Monday, April 17, 2017

Vermeer, et les Maîtres de la Peinture de Genre @ Le Louvre

Johannes Vermeer - Woman Holding a Balance - Google Art Project.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, 1664
Unfortunately, the defining aspect of this exhibition is the crowds. I have never seen hoards of this magnitude at the Louvre before. So the first thing I have to say about Vermeer, et les Maîtres de la Peinture de Genre is that if it’s Vermeer’s paintings you are interested in, I would suggest a tour of Europe’s major museums bookended by the National Gallery in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum. Because while the dozen or so Vermeer’s on display here are exquisite, getting close to the small, intimate images is virtually impossible.

Johannes Vermeer - The Astronomer - WGA24685.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668
However, in usual Louvre style, the exhibition is remarkable and there are other reasons to wait in line. Not only are the Vermeer paintings beautiful, but the exhibition opens up to the world of Delft in the 17th century, and the wealth of genre painting in Vermeer’s midst. Vermeer favorites such as Woman Holding a Balance (1664), The Milkmaid (1659) , The Astronomer (1668) and others are shown in their contemporary environment of works by Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Maes and others. Usually in exhibitions of this kind, the works by contemporaries pale in comparison to the master whose name is all over the publicity material. Here that is definitely not the case. The contemporaries seemed to me to be as significant as Vermeer, and we are treated to a glimpse of the rich world of 17th century Delft painting. Needless to say, there was no crowding around the lovely works of Vermeer’s contemporaries.
Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, 1669-71
Perhaps most surprising is what we learn about the artistic world in which Vermeer was working. He was certainly no genius working in a vacuum; everyone was painting lacemakers, women with love letters, astronomers and geographers. Moreover, the exact same iconography is used by all of the contemporary painters. With regards to the content and iconography, there is nothing original in Vermeer’s work. Maps and globes are everywhere to signal the dawn of the age of travel and modernity, it was common to show women alone in pursuit of their activities, as it was to see music lessons, marriage propositions and curtains pulled back on intimate scenarios.
Samuel van Hoogstraten, View of an Interior, or The Slippers, 1658
So what is it about Vermeer’s delicate and intimate portraits of every day people doing everyday things that has the Louvre filling up like a football match 350 years later? It’s probably a number of things, including the glimpse into women’s intimate lives, seeing them in quiet reflection, tenderly working the lace, or playing a lute. These works evoke a rare calm that transports us as viewer into the eternal presence of the scenes. They offer a meditative reflection, away from the clamour of history painting, and the grandness of 17th century narratives. However, with the exception of Samuel van Hoogstraten’s layered spaces that evoke rather than depict human activities, all the works in this exhibition could be said to embrace the viewer with their calmness. It's not unique to Vermeer's works.
Johannes Vermeer - Het melkmeisje - Google Art Project.jpg
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1667-68
This question of what sets Vermeer apart pursued me around the exhibition. There is his use of color, particularly the signature blue and yellow, which are not so vibrant on other painters’ canvases. Then again, the silks of, for example, Gerard ter Borch’s, Gallant Conversation (1654) or Eglon van der Neer’s Lute Player at a Virginal (1669) are sumptuous and shine in different ways. But what Vermeer does that none of his contemporaries come near is in the nuances of the light. In juxtaposition, we see light falling through windows and gently embracing the woman as she prepares to weigh her jewelry, or holds her pearl necklace to the light as she reflects on her thoughts in Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace (1662-65). In other paintings of the same genre, the light tends to be more even, and typically harsher. 
Gerard ter Borch, Gallant Conversation, 1654
A lot of effort is made by critics to debate what the women in Vermeer’s paintings are doing, who they are, what class they belong to, and what the narrative that surrounds them entails. On floors strewn with slippers – belonging to both genders – men offering women oysters, or a music lesson, birds in cages and pearl earrings, critics discover adultery, grief, pregnancy out of wedlock, and unrequited love. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter what the paintings represent. What matters is that we are not sure, that there is always a haze of uncertainty cloaking the figures and the objects with which they share the frame. All we can be sure of is in the movement of the light, the mood, the meaning and the emotions it expresses, Vermeer's depictions become sublime. 

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