Sphinx no longerVermeer was brilliant, but he was not without influences
A blockbuster show punctures the myth of the solitary genius
JOHANNES VERMEER’S depictions of contemplative moments in serene Dutch interiors have made viewers lean in and gasp for centuries. Only 34 paintings out of a total of no more than 50 have survived, and there are no extant diaries or letters to reveal the intimate chambers of his own life. He was nicknamed “the Sphinx of Delft” by a 19th-century art historian, and thus was born the image of a lone genius working in isolation.
“Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry”, which attracted record crowds during stays in Paris and Dublin, and which comes to the National Gallery of Art in Washington on October 22nd, was designed to shatter that myth. Presenting ten of his masterpieces alongside comparable pieces by artists of his era, the curators seek to present Vermeer as a painter in an artistic milieu, engaged in an active exchange of ideas.Get our daily newsletter
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All artists trade ideas with others, says Adriaan Waiboer of the National Gallery of Ireland, and the exhibition’s lead curator. “What is interesting is which ideas does Vermeer take from other people and how does he change them?” One of the attributes often associated with Vermeer, for example, is a focus on a solitary figure standing alone in a room near a window, engaged in a household task like sewing, pouring milk or writing a letter. Although Vermeer excelled at these genre scenes, they were pioneered by an older artist, Gerard ter Borch.
In the 17th century, Ter Borch was the most influential of all the artists in the show, says Arthur Wheelock of Washington’s National Gallery, a co-curator. He “established a new framework for subject matter, taking people into the sanctum of the home”, showing the figures’ uncertainties and expertly hinting at their inner lives. “That is transformative in terms of what that genre was all about. The question is ‘why has Vermeer overtaken Ter Borch as a painter?’”
A painter’s son himself, Ter Borch was encouraged to study in London and travel to Spain, where he observed the work of Velázquez, and to paint in what was considered the “modern style”. He brought these ideas back to Holland, where his paintings influenced Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou, Eglon van der Neer and Vermeer.
The exchange of love letters between men and women, for example, was one of the major themes of Dutch genre painting in the years from 1650 to 1675. The first known portrayal of the subject was in 1655-56 by Ter Borch, using his half-sister, Gesina, as a model, with an inked quill in hand. Metsu painted two stunning paintings of the same subject in the early 1660s, using both male and female subjects. Frans van Mieris depicted a woman sealing a letter by candlelight in 1667. Vermeer painted his famous “Lady Writing” (pictured) in 1665-66, and the lovely “Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid” in 1670-71.
Seeing these side-by-side, it is easy enough to pick out shared elements: a table covered with a cloth or rug; a window opened for daylight; an attendant waiting to convey the letter; the moment before sending, pregnant with expectation. It is thus easy to make the link between artists that the curators want to demonstrate, observing what each subsequent painter borrowed from the previous one, and also what he (all the artists in the show are male) chose to jettison along the way.
It is seductive to engage in rating them by their various stylistic achievements: Metsu’s fabric textures are rendered in a superior fashion, for example. Vermeer’s facial features are sometimes inferior, but his sense of colour and light is leagues beyond that of his contemporaries.
The notion that Vermeer may not have been a true originator, but rather a follower or even—gulp—a copycat, would be heresy to fans who have a cult-like love of his genius. But viewers of the two previous iterations of the exhibition in Paris and Dublin seem to be unruffled by the suggestion.
“People keep saying to me that ‘I always liked Vermeer most,’ and I say ‘that was the whole point of the show,’” said Mr Waiboer. “I don’t believe that we need to tell people that Vermeer was an exceptional artist, because people can see that for themselves.” Instead, the show reveals how a genre painter, in dialogue with contemporaries, can still tower above them.Reuse this contentAbout The Economist