Friday, 22 June 2012

Johannes Vermeer, 1632 - 1675

  Girl with a Pearl Earring, Mauritshuis, The Hague 

The paintings of Johannes Vermeer have fascinated me ever since I was a child. I suppose that back then I was primarily drawn to them by the quietude and peace they exuded as well as, of course, by their sheer beauty. Moreover, I was quite simply awestruck by the way Vermeer managed to make his paintings look real, to the point where it became well nigh impossible to tell whether they're paintings or photographs. Photography, of course, had yet to be invented; nevertheless the fact that Vermeer in his paintings excelled at imitating reality and came as close to photography as anyone could get in the 17th century, surely is part of their attraction - then and now. 

  A Lady Writing a Letter, National Gallery, Washington 

Years ago, I embarked on several trips around the world to see those of Vermeer's paintings that I hadn't yet seen. Since there are a mere 36 paintings of his that have survived, all in various museums spread across exactly 13 cities in 6 countries (USA: New York, Washington, Princeton; France: Paris; UK: London, Edinburgh; Ireland: Dublin; The Netherlands: Amsterdam, The Hague; Germany: Frankfurt, Brunswick, Berlin, Dresden), the term around the world is, I suppose a slight exaggeration. But it was nonetheless nothing short of a revelation to finally lay eyes on each and every actual painting of his instead of just looking at their reproductions.

  A Lady Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden 

A revelation indeed - for looking at Vermeer's paintings up-close (or as up-close as museum security will let you), what becomes evident is that the effect of imitating reality and making his painting look like a photograph (though they wouldn't of course have called it that, since photography hadn't yet been invented) is one that is only discernible at a certain distance. If scrutinised, his paintings will appear pixelised, so to speak, with their true and intended effect best coming across when stepping back a foot or two. According to Anthony Bailey's intriguing study on Vermeer - A View of Delft, Vermeer Then and Now - decades later, the technique Vermeer used would be admired and emulated by the Impressionists. Interestingly, one of Vermeer's contemporaries, Diego Velazquez, would also influence the Impressionists, particularly Edouard Manet, though Vermeer and Velazquez apparently never met, nor did they use the same technique. 

  The Lacemaker, Louvre, Paris 

However, Vermeer's paintings recall photographs on another level, inasmuch as virtually all of them show people - mostly women - in motion, as it were, in the middle of doing something, such as weighing pearls, putting on a necklace, reading or writing a letter, and so on. Ad such, his paintings are not unlike snapshots, or put differently, they are the 17th century equivalent of a snapshot. While painting his subjects once the deed was done (meaning, after the pitcher had been put down, the pearls put on, etc.) would seem the obvious thing to do, Vermeer practically always chose to paint them as they were in the process of finishing a task. Doing the opposite, I guess, would have made his paintings quite simply portraits, which is what many - though by no means all - of his contemporaries tended to do. Even what, perhaps, may be called his most famous painting - Girl with a Pearl Earring - the one that comes closest to be classified as a portrait, rather than simply looking straight at the viewer, the girl is also seen in motion as she seems to turn around, looking over her left shoulder.

  The Love Letter, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 

Vermeer was what I'd call an economic painter, a master of composition. Besides his subjects, the objects that surround them are few and, I would argue, carefully chosen. And while their arrangement looks ever so haphazard, I'm sure Vermeer took great care arranging them the way they best fitted the composition he had in mind. A far cry from the - often very cluttered - paintings of some of his peers, Vermeer's seem downright empty. Yet it is this purity and clarity that make his paintings so elegant. That, and the exquisite use of colours. Again, I am convinced that what seems to random and incidental was, in fact, the result of careful deliberation on his part. But it's not just the way he used colours, it is also the colours themselves - especially the blues and the yellows - that are so much more alive, and so much more intense, than the same (or rather: similar) colours in the paintings by his peers. 

  Woman with a Pearl Necklace, Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin 

Part of our ongoing fascination with Vermeer's work is the fact that so little is known about him or the women in his paintings. Who were they? Why did he paint them? Were the paintings commissioned? Much of Vermeer's background and the genesis of his paintings is shrouded in mystery. This, needless to say, contributes not a little to why we're so captivated by them. This paucity of information regarding Vermeer's life and work has also inspired a great deal of speculation, resulting in a number of novels, and even films. The best known example may be Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which she cleverly traces - or rather: imagines - the genesis of this, Vermeer's most famous painting. In so doing, Chevalier, also goes into much detail concerning the paint Vermeer used and in everything she describes, including Vermeer's studio, his patrons, and his family life, it is obvious that she did her homework, immersing herself in 17th century Dutch history, resulting in a meticulously woven and carefully constructed story that is as compelling to read as it is instructive. 

 A Woman with a Water Pitcher, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

As with every bestseller, this one, too, was soon picked up by a film studio, though as with most great books, they usually turn into bad films. Or rather, get turned into bad films. But bad is perhaps too strong a word. Peter Webber's film isn't bad, it's just uninspired and inconsequential, and a far cry from being as spellbinding as the book it is based on. Let alone the painting!


For those about to head for Tokyo, visiting the exhibition From Renaissance to Rococo - Four Centuries of European Drawing, Painting and Sculpture currently shown at Tokyo's National Museum Of Western Art, is a great opportunity to see a few of Vermeers paintings, among them Woman with a pearl Necklace, on loan from Berlin's Gemaeldegalerie.