08 December 2012

Johannes Vermeer and the Golden Age of Dutch Art

Johannes Vermeer and the Golden Age of Dutch Art is an exhibition showing in the Scuderie del Quirinale Rome until January 2013. It is displaying eight works by Vermeer (includ­ing The Girl with a Glass of Wine, Little Street, Woman with a Lute, Girl with a Red Hat and A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals), alongside the works of other C17th Dutch genre artists.

In April 1653 the Protestant artist Johannes Vermeer married a Catholic woman, Catharina Bolnes, in a Catholic ceremony near Delft. His mother-in-law, Maria Thins, had the house and income that Vermeer later requir­ed, so it seems likely that it was the mother-in-law who insisted Vermeer convert to Catholicism before the marriage went ahead.

Vermeer, Girl with a red hat, 
23 × 18 cm, 1665-6. 
The painting belongs to the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Johannes Vermeer struggled financially. The young couple probably lived with Vermeer's own family in the large inn, Mechelen, bought by Vermeer's fath­er. The artist supported himself from the sale of his own pain­t­ings and by working as an art dealer. But he also supported him­self by working as an innkeeper. Alas his paintings never realised the growing prices that artists in Amsterdam were re­­­ceiving, and finan­cial troubles were constant.

When the art deal­ing business went bad for Vermeer, he and his growing family left the Mechelen inn in 1672, to move in with the mother-in-law Maria Thins in Amsterdam.

So what gave Vermeer his passion for painting the small scale, domestic, non-wealthy? There were at least 2 options: a] he was only converted to Catholicism and never truly absorbed its values of grandeur, muscular Christianity and glorious history-telling. Or b] that Vermeer struggled all his life like other working families in the Netherlands, giving him an insight into the modest and the domestic.

In any case, Vermeer was not alone. As a painting type in its own right, not as a prop for portraiture or rel­igious themes, there was no nation as interested in domestic genre scenes as the post-Reform­ation Dut­ch. The Dutch middle class wan­ted small, realistic im­ages of their own life to hang on their walls, im­ag­es where ed­uc­at­ion, explor­at­ion, science, busin­ess and Prot­es­tant vir­tues were honour­ed.

The Cal­v­in­ist state relig­ion tolerated no pap­ist superstition in art, pub­lic or priv­ate. There was some­thing about bourgeois Pr­o­t­estant Holland that pro­moted this celebrat­ion of domestic virt­ues: order­li­ness, cl­ean­liness, piety, the proper care of servants, thrift and the proper educat­ion of child­ren.

Vermeer, Woman with a lute near a window, 
51 × 46 cm, 1662-3. 
The painting belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The Dutch rais­ed domestic genre scenes to a very fine art form, and made it their own. Often the canvases were small and jewel like, emphasising the smallness and quietness of the theme. The finest Dutch artists of the 1650s and 1660s often can­not be dist­ing­uished from Ver­meer, at least by the subject mat­t­er.

Christopher Allen called Vermeer the sublime poet of the banal, whose reticent mystery was only possible in the smaller, more private milieu that he inhabited (not in Italy). It was an act of revelation through which the artist teaches us how to apprehend the world more vividly by abating the will and attending to something outside ourselves.

I did not agree with Christopher Allen at all, until he started discussing Vermeer’s subjects who were always focused, either in concentration on a task or in waiting for someone. That is why, Allen said, Vermeer usually painted women - women were attentive and receptive; men were wilful and engaged in action.

Although Vermeer died in poverty in 1675, his popularity seems to have no limits now. Vermeer and Music: Love and Leisure in the Dutch Golden Age will commence at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gall­ery of Art London in June 2013. According to the National Gal­lery, this exhibition will enhance viewers’ appreciation of beautif­ul, evocative paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries, by juxtap­osing them with musical instruments and songbooks of the period. Vis­itors will be able to compare C17th virginals, guitars, lutes and ot­h­er instruments with the painted images, to judge the ac­curacy of representation and to assess the liberties the painter might have taken to enhance the visual or symbolic appeal of his work.

Vermeer, Girl with a wine glass,
78 × 67 cm, 1659-60.
The painting belongs to the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig.


Deb said...

Vermeer and his wife had 15 live births, not nearly enough income and had to live off the mother in law's charity. No wonder his works were full of quiet concentration on a task or quiet waiting.

Karen Albert said...

Hels, Vermeer's life is so interesting. Did you read The Girl with the Pearl Earring?

My favorite you have shown is The girl with the Wine Glass; the color is so saturated!I would love to see the exhibit...

Art by Karena

Hels said...

15 live births! Poor Catharina. So perhaps the focus on the modest and the domestic was about struggle, as much as it was about respectability.

Hels said...


I did read the Tracy Chevalier novel, soon after I read Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach. I don't normally recommend non-fiction to students, but I did for these two books. Not for their contribution to art history, but because of the atmosphere of an urban Protestant population who had struggled mightily for their independence. Wonderful!

I really hope you can get to the current exhibition in Rome or the 2013 exhibition in London.

anonymous said...

эту тему уже поднимали не раз и насколько я понимаю, что так будет лучше

This topic has already been raised more than once and it is my understanding that this is better.

Hels said...

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My knowledge of Russian is sadly limited to entrees, mains and desserts. I hope proper Russian readers can follow your url.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I think that the qualities that you have highlighted here also help to explain the prominence of Dutch artists in still-life painting, which are also small in scale, private, and passive in spite of their vivid symbolism.

Hels said...


couldn't agree more... I am besotted with mid-17th century Dutch paintings, be they portraits, genre scenes or still lifes. Small scale and private qualities do not detract from their power... in fact they may add to it.

I love Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou and Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam who painted scenes looking into shop windows. Only the Dutch would find that exciting :)

The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace said...

The Dutch artists of the 17th century painted ordinary people doing everyday things, in village taverns and peasant cottages, and the quiet domesticity of courtyards and parlours.

While the subject­-matter may be ordinary – the preparation of food, eating and drinking, the enjoyment of music or a family game – the painting is rich and jewel-like. The meticulously documented details often allude to a work's deeper meaning or to moral messages that would have been familiar to the contemporary viewer.

Presenting 27 masterpieces from the Royal Collection, the exhibition includes works by Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, and Johannes Vermeer. From March 4th 2016, this exhibition will move to Holyroodhouse Edinburgh until the end of July 2016.

Hels said...

Queen's Gallery

great idea for an exhibition - the idea of ordinary people doing everyday things is appealing. Of all the genre paintings, I particularly admire those with a view into an open Dutch house or shop window, as if the viewer is peering in from the street in front. We can always seen one or two figures, going about the routine tasks of selecting their fruit or meat, or polishing the silver. Gerrit Dou was a master.

The catalogue is, as ever, very well done.