Vermeer tapped the same sources as his contemporaries, but his work had hidden depths
Infinite depth: “Woman with a Balance”, c.1663-4, by Johannes Vermeer (Widener Collection. courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington )
That Vermeer is a special painter was attested to in February by the 9,000 people who queued outside the Louvre on the opening morning of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting. And to see what? Genre painting, that particularly Dutch 17th-century form which was Vermeer’s preserve, is about the quotidian domestic world, one without overt drama or the ennobling stamps of classicism or history.
One assumes those thousands of visitors were not impatient to see works by the likes of Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris: the draw was the Sphinx of Delft, as the 19th-century critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger — the man who rediscovered him after two centuries of neglect — dubbed him. The exhibition stops next at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin (June 17-September 17) and includes, among the 60 exhibits, 10 paintings by Vermeer — almost a third of his surviving output and the largest gathering of his works for 16 years. The exhibition also marks the gallery’s relaunch after six years of refurbishments.
This is not the first show to put Vermeer in the company of his peers but this one concentrates on the period 1650-1675 and shows how painters from the Netherlands’ seven republics worked in an atmosphere of mutual admiration and competition. The time span covers the whole of Vermeer’s working life: he joined the painters’ guild, the Guild of St Luke (fellow members were Carl Fabritius and Pieter de Hooch), in 1653 and died in 1675 aged only 43, impoverished and leaving a wife and 11 children.
The problem with putting Vermeer at the heart of a network of painters is that almost nothing is known of his personality and the details of his life are fragmentary. Money, however, seems to have been a constant source of worry and the legal paper trail shows him borrowing large sums. A lack of success in establishing a good market for his works in his hometown of Delft led him to look to the work of the hugely successful Gerrit Dou in Leiden. Dou was a fijnschilder — “fine painter” — one of a group of artists including Gabriel Metsu and Frans van Mieris who produced refined and detailed pictures of maids at work, music playing, young women reading letters and the like.
This exhibition works in two ways: it shows how Vermeer knocks all his peers into a cocked hat but also that without his presence they would be more universally acknowledged as far greater talents in their own right. It is the presence of Vermeer that clouds the judgment.
Around 1664, for example, Vermeer painted a young woman standing by a window and holding a balance and a year later Pieter de Hooch painted an almost identical picture of a woman weighing coins — both wearing blue jackets with fur trim and with their heads covered. De Hooch’s is an accomplished painting, full of delicate light, colour and beautifully rendered details. It carries, too, a palpable sense of calm as the woman goes about the task of carefully measuring her wealth. Vermeer’s painting, though, is that much deeper: the lighting more subtle and more diffused, the woman’s face suggests more of an interior life. Behind her is a painting of the Last Judgment, while pearls spill out of a jewel box on the table in front of her: it is a contrast that makes it clear that it in this everyday and unremarkable action there is something infinitely more profound — it is the young woman’s soul that is in the balance.
This qualitative step-change is inescapable. While the likes of Gerard ter Borch, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Nicolaes Maes show interior scenes, Vermeer shows the interior life within those interiors. Vermeer in this company was not an original painter — the shared subjects are everywhere, from lutes being played and food being prepared to tiled floors giving a satisfying perspective and windows flickering sunlight on to dun walls — just that he made the subjects reveal unexpected depths.
Other artists, though, did things he didn’t. Men are rare in his paintings while children — despite the fact that he had so many — don’t appear at all. Comedic bawdiness makes only one partial and equivocal appearance in his work (The Procuress, 1656), whereas it is the very purpose of Jan Steen’s Itinerant Musicians and Frans van Mieris’s joyous scene of seduction, The Oyster Meal. Mieris’s A Doctor’s Visit, a popular topic, is just as light-hearted despite its subject. The young female patient is afflicted, as the physician taking her pulse discovers, by nothing more dangerous than lovesickness. Vermeer never went in for this sort of storytelling; his human interactions are always more subtle. He invited the viewer to contemplate rather than smile.
Vermeer’s gravitas may be one reason that in his own time he was far from being the most celebrated artist in the Netherlands. There were patrons, however, who did recognise his gifts, among them a master baker, a cooper and innkeeper, bankers, financiers, and a Hague-based English sculptor, Jean Larson. The most important collector of his work was Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, a brewery magnate who might have owned up to 21 of his paintings.
These collectors were not enough. Vermeer’s widow later wrote a petition to her creditors which described his end: “During the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in.” The painter was left so anxious that “in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead”.
There is a missing self-portrait, last recorded in Amsterdam in 1696, and if only it were to surface the face of this miraculous painter would still be as alive as those of all those anonymous young women he painted so tenderly.