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Vermeer's Painting in the Context of the Dutch Golden Age of Painting

(part three)

Vermeer's Subject Matter

Vermeer's choice of subject matter was of capital importance to his concept of art. No matter how masterfully his works are depicted, it would be incorrect to assume that he painted for the sake of painting and that subject matter was secondary to aesthetics. His range of subjects, although not large, provided a reservoir of images that permitted him to reach deep and experiment with universal emotions. His paintings are arresting for their lack of clear-cut narrative, for their externalization of seemingly inconsequential moments.Wayne Franits, Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 4.

Not a single still life, nude, oil study, finished or preparatory drawing, copy, etching or engraving by Vermeer has survived. All 36 (?) surviving paintings must be considered finished works, executed according to the high standards set by the artist, except perhaps, for the four heads (tronien) whose degree of finish, although aesthetically effective, is more abbreviated compared to those of the interiors and landscapes. Nor is there any evidence that Vermeer collaborated with other artists or artisans. The artist worked slowly, producing two, three or four highly finished pieces a year. His production is very limited even when compared to artists who painted small pictures in a similar time-consuming mode. Some landscape painters are known to have depicted more than one thousand works in their lifetimes.

The unusually slender dimension of Vermeer's opus testifies to the artist's elevated ambitions. Every component of theme and composition was so meticulously calculated that he could paint no more.

More than half of Vermeer's entire artistic production had been absorbed by a single Delft patron, the rich Pieter van Ruijven (1624–1674). Only a patron could provide economic protection to an artist who worked so slowly. It seems plausible that Van RuijvenThe research by John Michael Montias has shown that the overall net worth of Van Ruijven and his wife Maria de Knuijt's estate, 24,829 guilders, was one of the largest in all of Delft at that time. See: John Michael Montias, Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 1989), 246ff. See also Montias, "'Recent Archival Research on Vermeer" in Vermeer Studies eds., Vermeer Studies (Studies in the History of Art Series) (Washington, DC: National Gallery Washington, 1998). had styled himself as a patron of the arts along the lines of his distant cousin François Spiering (c. 1576–1630) who had paid 500 guilders of the right of first option on the works of Gerrit Dou, the most sought-after painter of the late 1660s.In his Praise of Painting of 1642, Philips Angel, wrote of Spiering's arrangement with Dou. In his account, among the ranks of such fabled patrons of antiquity and the Renaissance as King Attalus, Alexander, Caesar, the Emperor Maximilian, Julius II, and Francis I, the only Dutchman named is Spiering. By engaging Dou, Spiering sought to elevate himself within this illustrious lineage of patronage. In the free-market climate of the Netherlands such long-term arrangements between collectors and painters were rare.

Vermeer's paintings were referred to in his own times with terms such as "perspectives," "little dandies" (jonkertjes),In a list of "present-day" painters and their subjects completed between 1669 and 1678 by Jan Sysmus, city surgeon of Amsterdam,: "Van der Meer. Little Dandies [jonkertjes]…Delft. This information is drawn from, Albert Blankert, "Vermeer's Modern Themes and Their Traditions," in exh. cat. Johannes Vermeer. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Ben Broos, London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, xx. See catalogue of Dissius auction of 21 paintings by Vermeer in 1696, catalogue number 9. and "a gay company" (Een vrolyk geselschap) The term "little dandies,"In 17th century Dutch genre painting, the term "little dandies" (Dutch: "jonkertjes") refers to depictions of well-dressed, fashionable young men, often belonging to the upper class. These figures were portrayed engaging in leisurely activities or social gatherings, embodying a sense of elegance and refinement. The term "dandy" in this context is similar to its more modern usage, denoting a man who pays particular attention to his appearance and style. meaning well-dressed figures painted in small scale, was also used describe works by Caspar Netscher  (1639–1684)  and Eglon van der Neer (1635/36– 1703).

Vermeer worked in the following categories:

  1. history painting - 2 surviving works
  2. brothel scenes (boortelije) - 1 surviving work
  3. views of a daily life (genre) - 27 surviving works
  4. landscape - 2 surviving works
  5. tronie - 4 surviving works

The table below indicates which types of paintings were most popular, based on inventories from Haarlem. At the beginning of the century, the religious or literary themes of history painting were favored. But by 1650, "modern" interiors were decorated with larger numbers of portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and genre scenes from daily life.Marion Goosens, "Schilders en de markt: Haarlem 1605–1635" (PhD diss., Leiden University, 2001), 346-347.

