By Carter B. Horsley
For those who indulge in list-making, Johannes
Vermeer (1632-1675) is usually in the top-10-painters-of-all-time
list of all time, and some may put him very near the top, not
far beyond Van Gogh and Van Eyck.
Vermeer's oeuvre is small and only totals about
three dozen paintings.
His appeal is his subject matter - mostly warmly
lit interiors with pensive figures - and his wondrous technique.
His paintings are marvelous compositional studies, most often
characterized either by an open window at the left that lets in
abundant sunlight and a carpet-covered table at which a well-dressed
woman may be reading a letter or is merely lost in reflection,
or a portrait of a woman with her head turned towards the viewer.
His human subjects are handsome and engaging and rather mysterious.
Their pre-occupied images arouse our interest. They are always
elegant, but there is an edge of uncertainty about them. While
their secure surroundings give no indication of danger, they convey
a potential for change, a time for decisions, an unraveling, a
denouement. They are fraught with the future even as they contemplate
There is an anticipatory stillness to many
of his paintings, but it is not necessarily "the calm before
the storm." We do not see them as voyeurs but familiar, but
perhaps helpless friends.
Once seen, Vermeer's best paintings are hard
to forget. They haunt and resonate in the memory. Like star sapphires,
their jewel-like surfaces are extremely rich and sublimely finished.
Indeed, Vermeer shares with Van Eyck the talent for producing
"perfect" pictures. With other great painters, it is
often easy to conjure variations of composition, or palette, or
subject, but much of the best work by Vermeer and Van Eyck seems
to be just right and beyond improvement. They totally engage the
viewer. This engagement is very fascinating and mysterious. It
is often hard to discern the artist's intent. Is it loving reverie,
fond remembrance, or a commentary on the fickleness of fate, or
the passage of time, or the meaning of life? Was he capturing
a happy or sad moment? Are the portrayed comfortable, or content,
with themselves, or are they on the precipice of a crisis, or
There is certain a lot of nostalgia in Vermeer's
work. Things appear to have been very thoughtfully arranged with
great taste and balance. Someone has tidied things and not left
anything to chance. The works exude equilibrium, but also suggest
that scales can be tipped. These are not just pretty pictures.
The quality of late summer afternoon light is magical. The figures
have dignity and grace. The settings are sumptuous. The subjects
are alert. We are tempted to ponder, therefore, "what is
wrong with this picture."
"Is that all there is?" was the title
of a song made popular several decades ago by Peggy Lee. It is
apt for many of Vermeer's paintings. The answer, of course, is
that what is there is there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. Life
is in front of us, behind us and all around us. It is what we
are able to make of it. Why do we fall in love with someone? Perhaps
it is because we see them in a particular aura brought about by
a confluence of many different factors, some temporal, some pyschological,
some physical and some emotional. Vermeer's paintings freeze such
moments. They infatuate us. They are ineffable, endearing and,
despite their apparent stillness, energetic. They capture concentration.
They are intense.
This exhibition includes 15 oils by the master
and all the accepted works are reproduced in color in the large
catalogue, which is available at the museum's bookshop for $50.
One of the artist's finest works, "The Lacemaker," which
is in the collection of the Louvre in Paris, unfortunately is
not in the exhibition. In it, the artist focuses on the bent head
of the woman, which is bathed in a soft, but bright light, highlighting
her ringlets of hair and the bright colors of the garments. It
is small, but sublime, and there is no doubt that the artist loved
the women's focus, her feminity, her work and her "space."
It is a painting of great joy in the simple things of life.
Another work that is similarly happy is "Young
Woman Seated at a Virginal," shown above in a scan of its
reproduction in The New York Times March 2, 2001, perhaps
the most controversial work in the exhibition in as much its authorship
as a Vermeer is still in some doubt, enough so that it is not
included in the catalogue, unfortunately. The woman is similar
to the one on "The Lacemaker" and Vermeer's painterly,
and impressionistic, rendering of her clothes is also similar
to it, although the drapery of her skirt has apparently been retouched
and is not up to the standards we expect from the artist. The
quality of the rest of the picture, however, rings true to Vermeer.
The article in The New York Times by Carol Vogel carried the headline,
"Well, Is She Or Isn't She?" and noted that the "painting,
tucked away in a private collection for more than 40 years, is
causing quite a stir as scholars, conservators, curators and auction
house experts study it, trying to determine whether it is in fact
lost art by this Dutch master." "The work once belonged
to Sir Alfred Beit, the distinguished Irish collector who also
owned Vermeer's famous 'Lady Writing a Letter With a Maid' [now
in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland]. In 1960
he sold 'Young Woman Seated at a Virginal' to Baron Freddy Rolin,
a Brussels collector," the article continued, adding that
conservators at the University College in London analyzed the
painting's pigments and found one that was rarely used by anyone
but Vermeer and that X-rays indicated that some sections were
repainted in the late 17th Century and that parts of the woman's
face had been slightly retouched.
