We only know of 35 of his works, but Johannes Vermeer has altered art history with his powerful mastery of light, a new exhibition demonstrates
Who? Although only around 35 of his paintings are known to exist, Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) is still considered the undisputed master of ‘genre painting’ – an artform that focuses on the beauty of everyday. His depictions of domestic interiors bathed in soft golden light – not to mention the women who appear in them – are so enigmatic that they seem truly alive. His best known work, Girl with a Pearl Earring, features a young woman’s alluring gaze and has transfixed people for centuries. The painting has since been immortalised in both literature and film; etched indelibly on the public consciousness.
Despite his modern day celebrity Vermeer was not an elevated star during his own lifetime, but rather one of many successful painters who influenced and inspired each other. He was born and worked in the Dutch city of Delft, at a time when the Netherlands was the epicentre of creative production. “He was one of several prominent artists creating these scenes of daily life,” says Dr Adriaan Waiboer, curator of the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibition at the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland. “These artists were working in different cities across the Republic, but there are strong relationships between their subject matter, composition and style, which shows that they were seeing each other’s work, whether that was in their studios or in the houses of collectors.”
What? Along with the likes of Gerrit Dou, Gabriël Metsu and Gerard ter Borch, Vermeer successfully dominated a market that demanded scenes of natural, real life, as opposed to traditional court portraiture. However, Vermeer’s ability to create a truly intimate snapshot of quotidian experience is something that has since placed him above the work of his peers. “It is clear that he was hugely influenced by other artists, particularly Ter Borch,” says Waiboer, “but he always adds to it, he just makes it better. He perfects it.”
In his painting The Love Letter Vermeer shows a stolen moment between a nervous mistress and her decidedly confident maid. With the latter’s strident pose and confident smirk she is the star of the painting, showing a strength and power that reveals her true character, as well as a familiar relationship between the two women. It is this ability to evoke authenticity that shows Vermeer’s true genius. Similarly, in Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid, it might be the affluent lady that is in the foreground, bathed in sunlight, but it is her attendant who transfixes us with her knowing glance into the world beyond.
Vermeer’s preoccupation with light and influences of new technologies also set him apart. There is some dispute over whether he used mirrors to set up compositions and copy light refraction, as well as studying the revolutionary capabilities of the camera obscura. One thing is for sure though, he was a true master of composition. He was obsessed with the way light reflected and filled a room, and he was not afraid to ignore reality in order to create the desired effect. “Vermeer was truly capturing what he saw in front of him but he was not actually interested in reality,” says Waiboer. “He wanted to create special illusion, and he wanted to paint light. He is interested in beauty and harmony; he is there to impress you.”
Why? Unlike many of his contemporaries Vermeer refused to compromise his vision. He ignored details that were popular with collectors and partons, such as dogs, children (both moved too much) and more illustrious, aspirational interiors. Instead he focused on his own version of perfection. Which is why, shown alongside his fellow genre painters, Vermeer’s subjects still hold a tangibility which envelops the viewer. Where other painters’ subjects seem locked in the past, Vermeer’s are living, breathing and thinking. He might be well known for one girl in particular, but his astonishing paintings of multiple women all deserve to be equally recognised.
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry opens June 17 and runs until September 17, 2017 at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.