Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 13 April 2020
Johannes Vermeer Paintings (1632-1675)
In my last article International Peasant Foods, I spoke of a trip from Canada down through Mexico and South America, which included two-and-a half weeks in New York. From this article and the one on Winnipeg food you may have gathered that I was a conventional soul. It therefore should come as no surprise that the first old master I fell in love with instantly I saw the real paintings was Johannes or Jan Vermeer.
In New York I was fortunate to see and admire three Johannes Vermeer paintings at the Frick Museum and five at the Met. All profoundly wonderful. Eight Vermeer paintings represents about one fifth of the Vermeers in existence.
After I left South Africa, I spent two weeks with my girl friend’s brother in the Hague and a few days more in Amsterdam. My first view of the Girl with a Pearl Earring c. 1665 at the Mauritshuis was gobsmacking. I had a similar feeling because I wasn’t expecting it when I first saw the large Art of Painting 1666-68 at the Kunst Historische in Vienna. I viewed Art of Painting several times on that trip and spent at least an hour on two occasions contemplating it. I’ve done the same thing with Girl with a Pearl Earring.
The Mauritshuis in the Hague and the Riksmuseum, Amsterdam added another seven Vermeer paintings to my viewing tally making fifteen and I saw two more in London at the National Gallery and two at the Louvre in Paris which made up nineteen or 51% of the total Vermeers in the world (37, including three disputed ones). All this by 1975 was more by luck than intent. But I have never lost my admiration for Vermeer as a painter.
Many years later I’ve raised my tally to 76% or three quarters. None of this has been by major intent and some of it has been by accident. I am not a twitcher (a term for ticking off bird species) and I am always happy to see Vermeer paintings over and over again because each is a rare occasion. I never tire of them. Each viewing is through the same naïve eyes as my first impression of Vermeer in New York.
I have added to my tally with trips to Dublin, Vienna and Berlin. Denise and I were also quite fortunate to view Italy’s first Vermeer exhibition Johannes Vermeer and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. We stumbled upon it at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome in October 2012. It was open in the evening and there were hardly any other visitors. The exhibition had eight Vermeer paintings, several marvellous and two disputed ones.
I have shamelessly referenced other painters in my own art because of a joy in art. In particular, I have used Hieronymus Bosch, Italian Renaissance artists and MC Escher among many others in my art making. I haven’t used Johannes Vermeer in the same way, but his art does perhaps indirectly underlie some of my main ideas in making art.
I love world art from all eras, but it is only Vermeer and my excitement at walking into the Jeu de Paume (tennis courts) on my first trip to Paris and viewing the wonders of impressionism that have made the earth move. It took me years to forgive the French for moving these works to the Musée d’Orsay.
Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632. He painted 45 to 60 paintings between 1653 and 1675 or just two to three a year. He was the second child and first son of his parents. His father Reynier Jansz. Vos used the Vermeer name for the first time in 1640. His father was initially a silk worker, who later was an art dealer (registered with the Guild of St Luke). He ran an inn on the Voldersgracht (the key canal in the centre of Delft) and later having prospered bought a large 16th century house in 1641 with an adjacent inn called ‘Mechelin’ in the Delft’s main square.
He died in 1642 and the business was taken over by Johannes. In April 1653 Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, a Catholic and he converted to Catholicism. Although Catholicism was a minority religion, the Netherlands being firmly Calvinist, it did not seem to impede Vermeer in Delft. He became a member of the painter’s Guild of St Luke in December 1553 and was elected head of the guild in 1662-1663 aged only thirty. In 1672 he was again elected head of the guild for a second term.
The death of the stadhouder (provinicial governor) in 1647 and of his son William II of Orange in 1650 led to a decline in the influence of The Hague over Delft and seemingly to an increase in the activity of painters in Delft.
In 1660 Vermeer, his wife and mother-in-law moved from the centre of Delft to Oude Langendijk not far away (part of the Catholic enclave or ‘Popes Corner’). Although the Catholic churches were ransacked in 1666 and converted to Calvinist places of worship and Catholicism prohibited, wealthy Catholics were still present in the country as a whole and in Delft. Delft’s Catholics held their masses in a house overlooking Oude Langendijk and this was known about in the Delft community.
Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins was independently wealthy and loaned the young couple money on various occasions. Much has been made of Vermeer’s modest means of income and his debts, but the evidence is too scanty to demonstrate this and his debts may have had to do with art dealing.
Irene Netta a Vermeer scholar says following the death of William II in 1650 that rule fell to the patrician classes:
Under Johan de Witt, the acting head of government, a long period of stable internal politics and great economic success followed from 1653 to 1672 — coincidentally Vermeer’s main creative phase. With the Dutch East India Company and possessions in Africa and the Americas, the United Provinces became Europe’s leading trading and sea power for a time with a fleet larger than England’s. It is in this context that the Dutch talk of a ‘Golden Age’.
When France invaded the Dutch Republic in 1672, the Dutch economy collapsed, badly affecting Vermeer and his family. When Vermeer died in 1675 he did leave his wife and a large number of children in debt. Nevertheless, Catharina did not appear to have great difficulty in clearing these debts by judicious sale of goods and in selling of some of his paintings.
Vermeer’s painting style was partly isolated from other influences. Though he appears to have been influenced by a few local painters and perhaps by Caravaggio through the Caravaggisti in Utrecht. His work also appears detached from the hustle and bustle of life in Delft. His interior studies convey a peaceful solitude. An in depth-look at his painting style, however, yields incredible technique in the details and he was a master of light, perhaps through experimentation with a camera obscura.
The Rediscovery of Vermeer
After his death Vermeer was almost immediately disregarded and overlooked by art historians for two centuries. Caravaggio, though more famous than Vermeer in his lifetime, followed a similar career trajectory because of demolition-jobs by a rival painter and a 17th century critic who relied on this. Caravaggio wasn’t recognised again as a major Italian Renaissance painter until the 1920s.
Vermeer was rediscovered predominantly through the work of Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré-Bürger who saw the View of Delft in the Mauritshuis in the Hague in 1842. Théophile Thoré-Bürger was a French scholar, collector and art critic. He went into exile from Paris to Brussels because of some involvement in the revolution of 1848. While in exile, he researched Vermeer intensively and made it his task to reveal Vermeer to the world. He produced a catalogue of Vermeer’s works published in 1866, which included more than 70 works, including many that he regarded as uncertain. Today the accepted number is 34 and three disputed works making 37.
Comments on Individual Paintings
(These aren’t my assessments but rely on the resources cited below.)
Four of Vermeer’s paintings are larger than others, as is the questionable Saint Praxedes. The larger paintings are Christ in the House of Martha & Mary, The Procuress, View of Delft, the Art of Painting and Allegory of Faith. All Vermeer’s paintings are oil on canvas, except for Girl in a Red Hat and Girl with a Flute (only attributed to Vermeer) which are oil on panel.
The names of some paintings have changed slightly over the years.
Girl with a Pearl Earring c. 1665
This painting is the most famous work by Vermeer and is almost as well-known as the Mona Lisa. The painting is thought not to be a portrait, but a tronie. A tronie is a representation of a character or type of person, rather than a real person. As she turns towards us, a moment is frozen that is both alluring and intimate, she seems to capture our gaze. As with all of Vermeer’s best work, it is the quality of the light that also captivates.
The Glass of Wine 1658-60
Unlike other examples of 17th century Dutch genre paintings, which are often unsubtle and raucous, Vermeer’s paintings are more peaceful. They pose riddles and suggest narratives. What is the relationship between the man and the woman? Is he impatient to pour her another glass of wine? Does he want to get her drunk? Or, is there something else going on.
Similarly, the light, the repetition of squares, the apparent haphazard arrangement of objects manipulates our senses and suggests a contradictory mix of harmony and disharmony.
Other Interior Paintings
The other interior paintings capture other potential narratives. The clothes are richly portrayed. There are exotic and ornate table coverings. Tapestries introduce us into rooms. Checkered floors play with perspective.
The Little Street c. 1658 and View of Delft 1660-61
The Little Street is an apparently straightforward realistic scene but with many hidden depths. The depiction of the surfaces is made with a limited number of pigments. There is much more to the painting than is apparent at a first perusal.
