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

(part four)

Vermeer's Subject Matter: Women

Many observers have remarked that Vermeer was a painter of women. In his 36 (?) surviving works, there are 44 women as opposed to 13 men (excluding the tiny figures in the View of Delft and Little Street who play bit parts), or about four times the average proportion of women to men in European painting of the same era. This disproportion, however, would appear slightly less dramatic since we have historic evidence of two lost paintings with males as primary subjects.1 According to a study made by Gary Schwartz and Trudy van den Oosten, working from a database of 3,340 Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish paintings, males comprise about 74% of the figures, women 19% and children 7%.2

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Girl Reading a Letter at an
Open Window
(detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657 - 1659
Oil on canvas, 83 x 64.5 cm.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

One Vermeer writer creatively asserted that "women dominated the life of Vermeer" citing along with the choice of his motives personal conditions such as a strong-willed mother-in-law, a wife, who relentlessly bore the artist a new child after another, a household of daughters and at least one maid. On the basis of the treatment of his subjects others have psychoanalyzed him as a "person who is afraid of women" or as a "distant father." However, it is far more likely that the unusual proportion of women in the painter's oeuvre reflects a consciously elaborated artistic goal rather than hidden psychological or personal motives although his treatment of them is unmistakably empathetic.

A medium-size mountain of art historical writing has been formed of attempts to identify the places and people that Vermeer portrayed. Unfortunately, while locations of one of the two ladsncapes can be determined with precision (The View of Delft) not a single sitter has been identified even though critics have been prone to see members of the artist's family, his wife Catharina and his first daughter Maria, as prime candidates. Although there exists no evidence to support this hypothesis, painters often employed family members as models. Gerrit ter Borch portrayed his step-sister Gesina a number of times in the most delicate of modes while Frans van Mieris and his wife repeatedly appear in portraits, genre pieces and tronies from their marriage in 1657 onwards. The great Rembrandt van Rijn cast members of his own family as subjects for some of his most touching canvases. Other than the obvious economic advantage, most painters would have found that working with family members eased tension and favored the complicated process of determining the exact pose and afterwards holding it for long hours. Posing for such a demanding artist like Vermeer must have been hard business, especially during the long, gelid Dutch winters. Not all rooms of Dutch homes were equipped with a fireplace.

Woman in Blue reading a Letter (detail), Johannes Vermeer
Woman in Blue Reading
a Letter
(detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662 - 1665
Oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

"The qualities that we attribute to Vermeer's work as a whole apply equally to the women they picture: paintings and personages share dignity, equilibrium and an exceptional vivid presence and abstract purity. The figures range from girlish to maternal, yet all are youthful, with high curved foreheads, features that evenly balance the individual and the classical, and simple believable postures. Their costuming—its coloring, shapes and associations contributes so much to bodily construction and expression that the absence of nudes from Vermeer's oeuvre hardly seems surprising."3

In any case, the women who inhabit Vermeer's interiors may not have appeared exactly as he artist saw them While it is true that none of them are beauties in a conventional sense, they are not without their own charm, and the artist must have made some effort to improve their appearance. "Just how drastically cosmetic interventions were applied is hard to say, but it is a fair assumption that not every painted face with regular features, and not every painted peach skin was an accurate depiction of the original. The mere fact that the vast majority of faces in 17th-century paintings are smooth and unblemished is enough to make us suspicious, given the prevalence of smallpox epidemics at the time. Smallpox was a dreaded disease against which all remedies were helpless, and those who survived it were generally left disfigured by pockmarks. Among women of the higher classes, in particular, pockmarks are known to have aroused feelings of shame."4

The Liite Streeet (detail), Johannes Vermeer
The Little Street (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1657 - 1661
Oil on canvas, 54.3 x 44 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

