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Featured Image: Girl with a Pearl Earring, 46.5 x 40 cm, Mauritshuis Den Haag 1665
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 13 April 2020
Johannes Vermeer Paintings (1632-1675)
In my last article International Peasant Foods, I spoke of a trip from Canada down through Mexico and South America, which included two-and-a half weeks in New York. From this article and the one on Winnipeg food you may have gathered that I was a conventional soul. From this it should come as no surprise that the first old master I fell in love with instantly I saw the real paintings was Johannes or Jan Vermeer.
In New York I was fortunate to see and admire three Johannes Vermeer paintings at the Frick Museum and five at the Met. All profoundly wonderful. Eight Vermeer paintings represents about one fifth of the Vermeers in existence.
After I left South Africa, I spent two weeks with my girl friend’s brother in the Hague and a few days more in Amsterdam. My first view of the Girl with a Pearl Earring c. 1665 at the Mauritshuis was gobsmacking. I had a similar feeling because I wasn’t expecting it when I first saw the large Art of Painting 1666-68 at the Kunst Historische in Vienna. I viewed Art of Painting several times on that trip and spent at least an hour on two occasions contemplating it. I’ve done the same thing with Girl with a Pearl Earring.
The Mauritshuis in the Hague and the Riksmuseum, Amsterdam added another seven Vermeer paintings to my viewing tally making fifteen and I saw two more in London at the National Gallery and two at the Louvre in Paris which made up nineteen or 51% of the total Vermeers in the world (37, including three disputed ones). All this by 1975 was more by luck than intent. But I have never lost my admiration for Vermeer as a painter.
Many years later I’ve raised my tally to 76% or three quarters. None of this has been by major intent and some of it has been by accident. I am not a twitcher (a term for ticking off bird species) and I am always happy to see Vermeer paintings over and over again because each is a rare occasion. I never tire of them. Each viewing is through the same naïve eyes as my first impression of Vermeer in New York.
I have added to my tally with trips to Dublin, Vienna and Berlin. Denise and I were also quite fortunate to view Italy’s first Vermeer exhibition Johannes Vermeer and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. We stumbled upon it at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome in October 2012. It was open in the evening and there were hardly any other visitors. The exhibition had eight Vermeer paintings, several marvellous and two disputed ones.
I have shamelessly referenced other painters in my own art because of a joy in art. In particular, I have used Hieronymus Bosch, Italian Renaissance artists and MC Escher among many others in my art making. I haven’t used Johannes Vermeer in the same way, but his art does perhaps indirectly underlie some of my main ideas in making art.
I love world art from all eras, but it is only Vermeer and my excitement at walking into the Jeu de Paume (tennis courts) on my first trip to Paris and viewing the wonders of impressionism that have made the earth move. It took me years to forgive the French for moving these works to the Musée d’Orsay.
Johannes Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632. He painted 45 to 60 paintings between 1653 and 1675 or just two to three a year. He was the second child and first son of his parents. His father Reynier Jansz. Vos used the Vermeer name for the first time in 1640. His father was initially a silk worker, who later was an art dealer (registered with the Guild of St Luke). He ran an inn on the Voldersgracht (the key canal in the centre of Delft) and later having prospered bought a large 16th century house in 1641 with an adjacent inn called ‘Mechelin’ in the Delft’s main square.
He died in 1642 and the business was taken over by Johannes. In April 1653 Vermeer married Catharina Bolnes, a Catholic and he converted to Catholicism. Although Catholicism was a minority religion, the Netherlands being firmly Calvinist, it did not seem to impede Vermeer in Delft. He became a member of the painter’s Guild of St Luke in December 1553 and was elected head of the guild in 1662-1663 aged only thirty. In 1672 he was again elected head of the guild for a second term.
The death of the stadhouder (provinicial governor) in 1647 and of his son William II of Orange in 1650 led to a decline in the influence of The Hague over Delft and seemingly to an increase in the activity of painters in Delft.
In 1660 Vermeer, his wife and mother-in-law moved from the centre of Delft to Oude Langendijk not far away (part of the Catholic enclave or ‘Popes Corner’). Although the Catholic churches were ransacked in 1666 and converted to Calvinist places of worship and Catholicism prohibited, wealthy Catholics were still present in the country as a whole and in Delft. Delft’s Catholics held their masses in a house overlooking Oude Langendijk and this was known about in the Delft community.
Vermeer’s mother-in-law Maria Thins was independently wealthy and loaned the young couple money on various occasions. Much has been made of Vermeer’s modest means of income and his debts, but the evidence is too scanty to demonstrate this and his debts may have had to do with art dealing.
Irene Netta a Vermeer Scholar says following the death of William II in 1650 that rule fell to the patrician classes:
Under Johan de Witt, the acting head of government, a long period of stable internal politics and great economic success followed from 1653 to 1672 — coincidentally Vermeer’s main creative phase. With the Dutch East India Company and possessions in Africa and the Americas, the United Provinces became Europe’s leading trading and sea power for a time with a fleet larger than England’s. It is in this context that the Dutch talk of a ‘Golden Age’.
When France invaded the Dutch Republic in 1672, the Dutch economy collapsed, badly affecting Vermeer and his family. When Vermeer died in 1675 he did leave his wife and a large number of children in debt. Nevertheless, Catharina did not appear to have great difficulty in clearing these debts by judicious sale of goods and in selling of some of his paintings.
Vermeer’s painting style was partly isolated from other influences. Though he appears to have been influence by a few local painters and perhaps by Caravaggio through the Caravaggisti in Utrecht. His work also appears detached from the hustle and bustle of life in Delft. His interior studies convey a peaceful solitude. An in depth-look at his painting style, however, yields incredible technique in the details and he was a master of light, perhaps through experimentation with a camera obscura.
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