Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

Vermeer: The Astronomer

Inspiration and Rivalry

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 22 February-22 May 2017)

Vermeer is one of the few artists whose mere name can prompt a stampede. Nowadays he’s seen as a kind of lone genius, but this show restores him to the context of his age, showing him exchanging ideas and themes with his peers. It has proven to be one of the most popular exhibitions in the Louvre’s history, forcing the museum to introduce timed entry and forcing visitors to book in advance. Tickets cover both this and the Valentin de Boulogne exhibition and, though my heart lies with Valentin, I found myself captivated by these jewel-like pictures of the Dutch Golden Age.

The exhibition is thematically arranged, which makes perfect sense for two reasons: first, these artists were all working at much the same time, so nothing is to be gained from showing them chronologically; and, secondly, it’s fascinating to see a group of pictures on the same theme side by side, because you realise how artists borrowed motifs and even compositions from one another, riffing on a particular theme in a variety of ways.

We begin with a juxtaposition of only two works: ‘Balances’. Vermeer’s Woman holding a balance hangs beside Pieter de Hooch’s picture of the same subject from Berlin, both painted around 1664. Which came first? The exhibition suggests that Vermeer painted his in direct response to that of his older colleague. In both paintings, the lady stands facing towards a window on the left-hand side, weighing jewels or gold, wearing a linen coif, a blue jacket trimmed with white fur and a red underskirt. Yet they are very different in spirit. The comparison shows just how good Vermeer was: his scene is delicately lit from a window that’s almost hidden by the heavy dark frame (of a mirror?) hanging in front of it. The light in de Hooch’s picture is too heavily yellow, too laboured in comparison. And, in the de Hooch, we see a doorway behind the lady, leading off into another part of her house. Vermeer adapts this, adding another layer to his picture with the addition of a painting, half obscured by the lady’s head, showing The Last Judgement. Suddenly a simple genre scene becomes a meditation on morality. Why spend your time weighing your worldly goods when all men will be rendered equal under the eye of God?

Vermeer: A Woman Holding a Balance

Johannes Vermeer, A Woman holding a Balance, 1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington

This pairing sets out the mission of the exhibition, in a sense, and from then on we romp through a series of groups which illuminate the fact that no man is an island – no, not even the gifted Vermeer, to whom our age has given a status not far off that of Leonardo. And, in my eyes, Vermeer doesn’t even always come out on top. Look at the group of Love Letters, for example. In The Letter, from the National Gallery of Ireland, Vermeer’s lady hunches over her writing desk, while her maid gazes out of the window. To my eyes the contours seem hard and heavy, lacking the grace he sometimes has. Perhaps this testifies to restoration, I don’t know. But in this group I was attracted by a pair of pictures by Gabriel Metsu (both also from Dublin), surely intended as pendants, telling two parts of a story. First I saw the Young woman reading a letter, and wondered whether it had allegorical undertones about a lack of diligence. The lady has given up her lacemaking in order to read a secret letter, while her maid, bucket on arm, takes the chance to peek at the painting under a green curtain. A thimble is discarded halfway across the floor.

But the second painting in the pair was more wonderful: the Young man writing a letter. The light here is absolutely ravishing and it proves (as do so many Dutch paintings) that there are actually different colours of black. Look at the variety of shades here: the hat ribbons; the hat itself; the velvety outer fabric of the doublet, compared to the folded-back cotton lining visible on the sleeve. And the detail is lovely, from the youth’s angelic countenance to the wrinkles in his hose. Gorgeous. Another, slightly less charming storyline is offered by Gerard ter Borch in his Officer writing a letter (from Philadelphia) and A woman sealing a letter (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Here there seems no doubt that the two were pendants: both figures are seated, accompanied by standing attendants and dogs.