Subject Matter 1605–1624 1645–1650
Biblical scenes 42.2% 18%
Portraits 18% 18.3%
Land- and seascapes 12.4% 21%
Still lifes 8.5% 11.7%
Scenes from daily life (genre) 6.1% 12.9%
Other 12.8% 18.1%

History painting

Contemporary Dutch art writers such as Karel van Mander (1548–1606) , Samuel van Hoogstraeten (1627–1678) , or  Gérard de Lairesse (1641–1711) addressed themselves not only to the painters but also to a wider public, whom they were trying to bring nearer to the "high school of the art of painting"—that is, history painting, the practical success of their endeavours was to remain limited. The vast majority of collectors bought landscapes, still lifes, and genre paintings instead of histories.Michael North, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1997), 130.

Nonetheless, Vermeer's foray into history painting tells us something about his lofty ambitions, artistic agenda and, likely, the type of training he received, even though neither the whereabouts nor the master with whom he studied are known.

Although history painting was no longer the dominant art form in the Netherlands, a number of Dutch history painters prospered in Vermeer's time. A few, such as Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt (1567–1641), Cesar van Everdingen (1616/17–1678), and Jan de Bray (c.1627–1697), had attained prestigious commissions from the court at The Hague and financial success. Van Mierevelt and his burgeoning studio churned out hundreds of portraits and allegorical subjects to suit the conservative, aristocratic vision of the court of The Hague.

Other than the Diana and her Companions and Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Vermeer is known to have painted a Jupiter, Venus and Mercury and a Visit to the Tomb. The art historian Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. has also attributed to Vermeer a youthful copy of the Saint Praxedis originally painted by the Italian painter Felice Ficherelli. This attribution has not been accepted by many in the Dutch art history community.

In the first of the two history paintings, the treatment of light is conventional and the three-dimensional space is anything but coherent. The planimetric organization of the painting's surface shows little, if any, of the sophistication of his later works. Nonetheless, these few years of artistic incubation were not without significance for his pictorial evolution.

Although important from an art historical point of view, had the two surviving history paintings not been by the hand of Vermeer, it is likely they would fade into the panorama of competent Dutch history painters which enthuses art historians more than the art-going public.


The bordeeltje genre which dealt in mercenary love had long been popular with Netherlandish artists. In the sixteenth century, the pictorial tradition of the brothel was closely associated with the New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son (Saint Luke 15:11-32) who squandered his inheritance on wine, women and song.The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells of a young man who squanders his early inheritance on a reckless lifestyle, only to find himself destitute. Upon his remorseful return home, his father warmly welcomes him back, celebrating with a feast. This story emphasizes themes of forgiveness and redemption, contrasting the prodigal son's repentance with his brother's resentment towards the father's unconditional love and acceptance. However, like many other traditional genre themes, during the first decades of the seventeenth century, the brothel scene became gradually distanced from its religious origins and took on a life of its own.

Procuress, Johannes Vermeerfig. 1 The Procuress
Johannes Vermeer
Oil on canvas, 143 x 130 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
Loose Company, Van Baburenfig. 2 Loose Company
Dirck van Baburen
Oil on canvas, 110 x 154 cm.
Gemäldegalerie, Mainz

In 1658, the 26-year-old Vermeer painted his first dated work, The Procuress (fig. 1), different in atmosphere, execution and subject matter compared to the history works. It is not known why the young artist changed his artistic course so abruptly and embraced the loqw-life bordeeltjes. Perhaps, after expected commissions from the nearby court of The Hague failed to materialize, the young painter may have wished to be more in tune with his times even though the motif had already been exploited for decades.

Although the subject of prostitution seems entirely out of key compared to his later production, it should be remembered that Vermeer was brought up in his father's inn where drinking, shouting and betting must have been the norm. Sex peddling, if not witnessed directly on the premises of Mechelen, must have been unavoidable to some degree for anyone who moved about in urban centers.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Procuressfig. 3 The Procuress
Gerrit van Honthorst
Oil on panel, 71 x 104 cm.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht

The Procuress, which had close precedents in the Loose Company by Van Baburen (fig. 2) and A Concert by Jan Gerritsz van Bronkhorst (1603–1661), is perhaps the first of a long line of borrowed compositions on which Vermeer would re-elaborate his works according to his own sensitivity.

Particularly notable is the Delft painter's detached treatment of the hot-blooded convention. Although the cocky and/or drunk rake makes no secret of his intentions—his hand is unceremoniously plopped flat upon the young prostitute's breast—never before had a never before had a member of the world's oldest profession been decked out with such fine lace, chaste headgear, and a dress pulled so tightly around the neck that it leaves everything to be imagined. Compare Vermeer's rendition to The Procuress by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656; fig. 3), one of the most successful exemplars of the motif.

