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Vermeer – light years ahead

A CLUSTER OF SMALL PAINTINGS FROM 17th CENTURY HOLLAND IS PULLING IN RECORD CROWDS AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY IN LONDON,WITH VISITORS EVEN CROSSING THE ATLANTIC FROM AMERICA HAVING FAILED TO GET IN TO THE FIRST SHOWING IN NEW YORK.

REVIEWED BY CORINNA LOTZ

JUST OVER FIVE YEARS AGO, a Vermeer exhibition, including many of the same works as this one, drew huge numbers to the Mauritshuis Gallery in the Hague and then to Washington. Why does Vermeer hold this unusual fascination for today’s art lovers?

In their own day, as the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, has noted, it was Rembrandt’s pupil, Carel Fabritius, who was considered the greatest of the constellation of painters working in Delft.

“Then for 200 years, de Hooch was the big star; in the whole 20th century, it was Vermeer,” MacGregor says. And now, it seems the 21st century will follow suit in its admiration for the short-lived artist of whom only 35 paintings survive.

The French critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger first focused international attention on the artist in 1866. He researched collections in Germany, Belgium and Austria. With Berlin museum director Gustav Waagen, he identified Vermeer’s hand in a number of key paintings.

The individual qualities of the artist could begin to be appreciated by more than a handful of connoisseurs as some of his works entered public collections in the last years of the 19th century. The new Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, one of the great paintings in the current show, in 1899.

Eventually, the first solo exhibition for Vermeer was held in Rotterdam in 1935, and his reputation has grown ever since. Thus, it is a combination of the detective efforts of critics, art historians and curators that has brought the identity of the artist to the fore.

In addition, the rise of a new way of viewing nature and changes in artistic style, which also marked the second half of the 19th century, were instrumental in enhancing an understanding the 17th century painter of Delft. Manet and the Impressionists shared Vermeer’s freshness, the feeling of well being and confidence, his elevation of daily life to high art. They took forward the observation of light effects with deft touches of coloured pigments.

There is a further connection between the Delft school and the 19th century advances in showing what was described as “nature’s pencil” – the way light “creates” the visual world. The Impressionists worked under the influence of early photography, just as the Delft school employed devices using optical lenses, like the camera obscura.

And so, today we see the artist’s jewel-like canvases, through eyes “schooled” by the colour and light of the Impressionists. We can appreciate their vibrancy, their reproduction of light at a time when high quality colour images, reproduced by laser scanners and digital technology bombard us every day through the media. But there is an added dimension here. He is not only a master of enchanting – almost hypnotic – plays of light and colour. What we see in Vermeer’s 13 canvases at the National Gallery are not simply ” impressions”.

Like the Impressionists, Vermeer captures the immediate. But he also evokes the mediated – the bright and diffuse fall of light on the body and surrounding objects in space, on the surface and into depth and the subtlest of transitions.

Vermeer’s personal style is inseparable from the social, scientific and political revolution of his time. It can be understood as a visual expression of a new philosophy, a new understanding of the material world. In addition, he studied and absorbed the innovations of southern Baroque artists like Caravaggio. Painters in the Protestant countries learnt a great deal from the art of the Counter Reformation in Italy.

At the National Gallery we can see Vermeer’s evolution from 1653, when he was 21, to 1670-1672, a few years before his untimely death at the age of 43. Three major early works are an eye-opener, so different are they from what to many seems Vermeer’s “usual” style. They seem closer to Poussin, Caravaggio and the Italian Baroque than any Dutch artist.

Diana and her Companions and Christ in the House of Mary and Martha show large figures, bathed in a golden light. One is religious, the other mythological. Contrasting themes, but both depict women engaged in contemplation. Sweeps of bold colour and composition combine with telling gestures to involve the viewer in the mood of the protagonists. In Diana and her Companions, the goddess of the hunt has her feet sponged by an attendant. Each of the five women, their faces in shadowy profile, seems absorbed in thought.

