Now here’s something different, and very European. Maybe it’s the drop of Dutch blood in my veins (great grandfather) but when I heard about an upcoming exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I jiggled my shoulders a little – that’s a sign of excitement, by the way. If I was there, I would hop on the Metro and be there in a jiffy. When I used to visit Washington more regularly, the National Gallery’s marble staircases and effusive flowers in pots and echoing fountains and spindly coffee tables were a magnet to me… Not least, of course, the completely irresistible gift shop.
So, the National Gallery has an exhibition entitled Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. This is called a “landmark exhibition” and it will also be running at The Musée du Louvre, Paris and the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, as well as in Washington from October 22, 2017 to January 21, 2018. (If you don’t know much about Vermeer, here is a very good place to start).
There was a lot of money floating around in the Holland of that period (Vermeer lived from 1632–1675 in Delft, the former home of William of Orange). The middle classes were quite comfortable, and the good people of Delft made for charming subjects. What is striking about the artist, though, is his seemingly quiet, parochial lifestyle. He was an introvert, I am sure. He was not very prolific; but then, he died at age 43. Having taken over his father’s art dealing business at age twenty (it was good business then), he married a rather well-off Catholic woman, and converted to that religion. Then he simply stayed in the town of his birth, spending much of his time in an upstairs room of his mother-in-law’s house.
I have always thought of Vermeer this way: a somewhat reclusive man, prone to moodiness. This is how he is depicted in the 2003 film The Girl With a Pearl Earring, named after his famous work from around 1665. In that film, Colin Firth played the sombre Vermeer and a wide-eyed Scarlett Johansson tried to look as much like the eponymous girl as possible. Who was the model for this luminous painting? The jury is out. The film, based on a novel, describes a romantic encounter between the artist and a young maidservant. It’s quite likely, however, that the girl with the earring was Vermeer’s eldest daughter Maria (who was apparently his pupil, and who may have even been the creator of one or two works attributed to her father).
Be that as it may, the new exhibition will seek to throw a different light on Vermeer and his contemporaries. Apparently the Dutch Masters did engage in a bit of artistic plagiarism – or at the very least, they inspired each other from time to time. And we all know that, to this day, the art world is competitive, and it’s not such a bad thing. The exhibit will group some paintings together, to demonstrate these love/hate relationships among the Masters – each working in a different city but keeping an eye on each other’s output. There will be 10 of Vermeer’s works among the close to 70 in the exhibition.
Incidentally, one of Vermeer’s influences was the brilliant Carel Fabritius, who painted The Goldfinch – a work whose appeal is almost impossible to describe in words. Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt, died tragically young, when a gunpowder store exploded in Delft in 1654. Many of his works were probably also destroyed in the explosion. His small (13.2 by 9.0 inches) painting on board inspired a large (784-page) novel of the same name by one of my favourite writers, Donna Tartt. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. The painting is, in fact, one of the book’s main characters; and a film will be going into production next year. I wonder what Fabritius would make of all this…
Back to Johannes Vermeer. What is my favourite Vermeer painting? Well, I love them all really. The people, that is. They are each in his or her own little world, in the house, at the window, sitting at a desk, standing at a table. They are outwardly busy doing something, while I feel their minds are elsewhere.
Vermeer painted forty-two women. The Girl Interrupted in her Music gives the apparently unwanted visitor a cool stare, while a suitor hovers in the background. The Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid is another quiet moment in the house. I love the maid, in waiting pose, arms folded and gazing out through the stained glass window. The Woman Holding a Balance is warmly dressed, perfectly calm and pale, her thoughts drifting (the balance is, on closer inspection, apparently empty), while behind her a painting of The Last Judgment hangs on the wall. Remember, Vermeer was not only an artist, but also an art dealer; so his “paintings within paintings” are interesting, too. Among the men, The Geographer seems to have just had a sudden thought, glancing up from his map at the pale light floating through the leaded window. Perhaps it’s springtime, but it’s still chilly indoors.
Was there ever a portrait – or a self-portrait – of Vermeer? It seems not, although one or two paintings have been put forward as candidates. Disappointing, in a way, for a fan like me; but perhaps that would have spoiled things. I like Vermeer just the way he is, in my imagination. Even more so, I like the people he painted, seen through his eyes.
Do go and see the exhibition, if you are anywhere near it!