or Elizabeth, and the  sitter is quite similar to the woman in Vermeer’s “A Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid”. The tapestry on the table is thought to be of Belgian manufacture, and was used in two other Vermeer paintings, “The Love Letter” and “The Astronomer”.  The foreground threads are rather diffuse, perhaps implying the use of a camera obscura. The book next to the cushion might be a prayer book – the binding seems to have been tied together with two ribbons. The blue cushion with white stripes and corner tassels is a sewing cushion (naaikussen), with threads spilling out of an interior compartment. In another Vermeer painting, “The Love Letter”, the cushion on the floor next to the clothes hamper may be a lacemaking pillow. Or it may be the sewing cushion used in “The Lacemaker”.

  
Figure 2. Other Vermeer works with potential lacemaking connections.
Left: Vemeer’s “The Love Letter”. Is that a lace pillow just below the basket to the left? The same tapestry is also used as a curtain draped to the side.
Right: It is also speculated that there is a lacemaker in the doorway in the Vermeer painting “The Little Street”. She could also just be sewing with the aid of a naaikussen.

Let me followup with a few comments of my own.  Commentators never address the actual lacemaking aspects of the painting, but there is no reason that the lace community cannot.

This is not a servant girl, I’d expect her hair to be covered, and a less fancy dress. Vermeer was married in 1653, so if the sitter is one of his daughters, she would have been less than ~15 years old. Whoever it is, she does seem to have experience at a lacemaking pillow.

One of the most famous things about this painting are the two threads from the bobbins to the pillow – the hand movements seem to be genuine. The position of the lower bobbin between her first and second fingers might indicate that the working position of the hands is more like the flat-handed traveling hand position that the best Belgian lacemakers use. All she has to do is turn her left hand slightly to bring the bobbins up to this position. Is her wrist supported on the pillow to help with the thread tension? It would be unusual for an experienced lacemaker to allow any part of her hands to touch the work, so probably not. Too bad we can’t see the ends of the bobbins – so frustratingly close (it is possible that the bulb end of one is just visible behind the three on the pillow). Bobbins were found in the 1629 shipwreck of the Dutch East India ship the Batavia off the western Australian coast show two options for roughly contemporary bobbins. Someone should compare measurements of bobbin length here to see if it is reasonable. Her head seems bent a bit low, but that might be artistic license.

Since this post was first published several lacemakers in the Arachne listserver have discussed the issue of her right hand. Is she taking out a pin, or putting one in the pattern? The consensus appears that she is ‘putting up’ a pin after having moved it from the back of the work. The tension on the famous threads from the bobbins in her left hand will allow a better view of the pinhole in the pattern.

Another thing of note is the design of the pillow itself. It appears to be quite similar to the Belgian 2-part rounded cushion – there seems to be a drawer in the upper part, and the base is not inconsistent with 19th-20th century examples. Even the fluting on the edges is seen in some 20th century examples, at least on the lower base. In the painting there is also fluting on straight line of pillow itself, and it is interrupted by the stand. How mechanically this might have been done is a little unclear. There is no sign of the holes for an extension in the pillow part, which probably hadn’t been in use at this time. I don’t know what to make of the little rectangular hole in the base of the pillow. The curve of the pillow seems more than modern examples, and the base seems a little higher, but that is also seen in many contemporary lacemaker paintings of this period. I don’t think there’s any reason not to believe that the base is a wedge and tapers toward the lacemaker.


Figure 3. Note the fluted treatment at the bottom of the stand on this early 20th century Belgian pillow. Vermeer’s painting shows the same thing. It would seem a bit difficult to put similar fluting along the lower line of the pillow – so the construction of that part is a bit puzzling in the painting.  The two slots next to the drawer are meant to accept the tines from an extension to the cushion, giving the lacemaker more room to work. The extension can be positioned at the top or the bottom of the pillow, and here is barely visible at the top of the photo.

