Counting Vermeer


3.1 Canvas as a support

The use of canvas as a support for easel paintings was already widespread when Johannes Vermeer started his career as a painter in the early 1650s. It had been introduced for oil paintings in the Northern Netherlands in the course of the second half of the sixteenth century after having been in use for paintings with an aqueous binding medium in the Netherlands for more than one and a half century.1 The majority of Vermeer’s works, 34 of the 36 paintings, which are nowadays considered autograph, are on canvas. Thus Vermeer painted primarily on canvas, unlike his contemporaries such as Frans van Mieris (1635-1681), Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667), Jan Steen (1626-1679) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684/1694), who frequently used panels as well as canvases.

Artist’s canvas, as such, was not manufactured in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to seventeenth-century Dutch sources, painters used several types of fabric, which were produced with other functions in mind. Zeildoek or sailcloth, also called canevas, was produced for the shipbuilding industry, tijk or ticking was woven for matrasses and quilts, and lijnwaet or linen cloth was intended for clothing, bedding and the like. An English source speaks of sackcloth or sackencloth, apparently produced as packaging material.2 These types of canvas relate to two different types of fiber. Sailcloth was produced from hemp, ticking and cloth were made from flax. In the research, which has been conducted on Dutch painter’s canvases over the past 60 years, the type of fiber has rarely been examined.3 This is not surprising because the canvases of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings are usually not directly accessible since almost all canvases have been (re)lined. During (re)lining, the canvas support is strengthened by attaching a new canvas to the backside of the painting, and the unpainted tacking edges have often been removed during previous restorations. To study the canvas of a relined painting, a X-radiograph is needed. In the X-radiograph the imprint of the original canvas in the radio-absorbent layer of the ground shows up, not the original or the relining canvas itself. It is not possible to identify the type of fiber in a radiograph of a painting on canvas.


1 D. Wolfthal, The Beginnings of Netherlandish Canvas Painting: 1400-1530, Cambridge 1989.

2 E. van de Wetering, ‘The canvas support’, in: J. Bruijn et al., A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, 6 vols., Dordrecht/Boston/Lancaster 1982-2014, vol. 2 (1986), pp. 15-43, esp. pp. 18-19; reprinted in: E. van de Wetering, Rembrandt. The Painter at Work, Amsterdam 1997, pp. 91-130, esp. pp. 95-96.

3 According to a study of French paintings on canvas, a majority of canvases of French painters until the beginning of the nineteenth century consists of hemp; see: K. Vanderlip de Carbonnel, ‘A study of French painting canvases’, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 20 (1980), pp. 3-20.

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