From both an anthropological viewpoint, the home had acquired enormous importance in the second half of the 17th-century Netherlands. Scenes of Dutch domesticity flourished and women were among the most frequently depicted subjects. This new household became the responsibility and spiritual realm of the woman while the public world, divided cleanly from it for the first time, belonged to the male. These painted interiors display women engaged in homemaking, housewifery and nurturing, all fundamental values connected with the virtues of family life. However, unlike his colleagues, Vermeer represented no families, children or elderly people (except for bit parts in the View of Delft and The Little Street). Notable as well is the conspicuous lack of hearths, cupboards, cradles and beds that would have certainly been present in the artist's living quarters.5

Vermeer depicted works which "signal new standards of upper bourgeois feminine conduct, either by showing women at cultivated leisure (playing musical instruments) or by emphasizing their literacy (pictorial tradition suggests the letters his women read are about love; they also speak to a burgeoning ideal of the educated domestic woman)."6 His preoccupation with women has been cited as one of the reasons for the meteoric rise in his popularity in the 20th century.

Standing Still

Once Vermeer had worked out the proper pose and gesture for one of his his female models, the real problem was not so much a matter of replicating the same pose from one day to another or even holding it for an adequate amount of time. Each time the model donned on her morning jacket and gown anew, the tuck and folds of the fabric were different.

But from the painter's vantage point, more distressing than the differences in form and shapes of the folds, was the raking side light of the studio environment that wildly accentuates even the most imperceptible shifts in the surface plane. A negligible move in the model's position might plunge a prominent fold painted the day before into deep shadow the next. In order to render with any degree of precision the forms and tricky textures of his model's costumes, the only practical solutions was to employ a life-size lay model, or as it was called in Dutch a mannekijn, a fixed feature in every portrait painter's studio.

The use of the mannequin was certainly no innovation on Vermeer's part. Painters had employed them for years, especially as an aid to portraiture. For example, the father of Ter Borch wrote to his son in London: "Dear child, I am sending you the mannekijn, but without a stand because it is too large and too heavy to be put into the trunk. For a small amount of money you can have the stand made there. Use the mannekijn and do not let it stand idle, as it has done here, draw a lot…" Certainly, to the outsider a wooden mannekijn decked out with Catharina's clothes would have been an eerie sight.

Vermeer's "civilized" interiors must have appealed to a new financial elite born of the spectacular fortunes made during the explosion of the Dutch economy after the de facto peace with Spain. This new social class used poetry, literature and painting to define and project its own sense of cultural superiority. Ever-increasing self-control had spawned particular codes of dress, manners, gestures, bodily carriage and even table manners which are evident in Vermeer's paintings.

Vermeer's interiors are particularly self-contained when compared to analogous works of his fellow genre painters. Apart from the early Maid Asleep, the viewer is never afforded a glimpse of connected environments so characteristic of domestic interiors of Pieter de Hooch which nearly always open to a street or garden. There is nothing to tell us what life went on outside of his windows: we see no buildings, no steeples and no canals, just a discreet sliver of clear blue sky through an obliquely-placed window.

  1. In the 1696 Amsterdam auction of twenty-one paintings by Vermeer a self portrait and a "man washing his hands" is listed. There is also reason to believe that a "woman combing her hair" likewise may have existed.
  2. Schwartz reported the study in the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad, January 8, 2000.
  3. Lisa Vergara, "Perspective on Women in the Art of Vermeer, in The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer (Cambridge Companions to the History of Art), edited by Wayne Franits, Cambridge, 2001, pp.54-55
  4. Eddy de Jongh, "Frans van Mieris: Questions of Understanding", Frans van Mieris 1635 – 1681, Ed. Quentin Buvelot,. Zwolle, 2006, p. 47
  5. Beds were found in every room including the kitchen. Sleeping quarters had begun to be separated from the rest of the Dutch house only in the late seventeenth century.
  6. Perry H. Chapman, "Women in Vermeer's home. Mimesis and ideation", Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art 51 (2000), p. 237