Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Vermeer’s Women

Johannes Vermeer. The Lacemaker. c.1669-1670. Oil on canvas, 23.9 x 20.5 cm. 
Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter active in Delft in the mid-1600’s; he captured everyday, domestic scenes characterizing middle-class life of the Golden Age.  Het Meisje met de Parel is probably his most recognized work, but thirty-four authenticated paintings have been catalogued into museums.  Four of those (including The Lacemaker, right), along with two dozen associated works by artists of the same period, are collected in Vermeer’s Women, a free exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (UK).  It’s a short train ride north from London and a worthwhile detour if you are interested in everyday Dutch life as depicted by a variety of painters contemporary with Vermeer.

The paintings center around women at work in the home.  Tradesmen bring their wares to the front hall (voorhuis) for sale; servant girls offer selected items to the wife living in the personal spaces at the back, interrupting her Steen Stockingsewing.  There are scenes of women lost in their reading of books and letters, leaning from windows to talk with friends, attending to morning or evening dressing (left is Jan Steen, Woman at her Toilet).

As with many Dutch paintings, these often seem dark and brooding, dim settings rendered in melancholy blacks and yellows.  I don’t know if that is realism from the time (large wooden rooms lit by candlelight, with few windows), aging of the paints, or the influence of Rembrandt.  The women look luminous within the pictures, porcelain skin and satin clothes, all finely rendered in bright colors as compared to the flat textures of objects in the rooms.  The accompanying text does a good job of describing the Vrel Woman at a Windoiwnarrative symbolism of objects in the rooms, and of the conventions of household layout and management in the 1600’s (right is Jacobus Vrel, Woman at the Window, exchanging glances with a young girl who might be outside or might only be a reflection).

The pictures, to me, suggest a very solitary life.  The rooms have few furnishings apart from plates above the hearth, a chair and a table and lots of empty floors.   The women seem lost in their own work, seldom talking or making eye contact with one another or the viewer, often turned away.  Children are more often seen entreating distant mothers than playing with them.  The technique and use of colour is lovely, though, and there is lots to reflect about Dutch life both then and now.

The exhibition runs through mid-January.  Lines were long leading into the exhibition but they moved quickly.  Once inside, the best strategy to is drift between paintings: the crowd flows in knots and it’s easy to dip into the gaps and see everything without waiting for each work in turn.

For details on Vermeer’s life, works, and upcoming events highlighting his work, I like The Essential Vermeer, a well constructed and actively maintained web resource.


Jules: said...

It's strange, but the spaces the women are painted in actually seem familiar. I've been living here too long...

Tay said...

An interesting contrast is Vermeers contemporary, Jan Steen, all the color,humor, and rich family life of the common folk and their interior decor, decorum or lack there of,a Jan Steen household is synonymous with failed social aspirations, then and now

David Hampton said...

Hi, Jules, I agree: the bare wood and sparse furnishings do look familiar. I can't decide whether it's a New England memory or something closer to canal house tours in Amsterdam - hopefully it's not a reflection of my apartments!

David Hampton said...

Thanks, Tay - there were three paintings by Steen in the exhibition (the painting of the woman taking off her stocking that I posted was one of them) and I agree that he had more life and color in those few poses than Vermeer did. I will need to look at a wider range of his work to pick up on what you are saying.

He was born into a brewing family that also ran a tavern - do you think that gave him a better eye for more common folk, even though his family was relative well off?

Tay said...

I should have written common behavior. Steen was equally adept at portraying the immoderation of the wealthy. Vermeer setting the example and Steen providing the satire. 17th century dutch uncles.