Metsu: Young man writing a Letter

Gabriel Metsu, A Young Man writing a Letter, 1664-6, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

From Love Letters, we move on to Letter Writers, pictures of lone women writing (maybe they were originally also meant to have pendants?). Here, I grant you, Vermeer triumphs. There’s a very pretty ter Borch from the Mauritshuis, quiet and delicate and unshowy, but Vermeer’s Interrupted Letter from Washington has undeniable appeal. For once his lady looks straight out at us, distracted at her desk, her face set off by the ermine fur on her jacket and the white ribbons in her hair. I find her expression particularly engaging: calm, faintly amused, indulgent. You don’t get the feeling that this lady has been startled by her husband while writing to a secret lover. Perhaps she’s totting up accounts or writing to the butcher. She has a dignified poise that seems to dismiss the possibility of shenanigans.

From there we move on to Ladies at the Mirror and then to Importunate Visits of varying kinds, where the standout piece is Gabriel Metsu’s Man visiting a woman from Waddesdon Manor. The lady’s (presumably feigned) air of indifference to the gentleman who’s just burst into her room is beautifully done, and every inch of her costume is painted with exquisite care, from the tucked-back cloth of her cap to her sumptuous white satin skirt. From here, we move on to the likely consequences of such a visit: a section tantalisingly named Aphrodisiacs, in which we witness ladies being plied with drink and oysters by disingenuous gentlemen. Here my favourite was Gerard ter Borch’s Gentleman encouraging a lady to drink from the Royal Collection, in which the long, narrow glass is a superb piece of still-life painting, and the lady’s delicate golden ringlets escape tellingly from her modest coif. The gentleman himself, sadly, isn’t quite as inspired.

Netscher: Lady with a Parrot

Caspar Netscher, Lady feeding a Parrot, 1666, National Gallery of Art, Washington (detail)

The prize for best section title is, however, hard fought because we move from Aphrodisiacs to Parrots, which I certainly didn’t seem coming. Here we see various well-born ladies with their feathered friends, but neither of the offerings by Dou or van Mieris can hold a candle to Casper Netscher’s perky, cheeky Woman feeding a parrot from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (Interestingly, this is a very recent acquisition, having been purchased by the NGA only in 2016.) The parrot is very well painted, as is the Turkey carpet thrown nonchalantly over the sill of the fictive window, but the real highlight of the picture is the girl’s face: sharp, playful, inquisitive and fully aware of her own desirability. She looks so real compared to the round-faced, identikit women in the rest of the exhibition. Surely she’s a portrait?

Dutch genre painting is full of music, as you may remember from the National Gallery’s Vermeer and Music show back in 2013, where several of the pictures shown here were also on display. The charming French title for this section is ‘Cordes Sensibles’, which covers lute, harpischords and all manner of musical dalliance. Despite the Vermeers on offer, my attention was drawn by the more courtly scenes of Netscher – all satin, ruffles and ribbons in his picture from Dresden – and van Mieris, whose Duet from Schwerin goes all out, including a lute, harpsichord and a parrot for good measure, not to mention the glorious salmon-pink satin of his lady’s skirt. The hang also cleverly emphasised the way in which Vermeer borrowed, for his Lady at a virginal (c.1671-4, National Gallery, London) from Gerrit Dou’s Lady at the Clavichord (c1665, Dulwich Picture Gallery). Vermeer brings us closer to the musician, so that we’re no longer invading the girl’s privacy, as in the Dou, but part of her private world. Her glance at us suggests that her music is for our ears alone, a charged promise made explicit by the picture of a Procuress hanging behind her.

Vermeer: Young Woman at a Virginal

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman at a Virginal, c.1671-4, National Gallery, London (detail)

From here, the exhibition presents a series of small sections on more minor themes: The Doctor’s Visit; The Sleeping Soldier (whose sweetheart is about to tickle him with a stalk); and then an odd trio of paintings, whose common theme seems to be Intrusion. In two cases, we are placed in the explicit position of eavesdroppers: in Jan Steen’s Lady at her Toilette (1663, Royal Collection), we peer through a grand archway at a woman undressing, slipping her stocking down her leg and staring back at us, disconcertingly boldly. By contrast, in Pieter de Hooch’s Couple with a Parrot (c1675-8, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), the objects of our gaze don’t notice us. We watch them companionably feeding their pet bird, while we seem to be hiding in a store-cupboard, our view framed by a broom and bucket. Perhaps we’re cast in the place of this contented couple’s servant? But the last of the pictures is more enigmatic and far more appealing.