Recently restored, Vermeer's Procuress now exhibits a chromatic intensity that bridges the tempered palette of his early history paintings with the brilliant color schemes of the two interior genre scenes which were soon followed by The Milkmaid and the Officer and Laughing Girl.


The contrast between Vermeer’s four surviving early works and his globally celebrated mature paintings is stark. The former large figure paintings are surprisingly different from Vermeer’s later works and seem to defy the idea of a linear, progressive artistic development. Nevertheless, Vermeer abandoned the bordeeltje motif even more hastily than he had abandoned history painting and turned to scenes of every-day life, or what modern art historians call "genre."

Vermeer painted twenty-six genre scenes. Only one represents a member of the lower class, The Milkmaid. In Vermeer's time, interior pieces were commonly identified as "merry companies." Two or perhaps three of his genre scenes can be considered allegorical: The Art of Painting, The Woman Holding a Balance and the Allegory of Faith. The latter was very likely commissioned by some religious individual or group.

Today, all of Vermeer's interiors are referred to as genre paintings, or more specifically, genre interiors. The term "genre," which in French means "kind" or "type," was established in the late eighteenth century by French academic theorists (the word genre was probably used in this sense for the first time toward the end of the eighteenth century by French writer Quatremère de Quincy). Unlike a history painting that represents a decisive moment of a written narrative, either Biblical or Classical, with identifiable figures, a genre painting represents a situation with anonymous people. In many genre paintings, certain common objects (e.g. musical instruments, birdcages, foot warmers slippers, and brooms) are deliberately pictured for the symbolic meaning they might give to the situation.

Genre also provides a window on the way people living in the Dutch Republic understood—and valued—their society, surroundings, and moral responsibilities. Especially in the early part of the century, genre pictures tended to have clear allegorical content. The vanities of worldly pleasures, the dangers of vice, the perils of drink and smoke, the laxness of an old woman who nods off while reading her Bible—all these helped promote a Dutch image of rectitude. Genre painting both reflected and helped define ideals about the family, love, courtship, duty, and other aspects of life. Many genre paintings drew on familiar sayings and such illustrated books as Jacob Cats’ Houwelick (On Marriage), which was first published in 1625 and sold, according to contemporary estimates, some 50,000 copies. It gave advice on the proper comportment of women from girlhood to widowhood and death. Emblem books were another popular form of "wisdom literature" that advised on the proper conduct of all aspects of life, from love and childrearing to economic, social, and religious responsibility. These books encapsulated a concept with an illustration and pithy slogan, amplified by an accompanying poem."Genre Painting," in Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century (Department of Education Publications, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2007), 77.

In Vermeer's time, there was no such catch-all definition to describe scenes of daily life. Pictures were defined more specifically. There were merry companies gezelschapjes, conversation pieces, conversaties, character heads, tronien, brothel scene, bordeeltjes, or guard room scenes kortengarden. Despite their middling status in contemporary theory, these kleine beuzelingen (little trifles) were produced in great quantity and frequently fetched large sums.

The most popular motifs of genre painting evolved considerably over the span of a few generations. Compositions and subject matter were reiterated, juggled about, fused and updated. Some styles became more sophisticated. The fijnschilders of Leiden took the opposite direction taken by many Dutch painters, who abbreviated techniques in order to increase their output, dedicating the utmost energy to achieving a virtually microscopic level of detail and balanced compositions. While many Dutch works could be purchased for 10 or 20 guilders on the open market those of fijnschilders could fetch 500, 1,000 or more guilders, the equivalent of an average house. Only the economic elite could afford fijnschilder works. By the 18th century, the popularity of genre painting in the Netherlands was eclipsed somewhat by a taste for larger-scale decorative works. It was customary among painters of high finish to charge for the time he worked on a painting, using an hourly rate.

Genre themes, often inspired by earlier Dutch works, remained popular in the oeuvres of French artists Jean Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), and Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806).

Buytwech, Merry Companyfig. 4 Merry Company
Willem Buytewech
Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 72.6 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

It is widely accepted that the first true genre interiors (fig. 4) were painted by Willem Buytewech, or "Gheestige Willem" (Witty Willem) as he was called. Although crude in comparison to Vermeer's quietist haute-bourgeoisie interiors, Buytewech's ground-breaking interior spaces of the late 1610s were replete with wall maps, and groups smartly dressed damsels and dandies, more or less whiling away their youth. Brightly colored figures occupy a shallow interior, "pressing on us their enjoyment of music, wine and those notorious aphrodisiacs, oysters. However, rather than communicating an obvious narrative, the figures are posed in attitudes of merriment, swagger, and romance."Albert Blankert, "Vermeer's Modern Themes and Their Traditions," in Johannes Vermeer, eds. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Ben Broos (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 32.

