Vermeer: Women, Secrets and Silence

Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence has been showing since October at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I wrote in my previous post about the Edward Burra exhibition that I probably won’t get to see –  this Vermeer show is another. It finishes this week and has been hugely popular, with crowds packing into the small exhibition space to see the collection of just 32 paintings depicting the world of 17th century Dutch women, as portrayed by Johannes Vermeer and other Dutch masters.

I recall seeing the first large-scale survey of Vermeer’s work at the Mauritshuis in The Hague in 1996. On that occasion 23 of the artist’s paintings – two-thirds of his entire output – were shown together.  We booked months in advance and made it part of  a short holiday in the Netherlands with two friends and five children, including our 12-year old daughter.  The experience wasn’t totally satisfying. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced an exhibition where the crowds were so densely packed in front of the paintings – most of which are pretty small, and so were difficult for to get more than a glimpse of before you were elbowed out of the way.  This YouTube video clip captures the experience perfectly!

The Mauritshuis has a strong connection with Vermeer, with three of the artist’s paintings in its permanent collection. View of Delft was acquired in 1822, shortly after the museum opened its doors, while Diana and her Nymphs followed in 1876 and Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1903.  That miraculous picture didn’t travel to the Fitzwilliam; instead, the idea for an exhibition around the theme of women in Dutch interior painting came after the gallery acquired The Lacemaker (above) on loan from the Louvre.

The success of the Fitzwilliam exhibition testifies to the enduring appeal of Vermeer whose exquisite paintings – so few and so small – portray self-contained and absorbed women in intimate settings, silent and often mysterious. The ravishingly beautiful paintings of Vermeer are the most poetic evocations of the private world of the bourgeois Dutch home in the late 17th century, but other Dutch painters produced outstanding examples of the genre, too – among them Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maes, and Samuel van Hoogstraten.  The Fitzwilliam curators  secured some extraordinary, lesser-known works – in particular the strange interior Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, by Jacobus Vrel, from a private collection in France, in which a woman sits by a window in a brightly-lit room waving to a child – or the ghost of a child – staring in at her from the darkness outside.

Jacobus Vrel: Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, c. 1650

The exhibition has been divided into three sections.  In first section, entitled ‘Invitation’, women are inviting the gaze of an audience. Betsy Wieseman, the exhibition curator, points out the theatrical curtain swept aside in Gerrit Dou’s A Young Woman at Her Toilet, which depicts a woman at her dressing table looking in the mirror, creates an intimacy which is at odds with the stage curtain. Dou’s Woman at a Window and Vermeer’s A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal also feature the curtain drawn aside to reveal the domestic drama within.

Gerrit Dou: A young woman at her toilet, 1667
Gerrit Dou: Woman at a Window
Vermeer: A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c.1670

The second section, entitled ‘Threshold’, replaces the curtain motif with that of doorways, archways and windows. It includes Pieter de Hooch’s The Courtyard of a House in Delft and  Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s View of an Interior, sometimes known as The Slippers. These are classics of the Dutch golden age with their photographic depth of field,  doorways drawing the viewer towards the significant details in the interior. View of an Interior is intriguing, since the female subject can only be inferred from the slippers between the two doorways, perhaps carrying an erotic charge.

Pieter de Hooch: The Courtyard of a House in Delft c.1658
Samuel Van Hoogstraten: View of an Interior, c1658

The final section of the Fitzwilliam exhibition is entitled ‘Sanctum’, and contains the most intimate works of the collection, for example Jan Steen’s Woman at her Toilet.  A young woman is sitting on the edge of her bed and removing a stocking. Marks left by the stocking are visible on her legs. There’s a chamber pot on the floor and a dog lies sleeping on the cushion. To a 21st century viewer it might seem quite an innocent scene, but for a 17th century audience the erotic references in the painting would have been immediately obvious.

Vermeer’s other two pieces in this exhibition are also hung in the last section: A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman or The Music Lesson and of course, The LacemakerThe Music Lesson depicts a private encounter, where there is a great sense of distance between the viewer and the subjects.

Vermeer’s paintings of women represent the ultimate flowering of the Dutch interior which had developed in the first half of the 17th century. In early examples, a number of young people would be represented, dressed in the latest  fashions and engaged in frivolous activities such as drinking, eating and music-making. During the second half of the century, the number of figures was reduced greatly and the genre evolved into the measured and luminous interiors in which subtle nuances of behaviour and light were explored by artists such as Gerard ter Borch, Pieter de Hoogh and Vermeer himself .

Jan Havicksz. Steen: Woman at her Toilet, c1661
Vermeer: A lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman

These masterpieces of genre painting from the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ evoke the private realms inhabited almost exclusively by women who we glimpse engaged in domestic tasks or immersed in pleasurable pastimes.  These subtle and enigmatic paintings celebrate the intimacy of the Dutch household; moments frozen in time on the canvas that reveal young women sewing, reading or playing musical instruments.  Vermeer, especially, invokes a silent and often mysterious domestic realm, closed to the outside world, and inhabited almost exclusively by women and children.

Among the most intriguing of these compositions are those that consciously avoid any engagement with the viewer. Rather than acknowledging our presence, figures avert their gazes or turn their backs upon us; they stare moodily into space or focus intently on the activities at hand. Studying these paintings, we have the impression that we have stumbled upon a private world, observing matters usually kept hidden from the casual viewer.

Jacobus Vrel: A Woman at a Window, 1654

I think it’s this sense that we are being privileged to see intimate and private scenes from a world long vanished that makes these paintings so mesmerizing.  For me, their truth to the daily life of the individuals they portray provokes the same emotions that I feel when I look at the Fayum mummy portraits painted nearly a thousand years ago.  John Berger wrote of those portraits that their individuality feels like our own, that they touch us as if they had been painted last month.