This is Samuel van Hoogstraten’s View of an Interior (c1655-62, Louvre), nicknamed ‘Les Pantoufles’ for the pair of slippers cavalierly abandoned in the middle of the floor. The wonderful thing about this picture is that there are no figures in it at all. We peer into a beautifully-rendered empty house, the sun glowing on the red floor tiles and a bunch of keys hanging from the furthest door, elegantly silhouetted in contre-jour. Perhaps the most curious thing, though, is that van Hoogstraten has furnished his house with a painting by Ter Borch, seen on the far wall: a lady in a white silk dress trimmed with black, standing in a red-draped bedchamber. It’s almost exactly the same as the Ter Borch picture now in Dresden, though van Hoogstraten’s version includes a page boy whose place is blank in Dresden. I just love the feel of this picture: the sense that, seeing it at the end of a hallway, you’d be entirely convinced that it led on into another part of the house. Perhaps I love it so much because it reminds me of a very similar type of Hoogstraten at Dyrham Park, a National Trust house that we went to many times when I was growing up: a picture that offered me my first experience of trompe l’oeil.

Vermeer: Astronomer

Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668, Louvre, Paris (detail)

Until this point in the show, I’d felt that Vermeer’s contemporaries were holding up very well against the great master. But the Louvre had saved the four best paintings until last. The highlight of the show, for me, was to see the Louvre’s Astronomer and the Frankfurt Geographer hanging side by side. The juxtaposition extinguished any doubt of their being pendants: they’re the same size; the sitter is clearly the same man, wearing the same blue robe; and his office is the same. In The Geographer, you can even see the star-globe from The Astronomer stowed away on top of the cupboard. The only thing that differs are the paintings hanging on the scholar’s wall in each picture. I was amused by the information panel, which raised the question of why both scholars were working in daylight. The curators compared them to Gerrit Dou’s neighbouring Astronomer (c1660, Getty), who works in the dark of superstition, only one step removed from a Doctor Dee or an alchemist. Vermeer’s scholars are men of the new age of rationality and enlightenment and so they work in the clear, honest light of day. It’s an appealing reading.

And then there are the ladies: Vermeer’s Lacemaker (c1670-71), who has been brought downstairs from her usual place up in the main Louvre, to hang alongside the Milkmaid (c.1658-9) from the Rijksmuseum. The pictures aren’t pendants – they were painted ten years apart – but they share a peaceful interiority. The women are of different classes, but both are lost in daydreams or memory as they work, one tatting her lace and the other watching cool milk stream from her jug. The similar spirit of the pictures is underlined by their shared palette of cream, blue and yellow, although there are interesting differences in style: the early Milkmaid is painted with a striking, robust confidence which becomes smoother and more refined in the later Lacemaker.

Yes, I can understand the phenomenal demand for exhibition tickets. And yes, I recommend it, though if you go I beg you to spend an equal amount of time with Valentin next door. As will become clear as I write up more of my exhibition visits, Vermeer is only one of a whole raft of Dutch shows in Paris at the moment, and if you’re interested in Golden-Age works then you owe it to yourself to get over there pronto. However, all is not lost if you can’t get to Paris, because there’ll be other opportunities to see this particular show. From June until September 2017 it’ll be at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and afterwards it heads over to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

If either of those venues is convenient for you, do take the opportunity. The show brings out the links, contrasts and connections between these remarkable artists in a way that a book can never do. However, if you are limited to a book, the exhibition catalogue is available in both French and English editions (though be aware the English version is intended for the show’s Washington incarnation and appears to have some minor differences to the exhibition as it was displayed in Paris).

Buy the catalogue

Vermeer: Lacemaker

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, c.1670-71, Louvre, Paris (detail)

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