Published  01/09/2017

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry

The organisers of this exhibition are keen to show how the Dutch genre painters both drew inspiration from one another and were spurred on by rivalry, but this intention is undercut by the paintings of Vermeer. The others painted for their time while he painted for all time

Johannes Vermeer. The Astronomer, 1668 (detail). Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures, Acquired by "dation" in 1982.

Musée de Louvre, Paris
22 February – 22 May 2017

National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
17 June – 17 September 2017

National Gallery of Art, Washington
22 October 2017 – 21 January 2018


For many Vermeer-lovers like myself who flew to The Hague in the summer of 1966 to see In the Light of Vermeer, the great exhibition promoted by André Malraux, France’s then minister of culture, our assumption was that we would never see so many works by the Dutch master in one place again. The exhibition, held at the Mauritshuis and subsequently transferred to the Orangerie Museum in Paris, contained 10 Vermeers, including two that were still in private hands. (In Paris, 12 Vermeers were included, three from private collections.) In 1966, no computer website existed – such as the invaluable Sortable Table of All Vermeer Exhibitions from 1838-2018 – indicating the 275 occasions to date (plus two scheduled to take place) on which his paintings have been shown to the public. On those occasions, however, the work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) was seen in the company of other masters. In the Light of Vermeer, in its venue at The Hague, also contained 51 paintings by artists who shared thematic or stylistic affinities, above all artists (as the exhibition organiser AB de Vries explained) who shared with the Dutch master the ability to fuse “realism” with “poetry”.1 Hence, those of us lucky enough to be in The Hague in 1966 were also treated to masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Giorgione, Caravaggio, Diego Velázquez, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (four of his best paintings), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (four works), Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne (three paintings).

Not until 1995 did an exhibition devoted exclusively to Vermeer take place: Arthur K Wheelock Jr’s gathering for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, of 21 works, nearly two-thirds of his surviving oeuvre. (That exhibition, containing two additional paintings, subsequently moved to the Mauritshuis in 1996.) In 2001, New York’s Metropolitan Museum hosted Vermeer and the Delft School, an exhibition curated by Walter Liedtke, containing 16 Vermeers, which subsequently transferred to the National Gallery, London.2 Before long, Vermeers would be flying off to Madrid, Tokyo, Shanghai and Rome, among other cities. And this year, Paris was again the scene of a hugely popular exhibition, featuring 12 Vermeers, most of which have now moved on to the Irish National Gallery in Dublin and will transfer to Washington in October, putting the artist in the company of other Dutch genre painters.

Johannes Vermeer. Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c1662-65. Oil on canvas, 51.2 x 45.1 cm (20 3/16 x 17 3/4 in). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie.

The organisers of the latest exhibition, Adriaan E Waiboer (head curator of the National Gallery of Ireland), Blaise Ducos (the Louvre’s curator for Dutch and Flemish paintings) and Wheelock (again), want us to see Vermeer alongside his contemporaries who, in their depictions of everyday life, “frequently drew inspiration from each other’s works and tried to surpass them in verisimilitude, technical prowess and aesthetic appeal”. Most of the these artists have been featured in memorable solo exhibitions – Washington saluted Gerard ter Borch in 2004 and Gabriel Metsu in 2011, for example – and the Met’s superb Vermeer and the Delft School made clear the links between Delft’s most famous artist and his predecessors and contemporaries (most notably Pieter de Hooch, who lived in Delft in the 1650s). But until now, no one has voiced so emphatically the view (as Waiboer does in the opening chapter of the catalogue for Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting)3 that a work such as Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace (c1662-5)(in the Berlin museum) was not based on the artist’s actual sight of such a subject (for example, seeing his wife Catharina putting on a necklace), but was, in fact, created only after he had travelled to Leiden to see Frans van Mieris’s Woman before a Mirror (c1662). Van Mieris, in turn, “had drawn inspiration from Young Woman at her Toilet (1650-51) [all three works are in the exhibition] by Gerard ter Borch”. Waiboer has “little doubt” that this was the case; and repeatedly through the catalogue chapters he assumes that all the artists in the exhibition were engaged in rivalry with one another. Their aim may have been to pay homage to another master (Van Mieris, for example, deferring to his teacher Gerrit Dou), or it may be that the artists were keen to show off and “surpass” their borrowings, or perhaps they were responding to the desires of their “clientele”, who would have been happy, in turn, to exercise their powers of connoisseurship. (The role of the artists’ patrons in encouraging the production of certain types and styles of paintings was demonstrated by John Michael Montias in his landmark 1989 book, Vermeer and his Milieu: A Web of Social History.4) Nevertheless, Wheelock tends to undercut the exhibition’s thesis when he suggests that Vermeer’s work is not about borrowing from others, but is, in fact, a proof of how Vermeer transcends time and place.

