Vermeer has always been one of my favorite painters—his ability to draw me into a space is uncanny, and once there I want to reach out and caress the fabrics and furniture. But there is always a person in that room, caught unaware in a moment of contemplation, and so I tiptoe away, sensing that I'm being nosy. Vermeer's output was limited—only 35 paintings have been authenticated—so each of his canvasses is a masterpiece. I've been lucky enough to view the Vermeers in New York, Boston, and Paris, and I regularly visit the four gems that reside in the National Gallery of Art in DC. I was especially fortunate to get to see the 1996 Vermeer exhibition at NGA three times (despite crowds, bad weather, and politically motivated government closings). So I was curious to view the latest exhibit at the National Gallery, "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry." Observing his work in relation to his contemporaries was a revelation. During the 17th century, the Dutch were masters of genre paintings that depicted daily life in genteel interiors. The paintings here represent the best of the best—small, ravishing canvasses illustrating stories about the denizens of those interior spaces. It becomes obvious that, although Vermeer was inspired by the same subjects as his contemporaries—women playing musical instruments, women at daily tasks—he wasn't telling stories, he was observing, spying even. The writer in "Lady writing a letter with her maid" may be intent on finishing her love letter, but her maid glances wistfully out the window. Is she bored? Does she wish she had her own lover? Can she even write? The scene remains unresolved, and the serenity of the light drifting onto the table accentuates the transitory nature of the setting, as if Vermeer is painting memory. I could wax on about his amazing color sense and the perspective in his compositions, but instead I encourage a visit to NGA before the show closes in January.
"The Lacemaker," c. 1669–1671. "Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry," October 22, 2017 – January 21, 2018. Be prepared for crowds on weekends and near the holidays.
And for more information than you could possibly digest on Vermeer, go to this fascinating site, Essential Vermeer.