Vermeer: A lesson in sensation and perception

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Recently, my wife and I saw the film “Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition” at one our local theaters.

In the spring of 2023, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam opened its doors to the largest Vermeer exhibition in history. The show sold out within days of going on sale. This film offers you the chance to experience the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition on the big screen…

With loans from across the world, this major retrospective will bring together Vermeer’s most famous masterpieces including Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Geographer, The Milkmaid, The Little Street, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, and Woman Holding a Balance. In all, 28 of his surviving 35 works. (Exhibition on Screen 2023, n.d.)

The art of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) gave me a lot to think about, as good art should. The experts interviewed in the film noted the lack of visible brush strokes in his art work. The Essential Vermeer website tracks the location of every known Vermeer painting (Janson, 2023). The next time a Vermeer painting and I are in the same city, I’ll be making time to see it in person.

What I find phenomenal about artists who can paint realistic images is their ability to turn off perception and paint only what their eyes see. For example, in The Music Lesson, look at the tile floor. If I, a non-artist, would attempt to draw such a tile floor, my tiles would all be the same size. Or rather, I’d know on an intellectual level that they’d have to become smaller the farther away they are, so I’d make them smaller, but I’m certain the perspective would not look right. Switching off shape constancy is a big ask. For me, anyway.

Even more difficult for me would be switching off color constancy. Look at The Milkmaid—my favorite Vermeer—for example. We know that, in reality, the tablecloth would be all the same color. But we also know that how light falls on a scene changes the colors our eyes see. When part of a tablecloth is in shadow, our eyes see that that shadowed part is darker. During perception, our brain accounts for this different lighting. We know that the shadowed part of the tablecloth is not actually darker. Here, Vermeer is able to see that the shadowed tablecloth appears darker, and so he paints it darker. The milkmaid’s bodice is nearly white where the light from the window appears to shine on it but is dark brown in the shade. What I find particularly stunning in this painting is the bread. The next time you look at a loaf of bread, pay particular attention to the light as it reflects off the surface. There is nothing uniform about those reflections.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring is Vermeer’s most famous painting. Again, we see Vermeer’s mastery of light. With one single apostrophe of white paint against a dark background, the earring sparkles.

I have an advantage that Vermeer didn’t. I live in the age of color photographs. If I were to look at a photograph of a milkmaid pouring milk next to a basket of bread, I could zoom in and look at the colors, pixel by pixel. Vermeer, working 300 years before the development of color photography, did not have that opportunity. He had to rely solely on his ability to turn off his perception in order to reproduce what his eyes saw.

We see what Vermeer saw, which, in many ways, is a more intimate experience than viewing a photographer’s picture. Did the photographer see the texture of the bread they photographed? Maybe. Did Vermeer see the texture of the bread he painted? Absolutely.



Exhibition on Screen 2023. (n.d.). Vermeer: The greatest exhibition – Exhibition on Screen. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from

Janson, J. (2023, March 31). Complete catalogue of the painting of Johannes Vermeer. Essential Vermeer 3.0.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.