Vermeer life list

I got to see the the Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art  in Washington D.C. last week. It wasn’t bad, although it was too crowded and there was a certain sameness to the paintings — on purpose. Here we see a bunch of paintings of women looking into mirrors; here we see a bunch of women writing letters… everyone is influencing everyone else. I preferred the more diverse Dutch exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago.

But in any event I got to introduce myself to a few more Vermeers. There are only 34 paintings firmly attributed to Vermeer, and I’ve now seen over half of them (including the one stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum that is currently buried in some aging mobster’s shed or something). Good for me! To see the rest of them I’ll have to go to the Netherlands, Germany, and Scotland, or hope for another blockbuster touring exhibit or two.

My family isn’t as enamored of Vermeer as I am. But to me there’s something different about Vermeer compared to the other Dutch artists in the exhibit — the light! The enigmatic scenes! I could stare at them forever.

For example, what does this young lady have on her mind?

And why is that dark curtain there on the left side of this painting, as if we’re seeing a scene from a play?

And look at the deep perspective of this painting — why does Vermeer distance us from this scene?

And finally, what is this woman doing with this balance?

Wikipedia tells us:

According to Robert Huerta in Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal (2005), the image has been variously “interpreted as a vanitas painting, as a representation of divine truth or justice, as a religious meditative aid, and as an incitement to lead a balanced, thoughtful life.” Some viewers have imagined the woman is weighing her valuables, while others compare her actions to Christ’s, reading parable into the pearls. Some art critics, including John Michael Montias who describes her as “symbolically weighing unborn souls”, have seen the woman as a figure of Mary.[To some critics who perceive her as measuring her valuables, the juxtaposition with the final judgment suggests that the woman should be focusing on the treasures of Heaven rather than those of Earth. In this perspective, the mirror on the wall may reinforce the vanity of her pursuits.

Well, that certainly clears things up.

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Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

As usual, I didn’t make it to the latest big exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts till the next-to-last weekend, on a rainy Sunday where everyone else in the city seemed to have the same idea.

It was great, although the crowds made it a bit exhausting.  They wouldn’t let you take photographs, so here are images from the Internet.

Here was my favorite Rembrandt, “The Ship-Builder and His Wife”:

I like paintings where you’re not quite sure what’s going on.  This is almost always true of Vermeer paintings.  There were two Vermeers in the exhibit.  Here is “Lady Writing a Letter”:

Is she thinking about her next sentence?  Is she looking at someone?

And here is Vermeer’s “The Astronomer”:

I’ve seen both of these Vermeers before, in Washington and Paris, so I didn’t add to my Vermeer life list.

My favorite painting at the exhibition was this one by Pieter de Hooch, “The Courtyard of a House in Delft”:

Which reminds one of Vermeer’s similar painting, “Little Street”, viewing Delft houses from the street rather than from the courtyard:

Here is an interesting essay comparing both of these great paintings:

Vermeer’s Street in Delft is a greater painting than de Hooch’s, but far harder to write about. Where de Hooch is essentially a moralising painter, an artist for whom images define correct or incorrect social behaviour, Vermeer’s ethical credentials have always seemed somewhat suspect. Reticent, forever withholding or obstructing easy reading of his pictures, Vermeer remains a thoroughly enigmatic artist.

He appraises the houses that are his subject in Street in Delft not from the back but from the front, and at a greater distance than de Hooch in his Courtyard. Although Vermeer’s picture includes genre-like details – the two children in front of the gabled house to the right, playing knucklebones; the woman sewing in the doorway; the other woman, seen through the open doorway to the right, bending over a tub – their diminished scale robs them of the aura, so strong in the de Hooch, of role models, figures meant in some way to instruct. Their faces, moreover, are left blank. This is possibly the most striking example of where Vermeer’s painting differs most fundamentally from de Hooch’s: namely in the daring quality of its realism, its intermittent, inconsistent, variable nature.