We don’t know what kind of lace she is making – her collar seems to be a Flemish continuous guipure, consistent with the time period. I love how the collar flares up a bit just over her right shoulder (to the left in the painting). I always think of lace collars of this period as lying completely flat and stiff, but this touch gives it a lightness and flexibility that is unexpected.  As for the lace on the pillow, it may be that the pinkish part draping off the center of the pillow is headed for a rollup in the drawer. It does seem a bit too wide to be consistent with what little of the lace you can see, and it’s a bit hard to believe she is making pink lace. Perhaps the blue cloth is just a cover cloth for the pillow, which could be that color, and the actual lace is further back. The pink could also be part of the pattern, but that doesn’t make much sense. Seeing white threads on pink would be difficult, and lacemaking patterns don’t normally slop over the edge of the pillow.  There are not masses of pins, and I think too much has been made in the past of the scarcity of pins at this period in time – a sharpened thin brass wire works just fine and that would have been easy to produce in quantity. She also is not using many bobbins, and it is possible that a fourth one is visible just behind the three on the cushion. But a Flemish tape-based lace of this period wouldn’t need many bobbins, and could still be quite complex.

The stand is probably adjustable, although it is fairly simple. Note the holes going down the side of the post which could be used to set the height – look closely, they are hard to see in the print that I have posted. There are rare examples of this type of pillar stand in modern collections, see the figure below.

  
Figure 4. This figure shows two stands from my collection. At the left is a pillar stand with hinged shelf that can slide up and down the post. The post is fairly flat, nicely carved at the top, and has holes going down the backside into which you can insert a pin to stop the shelf. The base has a big slug of exposed lead inset into the underside, making it quite stable, but somewhat of a hazard to have around the house. It seems fairly consistent with the type of stand portrayed in Vermeer’s Lacemaker.
This stand works quite differently from the more commonly seen Belgian ratchet stand shown on the right (no lead in that one), although the purpose is the same.

I’m a little puzzled by her skirt at the lower right. It seems a bit farther out than necessary – she might be cradling the pillow between her knees as well as relying on the support stand. In fact the lower right of the picture doesn’t seem to be quite up to the quality of the rest of the image.  And what is happening between the base of the pillow and the support stand? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is a later work of Vermeer, and apparently he is deliberately abstracting certain aspects of the painting – this is probably what is going on.

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4 Responses to Fine Art: Vermeer’s Lacemaker

  1. Laura says:

    Perhaps at one point there was a stand in which the pillow was placed with that little hole. I’ve wondered about this for years. I’ll look through, but I recall a print of a lacemaker with a similar hole.
    The cushion that appears in the other painting looks like the same as that on the left…perhaps a cushion that was used for embroidery or needlelace. You see these in many of the continental paintings from the 17th through 19th centuries. In one that I’ll check the ref on, you see an embroideress pulling a needle through on such a pillow. I love art history!!!

    • lacenews says:

      I almost wonder if it isn’t the pull to a lower drawer. I just changed the main photo to one that enlarges better – I almost imagine I see something rectangular in the base that might be a drawer. Or maybe not.

  2. Joepie says:

    Could the little square holes in your pillow be to take two “tines” (like thin strong arms, or tines on a fork) of a stand? In the Vermeer picture one can see a wooden peg just below the adjustable part to hold it in place.

    The skirt on the bottom right might have been caught on the arm of a chair -it still happens to us now when we wear a voluminous skirt. As this is a ‘middle’ class girl she may have used an armchair rather than the rather uncomfortable small chair poorer lacemakers would have sat on.

    The bobbins she is using have a bulbous end. Two can just be seen nearest to her chest (one only shows half the bulbous section). These bobbins were in general use at that time. These days a slightly slimmer ‘bulb’ is used.

    The table in the lower left of the painting is covered by a soft carpet -or very heavy quality velvet- specially produced for that use and still in use in some circles in the mid-twentieth century in the Netherlands and Belgium.

  3. Moon chip says:

    I have a very beautiful The lace maker framed painting it is sign IMeer in right corner the colors stand out perfect the painting is very large not sure who painted it but they did an amazing job even with the smoky color signature

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