By 1658 Vermeer drops all references to religion and mythology. Within short three years, we move from the classical to the contemporary, from sacred to the profane. We are now firmly in the present. Instead of a literary reference, we witness a nodal moment in the life of a living person. The Procuress is set in a brothel. It is the moment when money changes hands. The client holds a gold coin above a smiling prostitute’s hand, the brothel keeper looks on. The only intimation of mortality is the ambiguous leer and dark “chador” of the procuress. The man on the left, possibly a self portrait, looks out at us, involving us in the event.

Vermeer:
The Procuress, 1656

Unlike his contemporaries, Vermeer minimises the sordid aspect of the transaction. A sense of mystery and contemplation, however, persist. Now they are embodied in images of contemporary life.

Vermeer was not the first to draw his subject matter from the life of ordinary people. Countless “genre” scenes of peasants or the middle classes, “merry companies” populate Dutch paintings from the time of Breughel in the 16th century.

The Dutch school pioneered scenes of low life, and later the domestic life of the middle classes in contrast to most of their counterparts in the Roman Catholic countries of Italy and Spain. Painters such as Ostade, Steen, Metsu, Ter Borch and de Hooch took peasant life, tavern scenes and drinking parties as their subjects.

But instead of showing groups of people, Vermeer zooms in on the complex connection between an individual and another. Sometimes he shows two people in a relationship.

He presents them engaged in intellectual, artistic or domestic labour, or courtship in iconic images. He encourages mediation on the emotions and thoughts of the men and women of his time.

Often he singles out a woman caught in a moment of action, set in a carefully delineated space. Pouring milk, playing a musical instrument, opening a letter acquire an astonishing intensity. His women are endowed with a richness of significance hitherto attached to goddesses or saints. Vermeer combines the here and now with an element of infinite mystery probably unprecedented in the history of art.

Vermeer: The Milkmaid, 1657-8

The Milkmaid, one of the most popular paintings of all time, is exceptional even within Vermeer’s own work by showing an ordinary servant woman alone at work rather than a lady of leisure. She, above all, symbolises a cultural revolution – what the poet Baudelaire two centuries later called “the heroism of modern life”.

We are presented with the mysticism of the ordinary, finding exquisite beauty in one person, one action and a few objects made by skilled craftspeople. A loaf of bread, an earthenware bowl, a woven basket, a luxurious carpet, a map caught in a silvery light. As H.W. Janson wrote in his History of Art: “We feel as if a veil had been pulled from our eyes; the everyday world shines with a jewel-like freshness.”

The milkmaid stands by herself, set into depth, with space flowing around her. The kitchen table is crowded with a basket of bread and crockery on the left; light from the window is balanced by the bare wall and tiled floor to the right.

The strong yellow of her bodice with its red stitching is heightened by the blue apron and upturned blue and green sleeves. The primary colours then sink into shadows which form a curved silhouette against the illuminated wall.

There is a simultaneous process of reduction and then re-synthesis whereby every object and colour is brought into play with every other. Each form, each touch of the brush plays its part, like an actor in a play. Vermeer focuses the eye on a few essentials, each concentrating thought and emotion. The intellectual stimulus seems to emanate from within the figure and her relationship to her surroundings rather than being artificially imposed by the artist.

It is a suspension in time when things are at a juncture: the milk flows from the jug. Is it about to run out? Who is it for? What lies beyond the window? We are invited to take part as privileged spectators in an intimate moment. Vermeer captures transitions, when things are in balance in the relationship of people and things. More questions than answers arouse the imagination.

Through his work, which is now nearly 350 years old, a 21st century person can explore the mysteries of human existence and study on the canvas itself a revolutionary moment in time.

In the ecstatic critical reaction to these works, the intellectual driving force has tended to remain hidden. We need to place Vermeer in the context, not simply of the diarists of the day, but the major ideological currents sweeping Europe in the 17th century.

Dutch painting celebrated the rise of a new class in history which was based on Protestantism. The burgher merchants waged war on the rule of Catholic Spain, which until 1574 controlled the Netherlands. In 1648, Spain was forced to recognise the United Netherlands at the Treaty of Munster.

The 1640s and 1650s – Vermeer’s formative years – were a convulsive revolutionary period, both in the Netherlands and across the Channel in England. In 1649, after seven years of civil war, Charles I was beheaded and England became a republic under the rule of Oliver Cromwell.