Images of men and women making no appeal whatsoever, asking for nothing, yet declaring themselves, and anybody who is looking at them, alive!  They incarnate, frail as they are, a forgotten self-respect. They confirm, despite everything, that life was and is a gift.

I think that speaks for these Dutch paintings from 400 years ago, too.

Gerard ter Borch: Woman Sewing by a Cradle c.1656

In the case of Vermeer, Lisa Vergara, writing in  The Cambridge Companion to Vermeer, suggests that the beauty of the women in his paintings derives from how they are painted and from their context:

The qualities that we attribute to Vermeer’s work as a whole apply equally to the women they picture: paintings and personages share dignity, equilibrium and an exceptional of both vivid presence and abstract purity. The figures range from girlish to maternal, yet all are youthful, with high curved foreheads, features that evenly balance the individual and the classical, and simple believable postures. Their costuming — its coloring, shapes and associations contributes so much to bodily construction and expression that the absence of nudes from Vermeer’s oeuvre hardly seems surprising.

Mariët Westermann has written about the sense of mystery in Vermeer’s paintings in an essay in Vermeer and the Dutch Interior:

 Even if Vermeer gives us hints about the narrative that may have led to the moment represented in his pictures of readers and writers – pregnancy in the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, a crumpled letter on the floor in front of the desk in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid – he gives us no dues as to its denouement. As so often in Vermeer’s work, we have a sense of proto-cinematic suspense, in that we have no indication of what the next frame will show. What all his writing and reading women have in common, however, is a capacity for absorption in a text, and thus for independent thought. This mental ability is figured not merely by the theme of writing and reading or by averted gazes. Vermeer established the seriousness of these women about literate activity with great pictorial subtlety, as it were making his own thoughtful compositions stand for the mental activity of his actors. It is surely no accident that the vanishing point in the Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid lies precisely in her left hand, which is rigorously focused on the task of writing. The figure in Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is anchored in a geometrically calibrated composition, restricted in color, that forces our focus on the woman’s face and letter, thus on her act of reading.

Vermeer: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, c. 1663
Vermeer: Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, 1670

Neither of these paintings is included in the Fitzwilliam exhibition; there are, however, a couple of paintings that show a woman reading – a letter in the case of Gerard Ter Borch’s Woman Drinking Wine and Holding a Letter, and a superb study by Eglon Van Der Neer of a young woman deep in thought reading a book.

Gerard Ter Borch: Woman Drinking Wine and Holding a Letter c.1665
Eglon Van Der Neer: The Reader, c 1665

Serena Davies provided an interesting analysis of Vermeer’s approach in her review of the Fitzwilliam exhibition for The Telegraph:

The exhibition’s subtitle is Secrets and Silence and it is this theme in Vermeer’s work that curator Marjorie Wieseman is keen to bring out. The ‘intimacy’, as Wieseman calls it, of Vermeer’s pictures, their ‘introspection and quiet contemplation’ in the words of catalogue contributor H Perry Chapman. They contrast considerably with more typical images of the day, such as Jan Steen’s A Woman at Her Toilet (also featured in the exhibition), an image full of erotic suggestion, showing a woman taking off her stocking.

Vermeer’s pictures invite you into the private space of their subjects, but they never condescend to tell us what their subjects are thinking. The artist Lawrence Gowing described The Lacemaker as ‘jewel-like, immaculate and baffling’. And Wieseman, in her catalogue essay to the Fitzwilliam show, asks, ‘How did Vermeer craft an image so alluring and yet so remote, so ageless, so modern, so seemingly random, so deceptively simple?’  In the picture we watch a girl making lace, her head bent over her work, her busy hands picked out of the gloom of the scene by small chunks of light on her forefingers. The tumbling threads in the foreground are blurred, the plain plaster backdrop is, strangely, the most in-focus part of the painting (an effect which is near-photographic).

Detail disappears rather than emerges if you try to ‘zoom in’ to the scene, which then becomes just a pattern of paint. This woman can’t be visually grasped, just as her mind, completely and serenely absorbed by the task in hand, is also closed to us.  There was a tradition of painting lacemakers in Holland in the 17th century, lace-making was meant to be emblematic of a woman’s diligence and docility, but only Vermeer has left us with an image of lace-making where that diligence is given an integrity akin to the painter’s own remarkable craft in creating the picture itself.

There’s another good example of the sophistication of Vermeer’s pictures of women in the Royal Collection’s, The Music Lesson (1665), also in the exhibition. Here Vermeer’s female figure is again quite uninterested in communicating with the viewer – she’s even got her back to us. From the back of her head it appears as if she’s looking down at her keyboard, but the mirror’s reflection above her head shows her face turned towards her teacher (or is he her lover as some scholars think).

Now, as we know from The Lacemaker, Vermeer had a complete command of realism, so we know the different head positions are no error: they are creating uncertainty on purpose. Is the woman concentrating on the music or the man? We can’t tell: it’s her secret. She’s fixed somewhere between the incompatible states of absorption and flirtation by the picture: we seem to see both the outward and the inner personas at the same time.

Here is a gallery of the remaining works in the exhibition:

Gerard Terborch: A Lady Washing Her Hands, c 1655
Quiringh Van Brekelenkam: Confidential Conversation, 1661

Gerard ter Borch: A Young Woman at Her Toilet with a Maid, c 1651
Gerard ter Borch: Woman Peeling Apples c.1661
Pieter de Hooch: Woman and Child with Serving Maid c. 1663

The Big Picture: Vermeer’s Women at the Fitzwilliam Museum – 10 minute introduction

See also

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