During the decades that followed, interior painting slowly became more refined. Buytewech's merry companies evolved into the hushed interiors of Gerrit ter Borch with one or two figures quietly engaged in refined activities such as letter writing or letter reading (no doubt love letters with a Petrachan slant). Buytewech's garish palette gave way to Ter Borch faint powder blues and pinks and Vermeer's impalpable grays, sky blues and light lemon yellows. After a full 50 years, the happy chaos of Buytewech's mixed-up compositions were replaced by Vermeer's quietist, pas pro toto interiors.

The pursuit of lifelikeness, a preoccupation of Northern painting since Jan van Eyck, can be said to have reached its technical apogee in the last decades of the 1600s and 1670s when Vermeer was active.


While landscape encompassed numerous modes, from the pastoral to the allegorical, its most unassuming theme was its most innovative: the local landscape.Mariet Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585–1718 (New Haven and New York: Yale University Press, 1996), 104.

landscape fig. 5
Rest on the Flight into Egypt
Joachim Patinir
First half of 16th century
Oil on panel, 121 x 177 cm.
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The flat, low-lying Netherlands, while not known for dramatic scenery, was extensively painted, marking a paradox as the most urbanized nation of the seventeenth century also pioneered the naturalistic landscape genre. This concept of landscape as a standalone subject emerged largely in the sixteenth century in the southern Netherlands. Earlier works by artists like Joachim Patinir (fig. 5: c. 1480–1524) and Pieter Breugel the Elder (c. 1525–1530–1569) featured panoramic views filled with both ordinary and fantastical elements. Dutch painters later introduced a new perspective focused on the real and present world. The term “landscape” itself originates from the Dutch word "landschap." From 1610 to 1679, the proportion of landscape paintings in household inventories surged from about 25% to 40%, with most created for the open market at affordable prices. These depictions of the Dutch countryside were popular for several reasons: they provided refreshment and pleasure, celebrated the gifts of God’s creation, and were a symbol of Dutch pride and prosperity.

In general, it can be said that the monetary value of paintings often corresponded with their size and the hierarchy of genres."Genre Painting," in Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century (Department of Education Publications, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2007), 69. Larger historical paintings received the highest prices and small floral paintings fetched the least. The affordable prices and availability of landscape paintings made them a popular choice.Peter C. Sutton, Masters of 17th-Century Dutch Landscape Painting (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), 104–120.

Vermeer painted two landscapes which have survived, or more precisely, one cityscape, The View of Delft and one streetscape, The Little Street. A surviving document informs us that another streetscape existed.

The View of Delft is Vermeer's largest and most time-consuming work in his oeuvre, except, perhaps, the elaborate Art of Painting. Since nothing has come down to us concerning the artist's intentions in regard to this (or for that matter, any other work) art historians have felt obliged to somehow fill the gap. Walter Liedtke believes that the view could have been commissioned by Vermeer's patron, Pieter van Ruijven who had collected more than half of the artist's artistic production including the View of Delft. Furthermore, the art historian points out that Van Ruijven's collection included the two small-scale streetscapes already mentioned as well as three architectural paintings by Emanuel de Witte, including a patriotic view of William the Silent's tomb in the Nieuwe Kerk which Vermeer also spectacularly highlighted in his View of Delft. Van Ruijven would have also been aware of the historically proclaimed relation between an artist's reputation and the fame bestowed on his city. Dutch citizens strongly identified not only with their republic, but with their city of birth as well. Their civic pride as is testified by innumerable Dutch cityscapes many of which are so similar to one another that they are virtually indistinguishable except a few characteristic church towers, or large civic buildings.

Curiously, the earliest reference to The Little Street described it as a "house" rather than a "street." As in few other Dutch townscapes, the intimacy of domestic life prevails over mere architectural features. At that time, Vermeer's house was not the kind of luxurious townhouse that was going up on the fashionable Oude Delft but a modest house from a distant past which had somehow resisted the misfortunes of the city, old but not dilapidated. To anyone who gazed upon the Little Street in seventeenth-century Netherlands the now unfamiliar Dutch term, schilderachtig, would have come to mind. Schilderachtig, meaning "picture worthy" or "worthy of painting" corresponds fairly well to today's "picturesque." However, in the seventeenth century, Italian concepts of art, one of which held that the worth of a painting was indivisible from the value of its subject, continued to weigh heavily upon European painting. Accordingly, subjects like an old woman, a dilapidated farmhouse, a village peasant scene, or Vermeer's humble house would have drawn sneers, as only grand Biblical or historical narratives were considered truly worthy of great art.Boudewijn Bakker, "Schilderachtig: Discussions of a Seventeenth-Century Term and Concept," Simiolus Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 23 (1995).