Gerard ter Borch. Young Woman at her Toilet with a Maid, c1650-51. Oil on wood, 47.6 x 34.6 cm (18 3/4 x 13 5/8 in). Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.10).

When Wheelock examines Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace, for example, he dutifully acknowledges its “relationship” with the Ter Borch and Van Mieris paintings, but he also sees a different “purpose” underlying the Vermeer. Vermeer’s lady is not accompanied by her maid (as the Ter Borch lady is), nor is she admiring her expensive jewellery and clothing (as in the Van Mieris work) for the sake of a possible sexual conquest. Vermeer’s lady, set apart from the viewer, seems to be meditating on something personal but also profound. “Intimately related to Vermeer’s pictorial intent,” Wheelock says, “are the positive symbolic associations of pearls with faith, purity and virginity, and the mirror is an attribute of truth. As the woman gazes into a mirror while holding her pearls, her pose has a timelessness that evokes inner strength and purity, providing this genre scene with a moral and philosophical underpinning more traditionally associated with history paintings.”

While drawing on the genre subjects beloved by Dutch art collectors – a woman reading or writing a letter (probably a love letter), a woman playing a musical instrument (sometimes accompanied by a male admirer), a woman being offered food or wine (with explicitly erotic overtones) – Vermeer did so to express and recommend truths concerning the human situation. Dutch art theorists frequently extolled history painting as the ideal medium for the expression of such truths; and Vermeer’s earliest-known works (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha from c1654-5, Diana and Her Companions from c1655-6,) are history paintings of this nature. By the age of 25, Vermeer had daringly chosen, reverently, to paint The Milkmaid (c1658-9) – the “star” of the Paris exhibition, but unfortunately not on view in Washington – a subject previously rife with sexual associations, milkmaids being (as Ducos notes) “discreet object[s] of desire.” (The Dutch word “to milk” also means “to seduce”.) Wheelock, in his 1995 catalogue, said of her: “Vermeer’s figure has an iconic character that is unprecedented in Dutch art.”5 As she provides “life-sustaining food” for the viewer, she seems almost akin (as Montias noted of Vermeer’s idealisations of his subjects)4 to one of Raphael’s nurturing Madonnas.

Although the Paris installation contained, among the 80 genre paintings on display, many masterpieces by Ter Borch, Metsu and De Hooch, the crowds flocked to the dozen Vermeers, and rightly so. It was not difficult for the visitor to have an uninterrupted view of Ter Borch’s beautiful Woman Writing a Letter (c1655-6)(from the Mauritshuis) or his Woman Peeling Apples (c1660-1)(from Vienna). The latter painting hangs next to Vermeer’s most ambitious work, The Art of Painting (1666-7) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum; and it is impossible not to be enchanted by this small canvas of a mother preparing a fruit for her child. (One is reminded here that Vermeer, the father of 11 children, never includes a child in his genre paintings.) Two of the most appealing paintings on view – Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter (c1664-66) and its pendant Woman Reading a Letter (c1664-66) (Dublin) – have sometimes been called the most beautiful Vermeer paintings not painted by Vermeer. The Paris exhibition began with paintings by De Hooch (from Berlin) and Vermeer (from Washington) of a woman holding a balance. The paintings are so similar in structure that it is impossible to imagine the two Delft painters not being aware of what the other has created.

