Review:Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry

22 February–22 May, 2017
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Louvre exhibition, already billed as a "blockbuster," features 72 seventeenth-century Dutch paintings of domestic environments. Twelve are by Vermeer. The curatorial intent of the exhibit is to "trace the cross-currents of inspiration among Dutch genre painters who rivaled each other in verisimilitude, technique and aesthetic appeal, contributing to the exceptionally high quality of their combined oeuvre."1

sdsdA Woman Weighing Gold
Pieter de Hooch
Oil on canvas, c. 1664
Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
womn Holding a balance, Johannes VermeerWoman Holding a Balance
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 42.5 x 38 cm.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

The paintings are grouped by theme, such as lover letters, youthful beauty or musical duet. Each picture by Vermeer is flanked by works that either inspired or were inspired by him. For example, at the entrance of the gallery Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance is hung next to Pieter de Hooch's Goldweigher, which is strikingly similar in scenography and design. However, since a good number of works by Vermeer and his colleagues do not bear dates, including the two paintings just mentioned, the direction of influence is not always certain. In such cases the interpretation of artistic interactions is, although beguiling, speculative.

But to profit from this exhibition the viewer need not necessarily understand who inspired who.

The choice of artworks is exceptional, and many of the paintings are in a fine state of conservation. The Vermeers are among the artist's most most evocative creations. Eight can be considered masterpieces of Western painting. Whether they can be appreciated as such depends to a significant degree on the visitor's tolerance to wearying queues and the human wall that forms in front of the paintings.

Louvre

The mute colors of the gallery panels quietly compliment the aesthetics of the paintings, which, although protected by glass frames, are glare free. However, for security visitors are kept at an arm's length from the paintings by railings. This may not be limiting for many viewers but it is for those who wish to examine the the finest details of the paintings, which in many cases constitute their original artistic and commercial raison d'être. In fact, painters like Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris founded their phenomenal success on an almost inhuman ability to fix the incidences of light, form and texture with unctuous paint on tiny panels. Dou was reported by contemporaries to have used brushes with a single hair and spent days depicting a tiny broom in the corner of one of his works. Although exaggerated, such anecdotes signal why these exquisite works attracted so much attention in the Netherlands and abroad and why they might have the same price tag as a house. Why, then, entice today's viewer with a comparison between Vermeer's broadly painted Geographer with Gerrit Dou's pocket-sized Astronomer with a Candle whose microscopic details are lost at such a distance and in such low light?

Yes, the illumination of the paintings is dim, perhaps lower than other exhibitions of the same sort. For instance, in Rome (Museo del Corso, 2008) I was able to clearly distinguish both the signature and the exceptionally delicate modeling of the inanimate objects submerged in the shadowed foreground of Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace: in Paris these precious appearances vanish. But Vermeer's paintings are so robustly structured and the patterns of light and shadow are so boldly managed that his best works shine even when they are scarcely lit. And this is, perhaps, one of the many lessons one can gain from the Louvre exhibition, one which is most convincing when viewing real paintings set side by side.

Woman Sealing Her Letter with Her Maid, gerrit ter BorchWoman Sealing Her Letter with Her Maid
Gerrit ter Borch
1658–1659
Oil on canvas, 56.5 x 43.8 cm.
Private collection, New York

In every comparison, the works of Vermeer overpower those of his colleagues.The big picture remains the artist's utmost priority. His figures, which with respect to those of his contemporaries are almost always much larger in proportion to their setting, are composed in subtly unconventional manners. This renders not only his compositions more visually dynamic but his narratives more incisive. For example, in a pendant of female and male letter writers, Gerrit ter Borch set the two figures of each work equidistant from the center and sides of the painting, creating a balanced yet discounted equilibrium. The disposition of the two figures and table form a flat barrier that keeps the spectator's imagination at bay. Instead, in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid Vermeer positions the arms akimbo, no-nonsense maid in the center of the picture while the elegant letter-writing mistress, the fulcrum of the painting's story, is relegated to the lower right of her subordinate, almost touching the painting's right-hand edge. This compositional slay of hand subliminally questions the social hierarchy of the maid and her mistress and introduces an element of tension to an otherwise unremarkable story. Free from physical encumbrances, the viewer is invited to stroll down the empty left-hand side of the room into picture's quivering three-dimensional space. This compositional scheme, which is as subtly contrived as it is unobtrusive, had been previously exploited in the most dramatic form in The Music Lesson, and can be said to be unique to the Delft master. On the other hand, the figures in the non-Vermeer paintings of the exhibition are generally disposed in a frieze-like manner from left to right, or artificially spot lit on the center of an empty stage in an unidentified world. As much as it is possible, Vermeer's painted time machine succeeds in transporting the spectator into a breathing seventeenth-century room.

Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, Johannes VermeerLady Writing a Letter with her Maid
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1670–1671
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 58.4 cm.
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

The exhibition also offers an ideal chance to see with one's own eyes exactly why writers have obsessed over the magical quality of light in Vermeer's paintings ever since they were rediscovered in the mid-1880s. Being such a rare commodity in the Netherlands, light was all the more important for Dutch painters. In the works of Vermeer's rivals its myriad activities, particularly highlights and reflections, serve primarily to exalt localized effects of luxurious stuffs, silver and polished wood, or reveal the softness of fair hair or tenderness of female flesh. Surfaces flicker and gleam. Such effects must have made for a jaw-dropping experience for any seventeenth-century liefhebber (lover of art). Vermeer, instead, concentrated on the broader dialogue of light and shade, and this is why his entire scenes, rather than only parts of them, appear drenched in light. Light is as real as substance. Their paintings glitter. His glow. Even the semi-ruined Woman with a Lute, whose colors and details have been sadly erased by the mishaps of time, shines brighter than its exhibition companions, as if the Louvre had sneakily trained on it two spots instead of one in order to underline the artist's reputation the master of daylight.

Curiously, reading between the lines of the exhibition one might possibly conjecture that Vermeer's sympathies were not so distant from those the history painter as we would generally assume. Differently from Vermeer's colleagues Van Miers, Dou, Van der Neer and Metsu, who portrayed the latest trends in fashion with exasperated exactitude, history painters scorned picayune detail and what they deemed as niggling descriptions of surface texture, seeking, instead, in the broader values of composition, bodily posture and three-dimensional space the timeless values of their momentous mythological and biblical subjects.

If Vermeer's wager was to imbue every-day life with great and long-lasting significance, his bet paid off handsomely for both he and his ambitious patron Pieter van Ruijven, who had wisely collected at least a healthy half of the artist's output.

Jonathan Janson
Rome, March 4, 2017