The Emergence of Dutch Painting

from: National Gallery of Art website https://www.nga.gov/research/online-editions/17th-century-dutch-paintings.html

The emergence of the Dutch school of painting in the early seventeenth century is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of the visual arts. The Dutch Republic, a small country that had only become a political entity in 1579 and was still suffering from the effects of a long and arduous war with Spain, would hardly seem to have had the resources to nourish and sustain its artistic traditions. Nonetheless, in every respect, the Dutch seem to have drawn strength from adversity; they profited in terms of trade, political awareness, religious tolerance, wealth and above all, self-esteem. They were proud of their achievements and were determined to provide for themselves a broad and lasting foundation that would define their unique social and cultural heritage.

The political and religious attitudes of the period are not readily apparent in the work of Dutch artists. The still lifes, portraits, landscapes, seascapes and genre scenes that characterize this school of painting are surprisingly lacking in information on the major events of the day. Nevertheless, the philosophical bases from which artists worked are clearly the same as those governing decisions in contemporary political, military and religious activities. This ideology was essentially threefold: that God's work is evident in the world itself; that, although things in this world are mortal and transitory, no facet of God's creation is too insubstantial to be noticed, valued, or represented; and that the Dutch, like the ancient Israelites, were a chosen people, favored and blessed by God's protection.

Underlying the essential realism of Dutch art, thus, is an allegorical view of nature that provided a means for conveying various messages to contemporary viewers. The Dutch, with their ingrained Calvinist beliefs, were a moralizing people. While they thoroughly enjoyed the sensual pleasures of life, they were aware of the consequences of wrong behavior. Paintings, even those representing everyday objects and events, often provide reminders about the brevity of life and the need for moderation and temperance in one's conduct. Subjects drawn from the Bible, mythology and ancient history, likewise, were often chosen for their moralizing messages or for establishing parallels between the Dutch experience and great historical, literary and political events of the past.

What do Vermeer's genre paintings mean?

For centuries it was believed that Dutch painters, Vermeer included, represented real-life situations to the best of their ability and little more. However, modern art historians argue that such narrow view of Vermeer's production does not do justice to the artist's complex agenda or the seventeenth-century mindset in which the artist created his works. As the Dutch art historian Eddy de Jongh wrote, scholars "usually do not doubt Vermeer's intention of investing his work with meaning. The question is merely what that meaning was and, above all, whether it still can be deciphered."Eddy de Jongh, "On Balance," in Vermeer Studies, eds. Ivan Gaskell and Michiel Jonker (National Gallery of Art Washington D.C., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), 351. In Vermeer's time, subject matter was not disparaged, even though it was frequently determined by market opportunity, nor had it become a handy excuse to perform experiments in paint and visual perception as for Cézanne and the moderns who followed. The idea that an artist could have arranged multiple figures in an anonymous landscape such as Cézanne's Large Bathers for the sake of aesthetic interest was inconceivable in Vermeer's time.

Inspired by Erwin Panofsky's revolutionary study of iconography in Italian art, the Dutch iconographic movement spearheaded by Eddy de Jongh, postulated in his groundbreaking Questions of Meaning: Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting, Eddy de Jongh, Questions of Meaning: Theme and Motif in Dutch Seventeenth-Century Painting, trans. and ed. Michael Hoyle (Leiden: Primavera Pers, 2000). that Vermeer and his fellow Dutch painters were not only talented all-eyes-and-no-brain realists after all, but thinkers who cleverly incorporated hidden messages in their illusionist images in order to "instruct and delight." De Jongh connected the Dutch moralizing tendency, manifested in immensely popular emblematic literature, to contemporary works of art claiming that certain common objects such as stockings, musical instruments, birdcages, bubbles or arrows, often stand for other things and even for abstract ideas. Dutch thought was characterized by an "enormous fascination" with analogies, metaphor, paradox as well as anything that was, or appeared to be, multilayered or open to a variety of interpretations."Eddy de Jongh, "Frans van Mieris: Questions of Understanding," in Frans van Mieris: 1635–1682 (Zwolle, 2005), 46. For example, De Jongh was the first to hypothesize that the background Cupid painting-within-a-painting of Vermeer's late Lady Standing with a Virginal was deliberately inserted to comment on the scene which unfolds below via a well-known motto, "Perfectus Amor est nisi ad unum," states that perfect love is but for one lover. Thirty years later, however, De Jongh would admit with the intellectual honesty that distinguishes his thought, that he was uncertain exactly how the painter intended the inserted moral to function. Was Cupid's message a confirmation of the young musician's solid moral standards or was he "confronting her precisely because her conduct was not above reproach"? Could Vermeer have directed the moral to the viewer of the painting instead of the musician or, perhaps, "left all the interpretations open inviting the viewer to make a choice, or a combination of choices."