Protestantism challenged feudal religious and political dogmas while discoveries in science and technology and new philosophical outlooks transformed the way people understood the world. In England, Francis Bacon put forward a materialist view which saw matter in motion and as a combination of particles and nature as a combination of bodies endowed with manifold properties. In this early materialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels later wrote, “matter smiles at human beings, as a whole with poetical sensuous brightness”.

A new spirit of scientific discovery prevailed in the Netherlands as in England. Advances in astronomy assisted navigation to distant shores. Scientists and skilled craftspeople, especially painters used lenses to study and reproduce space throughout centres of artistic activity like Amsterdam and Delft.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, a fellow citizen of Delft, and the executor of Vermeer’s will, devised double-convex lenses held in position by brass plates – the first microscopes. With his instruments van Leeuwenhoek discovered the microstructures of biological life such as red corpuscles, protozoa and bacteria. Meanwhile in Amsterdam, Benedict de Spinoza was one of the illustrious group of philosophers of the day, who were mathematicians and scientists as well – men such as Leibniz, Hobbes and Descartes. Spinoza was born in the same year as Vermeer and outlived him by only two.

Spinoza was immersed in science and mathematics, believing that the latter was the means to discovering the truth about the universe. The most shocking aspect of his thought for his contemporaries was the philosopher’s identification of God with the physical universe. Spinoza’s search for truth involved a concept of substance as that which exists in itself and does not depend on anything external for its existence.

We do not know if Spinoza’s ideas were discussed in Delft. What we do know is that van Leeuvenhoek, who almost certainly knew Vermeer, lived in Amsterdam from 1648 to 1654. He returned to Delft in 1654 where he worked, like Vermeer’s father, in the textile business.

As a distinguished scientist and philosopher, Van Leeuvenhoek would have been aware of Spinoza’s free-thinking heresies, which came under severe fire in the late 1660s. Whether or not Vermeer knew about all this remains to be discovered. But he did make two images which show his admiration for the scientists of his time – The Astronomer and The Geographer, between 1668 and 1669, which sadly are not on view in the current show.

The climax of the exhibition leaves us surrounded by eight works from the last decade of Vermeer’s life. All of them are brilliant, but it is The Art of Painting which is truly exceptional. Here the painter marshals all his skills and knowledge and takes a leap into new territory, both in form and content.

Vermeer: The Art of Painting, 1666 -68

A richly woven curtain is swept to one side to reveal the painter in his studio. No paint flecked palettes or messy brushes here. All is serene as the elegant model stands dreamily holding a book and brass trumpet. A precious parchment map shows the coast of Holland. As in The Milkmaid, blue and yellow are contrasted to intensify each other, repeated in delicate touches throughout the canvas, enhanced by touches of red, orange and gold. We see the artist from the back as a black silhouette brightened by slashes of his white blouse and the dashes of his red stockings.

The austerity of northern Protestantism, the latest investigations into perspective and light blossom into a meditation on illusion and artifice and the role of painting in history, which astonishingly deploys the dramatic devices of the Roman Catholic Baroque.

Fabritius: A View in Delft, 1653

The new complexity of spatial effects and use of symbolic objects, the comment on the role of the painter himself brings to mind another contemporary of the Baroque period, Diego Velasquez. His Las Meninas, painted at the same time as The Milkmaid, elevates the artist’s profession to an equal among his royal patrons. As in Velasquez, there is a controlled passion as the eye roams through those elusive depths and spaces, the interaction of empty and filled volumes, contours of dark and light, to emphasise interval and interaction, movement and tension, the contrast between optical illusion and reality.

Vermeer explores new areas of perception – both visually and emotionally. He gives form to human emotions and interactions – caught at a significant moment in time. He encourages the eye to navigate a specially-designed intellectual journey while at the same time revelling in pure painterly delight.

Vermeer and the Delft School, National Gallery until Sept 16. Open 10am-6pm (9pm Wed, Sat, Sun) price £8, £6 concessions, £4 students and 12-18 year olds. Advance tickets by post or in person, telephone 020 7747 2885.
Email: information@ng-london.org.uk www.nationalgallery.org.uk

This article first appeared in Socialist Future