And yet, we are not certain whether De Hooch inspired the Vermeer (as Wheelock thinks) or if Vermeer inspired the De Hooch (as Liedtke says in his fine 2008 study of the artist6). The table next to the De Hooch lady contains gold coins, while the table next to Vermeer’s lady contains coins and a box of jewellery. De Hooch’s lady is in a room filled with light, illuminating her fur-trimmed jacket and bright red skirt; Vermeer’s lady is a dark room and her figure is darkened by shadows. Behind the De Hooch lady is a door leading to another room; behind the Vermeer lady is a painting of the Last Judgment, hinting at our fate if we do not live our lives with “temperance and balanced judgment” (Wheelock). In short, De Hooch’s lady is emphatically of this world only, happily showing off her worldly goods, while Vermeer’s lady exists on a level between this world and the next. If the intention of the exhibition was to show how the Dutch genre paintings came into existence mainly because of the efforts of artists to rival and surpass one another, and how Vermeer in particular cannot be understood outside this commercial and aesthetic context, this intention is undercut by the actual Vermeer paintings.

One of the best reasons for flying to Paris, Dublin, or Washington is the chance to see united two Vermeers that were clearly intended as pendants, but are now divided between museums in Paris and Frankfurt: The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). Neither of these works, which each contains a single male figure (unique among Vermeer’s oeuvre), is really a genre painting. The two were flanked in Paris by paintings of an astronomer by Dou, famous for his “fine style” of painting (he was the most successful of Rembrandt’s pupils). Ducos, in his comments on the four paintings, is certain that Vermeer was influenced by the Dou paintings; yet seeing them together, one may admire Dou’s flashy technique while doubting Ducos’s thesis that the subject is a scholar who “gropes for knowledge” in a dark universe. Vermeer’s paintings, by contrast, take us into the minds of the two men. (The same man modelled for both works.) Vermeer’s astronomer gazes raptly at a “celestial planisphere” (Liedtke). On the wall behind him is a painting of The Finding of Moses. The allusion to Moses (sometimes called the “oldest geographer,” according to Liedtke) reminds us that there is another realm behind this world, and it also enforces the view of divine providence. (In Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid (1670-71) (Dublin), the same painting of Moses is seen in vastly expanded form. Perhaps Vermeer is suggesting that the lady’s letter will lead to as providential an outcome as Moses’s being found by Pharaoh’s daughter?) Vermeer’s geographer has maps to guide him, not a celestial globe or a painting of Moses, but like all good scholars, Vermeer seems to say, he draws on his empirical studies while not neglecting the quest for Truth. “Both pictures have essentially the same meaning and depict the same person,” notes Liedtke, “who is the contemporary scholar, combining the wisdom of the ages with modern experience.”

Exhibited in Paris but not in Dublin or Washington was Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith (1671-4), which (like The Astronomer and The Geographer) could scarcely be called a genre painting. This was the last, the climactic, work to be seen in the Louvre exhibition, and it obviously expressed a deep personal meaning as Vermeer was a member of a faith persecuted in 17th-century Holland. It is no less important for our understanding of Vermeer as The Art of Painting in Vienna. In the latter painting, which the artist seems to have painted for himself, Vermeer demonstrates his confidence in the powers of art to express truth. In both works, Vermeer revealed how different he was from other Dutch genre painters. They painted for their time; he painted for all time. Surely the organisers of the 1965 In the Light of Vermeer show were justified in showing how Holland’s greatest painter after Rembrandt can ultimately be judged and enjoyed only by his own light.

Professor Donald Stone teaches at Peking University.


1. In the Light of Vermeer: Five Centuries of Painting – Jubilee-Exhibition Mauritshuis 1816-1966; The Hague 25 June – 5 September 1966, by AB de Vries et al, published by Ando, 1966.

2. Vermeer and the Delft School by Walter Liedtke, Michiel C Plomp and Axel Rüger, Axel, published by Yale University Press, 2001.

3. Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry by Adriaan E Waiboer, Arthur K Wheelock Jr and Blaise Ducos, published by Yale University Press, 2017.

4. Vermeer and His Milieu: A Web of Social History by John Michael Montias, published by Princeton University Press, 1989.

5. Johannes Vermeer by Arthur K Wheelock Jr, published by Yale University Press, 1995.

6. Vermeer: The Complete Paintings by Walter Liedtke, published by Ludion, 2008.

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