Since the fifteenth century, when theorists sought to elevate the status of the painter by contending that he dealt in "ideas" worthy of the philosopher or the poet, the "lesser" genres of Dutch painting had suffered in comparison with Italian history painting. "While the Italians were credited with powers of generalizing and abstracting, the Dutch were typically seen as content to engage in what Reynolds termed the "mere mechanical labour of copying."Ruth Bernard Yeazell, "Merry Companies," review of Dutch Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution by Wayne Franits, London Review of Books, accessed [access date], http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n02/ruth-bernard-yeazell/merry-companies. In its heyday, iconography's explanatory model appeared particularly compelling because it challenged the hitherto unquestioned habit of considering Dutch paintings mirrors of contemporary life. Bestowing narrative value to Vermeer's works made them more worthy of intellectual appreciation.

One of the weak points of the iconographic argument, lamented even by its founder De Jongh, is that there exists not a single period text that deals in any detail with the concept "hidden meaning" in reference to genre painting. Moreover, there is no way to show that "a moral purpose, even if it can be shown to have been explicitly declared by painters or collectors, was more than a pretext for the gratifications"Nicholas Penny, "Paintings about Paintings," review of The Art of Describing by Svetlana Alpers, London Review of Books, accessed [access date], http://www.lrb.co.uk/v05/n14/nicholas-penny/paintings-about-painting. offered by the painting's illusionist image. In too many cases, symbols appeared to have had multiple meanings, often contradictory, making once-and-for-all interpretations nearly impossible. De Jongh later widened his own theory to include the possibility of deliberate ambiguity and multivalence. The most sustained period discussion of genre painting by de Lairesse, in "Handelende van 't antiek en 't modern" ("Of things antique and modern"), part of de Lairesse's exhaustive examination of history painting in the Groot Schilderboek, makes no mention of concealed meaning or any kind of meaning at all. On the contrary, the theoretician laments that "modern" painting accomplishes little more than representing what meets the eye, without any attempt to improve or ennoble it.

Some art writers have come to resent the fact that iconographers have brought many to believe that pictures should be looked upon as puzzles, or as "a ciphered text…or a skeleton hidden in a cupboard…always there waiting to be found, somehow behind the painting…" as if "the painted work had committed a crime…"George Didi-Huberman, "The Art of not Describing: Vermeer—the Detail and the Patch," History of the Human Sciences 2 (1989): 155. If Dutch paintings were reminders that pleasure is fleeting and death inevitable, "one begins to wonder why so many people were eager to buy them. It is hard to believe that what has been called the first mass-consumer' art market in Europe was mainly driven by a collective appetite for moralizing."Ruth Bernard Yeazell, "Merry Companies," review of Dutch 17th-century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution by Wayne Franits, London Review of Books, accessed November 12, 2023.

Vermeer as a Describer

In 1984, the art historian Svetlana Alpers, albeit quietly, declared intellectual war on the idea that Dutch paintings could be read like texts. Her major contention was that Dutch painting could be summed up as an "art of description." In Dutch culture, she hails, information could be perceived, assimilated, used, and enjoyed in purely visual terms; that is, without the interposition of language. It could not be understood within the terms of the dominant Italian "textual culture," which, instead, sought emblematic, allegorical or philosophical meanings in a serious painting.Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Thus, the meaning of seventeenth-century Dutch art is not to be sought beneath the pictorial surface, but is made visible on it. According to Alpers, Vermeer's View of Delft provides a perfect example of how Dutch painters described "a world that continues beyond the canvas," spread out, "staining the surface with color and light, impressing itself upon it."

Alpers' point of view was initially well received. Didactic moralizing, teasing, humor, and sexual innuendos that the iconographers had seen as typical preoccupations of Dutch painting were out, science, optics, philosophy, and the means by which pictorial illusion is achieved were in.. Soon afterward, writers began to associate Vermeer's name with Descartes and Plato, something that would have astonished even the artist's most fervent admirers of past decades..