Several of the artist's most classic works
are included such as the "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,"
"Woman with a Lute,", "A Maid Asleep," "Study
of a Young Woman," and "Allegory of the Faith,"
all from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, "Mistress
and Maid" from the collection of The Frick Collection, and
"Woman in a Red Hat," shown above, from the National
Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., perhaps his most startling
work because the women's hat is so vibrantly colored and so dominant
in the small painting as to make it almost abstract despite its
realism. "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher," an 18-by-16-inch
oil on canvas, was a gift to the Metropolitan by Henry G. Marquand
in 1889. "Woman with a Lute," a 20 1/4-by-18-inch oil
on canvas, was a gift to the Metropolitan by Collis P. Huntington
in 1900. "A Maid Asleep,' a 34 1/2-by-30 1/8-inch oil on
canvas, was a bequest to the Metropolitan by Benjamin Altman in
1913. "Allegory of the Faith" is an oil on canvas, 45
by 35 inches, was a bequest to the Metropolitan by Michael Friedsam
in 1931. "Study of a Young Woman," a 17 1/2-by-15 3/4-inch
oil on canvas, was a gift to the Metropolitan from Mr. and Mrs.
Charles Wrightsman, in memory of Theodore Rousseau Jr., in 1979.
"Study of a Young Woman" is a very sweet study but is
not as vibrant and alluring as "Girl with a Pearl Earring,"
a 17 1/2-by-15 1/8-inch oil on canvas that is in the collection
of the Koninkijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Other famous works in the exhibition include
"Young Woman Seated at a Virginal," shown above, and
"Young Woman Standing at a Virginal," both from the
National Gallery in London.
"The Art of Painting," shown at the
top of this article, is perhaps the artist's masterpiece, and
it adorns the catalogue's cover. It is one of his largest works,
measuring 47 1/4 by 39 3/8 inches. Executed
circa 1666-8, it is in the collection of the Kunissthistorisches
A couple of early works are also quite large
and rather puzzling as their painterliness is such that were it
not for their historical documentation and provenance one would
be tempted not to consider them as Vermeers, but then that would
be to fall into the trap of extrapulating stylistic formulas and
forgetting that artists are not always consistent, change or improve
their styles and techniques, and have off days, or weeks. It is
therefore refreshing to see them for such works give insights
into an artist's development and temperament.
Vermeer's paintings are almost all interiors
with a couple of exceptions, one of which, "The Little Street
(Het Straatje)," an oil on canvas, 21 1/8 by 17 1/8 inches,
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is included in the exhibition.
In 1995, the National Gallery of Art in Washington,
D.C., held a Vermeer exhibition that was extremely popular and
there are six paintings in this exhibition that were not shown
in Washington. In his preface to this exhibition, Philippe de
Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, noted that
the Metropolitan had planned its show before the Washington exhibition
and then decided to postpone it for a few years.
More than half of this exhibition is given
over to other artists who were working in Delft such as Carel
Fabritius and Gerard Houckgeest. Fabritius (1622-1654), who was
one of the most famous pupils of Rembrandt, is well represented
by a self-portrait and a picture of a goldfinch, shown above,
both marvelous and very fine paintings, and "A View in Delft,"
a very, very interesting perspective study. Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684),
who is perhaps the artist whose work comes closest to Vermeer's,
is represented by a pair of street scenes that are quite similar
to the Vermeer street scene in the exhibition. The other artists
are relatively minor masters whose work mostly involved architectural
interiors. Of these, Emanuel de Witte (1616-1691-2) stands out
for his quite bold works in which he obscured much of the interiors
with lush curtains. The best of these is "Tomb of William
the Silent in the Niew Kerk, Deft, with an Illusionistic Curtain."
One of the exhibition's finest works is "A
Musical Party," by Jacob van Velsen (circa 1597-1656), a
delightful composition with a bold and waterful handling of light.
Surprisingly, the most famous of the Dutch
architectural painters, Pieter Saenendam, is not represented in
the exhibition although the catalogue makes passing references
to him. His works are noted for their fine quality of light and
their excellent compositions.
One could argue that the inclusion of the other
artists in this exhibition detracts seriously from our appreciation
of the Vermeers for it takes a lot of galleries before one sees
a Vermeer and they are so much greater than the other artists'
work that it is a relief but almost too late for tired museum-goers.
Certainly, it is important to consider an artist's oeuvre in the
context of his time and it is also good to be exposed to as much
art as possible, but in the case of Vermeer one almost would have
liked to have seen only one painting in each gallery to really
concentrate on it, although such a lavish approach would probably
be criticized for being too extravagant. Nonetheless, there is
a lot to be said for such isolation when dealing with true masterpieces
and most of Vermeer's paintings definitely qualify as such.