The View of Delft is even more complex. The view is from the south with the sun apparently coming from the east. But, the shadows on the harbour are not quite right for this. They are mainly grey and do not reflect colours much. The storm clouds hint at responsibility for the grey shadows but are insufficient. X-rays show that Vermeer originally intended the shadows to be shorter. Pointillist highlights give richness to the vision of the city, as do intricate highlights. Nothing is accidental. This is a very sophisticated painting by a mature artist.
Irene Netta cited below takes eighteen pages to describe the painting in detail.
These are the only two exterior views in Delft, another of a house has been lost.
Key Words: Vermeer, Dutch Masters, Delft, Art of Painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Little Street, View of Delft, Glass of Wine, Allegory of Faith, St Praxedes, Christ in the House of Martha & Mary, The Procuress, View of Delft, Girl in a Red Hat, Girl with a Flute, Frick Museum, the Met, Mauritshuis, Rijksmuseum, National Gallery London, the Louvre, Scuderie del Quirinale Rome, Théophile Thoré-Bürger
It is frequently difficult to get good images of art on the Internet. In this instance it was made easy first by the excellent resource of the Essential Vermeer site and then by the generosity of the major museums in providing downloads. Wikimedia and the Google Art Project need also to be commended. Where the museums alone are mentioned they are the image provider. The Wikimedia and Google images are also obvious. I only provided the featured image at the beginning from an old image I had.
The Rome Exhibition 2012
Johannes Vermeer and the Golden Age of Dutch Art Exhibition in Rome, October 2012 to January 2013.
The Vermeer paintings in the exhibition were: Little Street, Girl with the Wineglass, Girl with a Red Hat, Woman with a Lute, A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, A young Woman Standing at a Virginal, Allegory of Faith and St Praxedes.
The exhibition for the first time for me put Vermeer in his genre with contemporary painters in or who visited Delft.
Accompanying Vermeer’s masterpiece The Little Street were Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet (1611 or 1612-1675), Emanuel de Witte (1617-1692) and others which took us on a tour of Delft. There was the famous painting by Egbert van der Poel (1621-1664) of the most dramatic event of the era. The explosion in 1654 of the national powder magazine in Delft devastated part of the city and killed Egbert’s daughter as well as the artist Carel Fabritius (1622-1654).
In another room were a superb array of genre pieces by Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) and Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681).
The exhibition for me put Vermeer in context with other artists of his time. In my book on artists and their influences only Carel Fabritius and Pieter de Hooch are listed as influencers of Vermeer, also the Utrecht Caravaggisti, the camera obscura and Dutch optics are mentioned.
A complete catalogue of Vermeer exhibitions, including Rome 2012 with a list of the Vermeer paintings in each is provided by the Essential Vermeer site.
The New York Times provides an exhibition review of Rome 2012.
Piero Bianconi The Complete Paintings of Vermeer 1967 was my first Vermeer guide and is still a worthy reference.
Irene Netta Vermeer’s World (Prestel Series) 2004 is a worthy successor, which Denise bought at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a worthy successor. As well as excellent prints of all the paintings, the text is clear and definitive. Netta’s eighteen page text description of View of Delft is masterful.
David Gariff The world’s most influential painters and the artists they inspired 2008 is also useful.
The Essential Vermeer Site is the most useful Vermeer site I’ve found on the web. It provides a wealth of detailed information that is not available elsewhere. The headings listed on the main page are so extensive as to be daunting.
Useful Categories on the Essential Vermeer main page are:
Complete List of Paintings
Vermeer Paintings and their size is a visual guide to their size in frame.
Slide Viewer of Vermeer‘s paintings
Wikipedia on Vermeer
Wikipedia’s page on Vermeer is useful.
Wikipedia also gives a complete list of the paintings as does Irene Netta in Vermeer’s World 2004.
Etienne Joseph Théophile Thoré-Bürger
Wikipedia provides information on Théophile Thoré-Bürger
As does Google on Théophile Thoré-Bürger
The Khan Academy
The Khan Academy, a useful education site, has four short videos on Vermeer paintings. These are:
1 The Art of Painting (4 min 55)
2 The Glass of Wine (4 min 16)
3 Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (4 min 48)
4 Woman Holding a Balance (5 min 31)