Alpers' position did not escape criticism. Ivan Gaskell wrote, "Her almost insuperable difficulty… is that without the interposition of language there can be and indeed there virtually are no texts which can be used directly to support the theory. Inevitably she must rely heavily on inference and analogy."Ivan Gaskell, review of The Art of Describing by Svetlana Alpers, The Oxford Art Journal 7, no. 1 (1984): 57. The British art historian Nicholas Penny countered Alpers' argument with a down to earth argument: "Surely the artists were doing what good shopkeepers had always done: they meant to entice and intrigue, to whet the appetite and to tease the eye, rather than to provide reliable information–for Martians–about pies, watches, or lemons."In effect, applying Alpers' criterion to some of Vermeer's key works may be missing a good share of the artist's point. The Woman Holding a Balance, the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, and the Woman with a Pearl Necklace have all the air of having meant to be highly personalized "visions" that run deep beneath the canvas rather than "surface descriptions."

The Early Works

The Glass of Wine, Johannes Vermeer
fig. 6 The Glass of Wine
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1658–1661
Oil on canvas, 65 x 77 cm.
Staatliche Museen Preußischer Kulturbesitz,
, Berlin

"In the late 1650s, Vermeer's art took a decisive and well-focused thematic direction. The transformation from a history painter to a genre painter seems not to have been an easy one. Nothing in his early works would have prepared him for the complex undertaking of orienting a figure within a realistic architectural space or depicting naturalistic light effects (fig. 6).Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting (New York and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 39. In these works we can feel the natural solidity of the objects and the space, but not yet the air that divides them.. Although his rooms are filled with light and space, the world he depicts is essentially a tactile one. The application of paint is tactile as well.

According to many experts, Vermeer was a late-comer to the field of genre painting. The most significant genre themes he was to exploit time and time again had been pioneered by other painters of lesser talent such as Nicolas Maes (1634–1693) and Gabriel Metsu (1629–1667). In particular, Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684), one of the most beloved painters of the Netherlands, is believed to have pioneered the light-filled, left-hand corner of the room motif on which Vermeer built much of his oeuvre.

Historians have shown that Vermeer derived his compositions from those in circulation. After all, artistic originality did not have the same priority that it has today. Connoisseurs were capable of discerning nuance and craftsmanship, which distinguished his works from the endearing, yet unsettling clumsiness of genre figures by De Hooch. However, even if Vermeer depended on his colleagues for his themes, he brought an intellectual and moral depth to genre painting which seemed foreign to the humane light-heartedness and friendly warmth prized by Dutch art lovers. As Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. has pointed out, "the challenge he seems to have set for himself in the late 1650s was to translate the classicizing tendencies of his early religious and mythological paintings into a con­temporary idiom..."Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Vermeer and the Art of Painting (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 163. Thus, Vermeer's foray into history painting was to serve him well to the end of his career. One of his most unusual talents consisted in his ability to perceive great potential in minor works of art.

Maturity: Works of the 1660s

In the 1660s, the rugged surface of the early genre scenes gives way to a sheen typical of the works of the fijnschilder Frans van Mieris 1635–1681) . Rather than the hollow, box-like spaces of the earlier interiors, Vermeer seems to concentrate on creating shallow envelopes of luminous space. The most characteristic compositions of this period portray single female figures absorbed in some silent activity, each one set in a subtly different lighting condition. Attention is focused on their intimate thoughts and emotions rather than on their social role. In these so-called "pearl pictures" the figures and ground are more tightly bound to the planimetric framework of the canvas than in the earlier box-like constructions.

Perspective no longer plays the same dramatic role as in defining space that it did in the first interiors. As one Vermeer writer pointed out, rather than the illusion of tactile nearness, Vermeer pursues the illusion of distance that defines the psychological space which divides the protagonist's thoughts and emotions from those of the observer.

Through the distillation and purification of formal elements, unique in Dutch painting, Vermeer obtains the legendary effect of timelessness for which this particular group of works has long been noted. Every object assumes its place within a carefully balanced composition, and the viewer feels that nothing could be added or subtracted without disturbing the painting's stillness.

In the early 1660s Vermeer executed four small canvases eloquently named the "pearl pictures" by Lawrence Gowing,Lawrence Gowing, Vermeer (Oakland CA: University of California Press, 1997), reprint edition. which are among the artist's most lucidly conceived yet enigmatic works: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Woman Holding a Balance, Woman with a Lute, and Woman with a Pearl Necklace. The Young Woman with a Water Pitcher has been added to the group, obviously, not with the intention to revise Gowing's well-known term, but because the painting bears important compositional affinities with the four other pictures.

The subject matter of the pearl pictures is restricted to the figure of a single woman, seen in profile, who momentarily engages in some discreet activity in a left-hand corner of a room, very near a window. While persistent iconographical interpretations seem to have successfully illuminated the story behind the Woman Holding a Balance, the others have resisted interpretative attempts with more success. Nonetheless, a common theme that unites the women's activities might be thoughtful reflection (or distraction).

Even by Vermeer's standards, the scenes of these works are organized with exceptional economy utilizing a table with a single woman, a meager still life, a few carefully chosen props, a map or painting on the background wall, and one or two chairs (infrared reflectograms reveal that the original version of Woman with a Pearl Necklace once displayed a large wall map behind the standing girl). All of the movable objects are structurally simple although some are adorned with elaborate decorative elements (ex. Turkish carpets and large wall maps).

Out of the five pictures, four show a slice of a window to the left, and in four of them, chairs are displayed (a second chair once occupied the lower left-hand corner in the composition of the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher). All the scenes are staged against a simple, whitewashed wall set parallel to the picture plane. The particular hue and tonal values of the white-washed walls are key to establishing the direction, intensity and quality of the incoming light and constitute an unsung technical tour de force of the artist's oeuvre.

But more than for their parts, exquisite as some of them may be, these works have invited scrutiny for the way in which these parts are artfully arranged. They bear prominent three-dimensional and, perhaps, planimetric compositional analogies, evident not only in their current visual state but also in some elements that were part of the original compositions and later revised or removed by the artist.. Set side by side, the pearl pictures encourage comparison and perhaps disclose something about how the artist thought through one work after another, combining similar compositional elements with utmost care to obtain autonomous artistic statements. There is no evidence that Vermeer conceived these pictures as part of a group, intended to be hung and appreciated together.

Later Works

By the 1670s, Vermeer had mastered every facet of painting technique and the excellent state of many of these works testifies to the fact. Overpainting is less frequent than before. Not a single compositional change has been discovered, either through microscopic analysis, infrared photography, or x-radiography, in The Art of Painting, one of Vermeer's most complicated pictorial constructions.

Contours became sharp again, and paint is applied with the utmost economy. In some areas, paint has been applied so thinly that the underlying ground can be clearly observed. This fact has led some scholars to believe a few of the paintings, such as The Geographer and the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid were left unfinished. Vermeer's brushwork increasingly frees itself from descriptive function and is so calligraphic that it flirts with the virtuoso. Here and there a sense of brittleness becomes apparent, especially appreciable in the modeling of the human forms.

The abstraction of form takes on the utmost importance, so much that some parts of the paintings acquire an independent existence even though the stylistic idiosyncrasies which are characteristic of this period can no longer be explained by camera obscura vision or optical considerations. "The accents of color Vermeer used to indicate the folds of the woman's dress or the exquisite decorative rose of the guitar in The Guitar Player, for example, are seen first and foremost as paint, and then only secondarily as descriptive of material texture." The Love Letter has the air of fine, exotic inlay.

The faces of some of the figures, such as that of The Guitar Player, appear conventionally rendered even though they remain agreeable. One has the sensation that the psychological introspection of the Girl with a Pearl Earring or Study of a Young Woman is either no longer of interest to the mature artist or simply no longer requested by the market that favored the new, if somewhat artificial French style. Nevertheless, pictorial constructions of great subtlety and originality like The Lacemaker and the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid dispel notions of an artistic decline.


Vermeer painted in all four tronies, including the iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring (fig. 7), her "sister" Study of a Young Lady (fig. 8) and two tiny panels of odd-looking women sporting somewhat outlandish hats. It is paramount to understand that none of these works were meant to function as a formal portrait. Tronies were not commissioned pieces sold on spec in the artist's studio.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeerfig. 7 Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer
Study of a Young Woman, Johannes Vermeerfig. 8 Study of a Young Woman
Johannes Vermeer

The term tronie, which derives from the French "trogue," refers to "heads" or "faces" which had been popularized by Rembrandt and his followers. Even though the tronie represents a bust-length single figure, it is not a portrait in the seventeenth-century meaning of the word. In contemporary usage, tronie might cover any picture of an unidentified sitter, but in modern art-historical usage it is typically restricted to figures who do not seem to have been intended to be identifiable. The tronie furnished the artist an opportunity to demonstrate his ability in rendering some kind of exotic garment or characteristic facial types that struck him in particular. Pictures of artists wearing exotic headgear, such as the dashing soldier or the "Turkish archer," were favorite tronies.

"The tronie, with its anonymous models doing and meaning next to nothing, was perfect for collectors who wanted an affordable proof of the mastery of a given painter. This master made himself recognizable by his personal style, his signature and sometimes also by depicting his own features. Van de Wetering explains that the production of personalized "collector's items" was a new function of the 'tronie' that did not replace its earlier functions." Lyckle de Vries, [ review]Tronie und Porträt in der niederländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts by Dagmar Hirschfelder, H-ArtHist, Feb 9, 2011, accessed Nov 13, 2023.

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