This video says about itself:
Exhibition on Screen: Vermeer and Music. Cinema Trailer
On 28 January 2018, I went to see this film. The London exhibition which the film is about was unique, as Vermeer paintings depicting music were exhibited together for the first time. Vermeer depicted musical instruments and people playing them quite often: on one-third of the paintings known to be by him, 12 out of 36.
Vermeer made more paintings than 36: probably about 50. Not that many: he worked slowly and meticulously. And he lived 1632-1675, dying at only 43 years old.
What do we know about Vermeer‘s life? Not much. We don’t have writings by the painter on his works or other subjects. He did not give his paintings titles. Like older Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Like with Bosch, this means there are many hypotheses on his art of which we don’t know whether they are true or not.
Let us compare Vermeer to his older contemporaries Rubens and Rembrandt. All three lived in the Low Countries, ruled in the sixteenth century by the king of Spain. In 1568, the Low Countries revolted against excessive taxation of the urban bourgeoisie by the absolute monarchy, and the Spanish’s Inquisition’s persecution of Protestants. Spanish armed forces managed to crush the rebellion in the southern provinces (roughly, what is now Belgium). However, in 1648 Spain had to recognize the independence of the northern provinces (roughly, what is now the Netherlands).
The newly independent Dutch state was special for being a republic instead of a monarchy like other European countries. Its ruling class were, unlike elsewhere, not nobles with an emperor or king on top of a hierarchical pyramid, but mainly urban bourgeois. This social and political change also made for a change in art in the seventeenth century. In most European countries, artists were then still dependent on princes and other feudal aristocrats; and, where Roman Catholicism was the state religion, on the Roman Catholic hierarchy. That was also true for Rubens’ Spanish Netherlands (roughly: present Belgium).
In the European seventeenth century, the establishment view on art considered Christian religious, historical and ancient Roman mythological subjects to be the most noble ones for painting. Catholic church dignitaries commissioned religious work; secular aristocrats commissioned historical and mythological art which often made complimentary allusions to seventeenth century monarchs and nobles.
But the new Dutch republic was different. There, the new urban bourgeois rulers wanted art which they could relate to their own lives more. Money to buy art was more widespread than in other countries; seventeenth century Dutch artists made millions of paintings. Also, often on different subjects than traditionally or still customary abroad.
As this blog has mentioned before, Rembrandt in the northern independent republic made less religious art and far less historical and mythological art than Rubens in the southern Roman Catholic Spanish Netherlands.
How does Vermeer fit in this? Let us look at the Wikipedia list of 34 works ‘firmly attributed to Vermeer’. According to the London National Gallery and the film, two other works, including A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, should be added to make 36.
Of these 36 works, only one depicts Roman mythology, Diana and her Companions, maybe Vermeer’s earliest painting. So, less than 3% of his oeuvre, even less than Rembrandt, far less than Rubens. Vermeer, a burgher of Delft city, fitted in the new art of the new republic.
How about Christian religious art? Only two of the 36 paintings, 5,5%. There used to be a third one, The Supper at Emmaus; however, it turned out to be a twentieth century forgery by Han van Meegeren.
So, considerable less religious art by Vermeer than by Rembrandt, let alone Rubens. Of these two religious paintings, one is an early work. The other one is The Allegory of Faith. It is special, at it was probably commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church which did not buy much art in the seventeenth century Dutch republic. Far less so than in Rubens’ Spanish Netherlands where it was the official church. Like Rubens, Vermeer had been born in a Protestant family, but converted to Roman Catholicism later. In Vermeer’s case, to be able to marry his wife.
The Allegory of Faith is unlike most other Roman Catholic religious paintings. One might expect a depiction of Saint Peter’s Church in Rome, or some smaller but still big church. Instead, it depicts the interior of an urban house, like so many of Vermeer’s works. Roman Catholic services were only allowed in the Dutch republic in buildings which did not look like churches on the outside.
70% of Rembrandt’s work is portraits or self-portraits. 0% of Vermeer’s work is (a detail in one painting may be a self-portrait, but that is not certain).
The overwhelming majority of Vermeer’s work, over 90% is genre painting, plus a few in the cityscapes category. These two categories were not favourite subjects for Rubens: too ‘bourgeois’ for the Spanish Netherlands. Not favourite subjects for Rembrandt because of personal preference. However, Vermeer’s genre painting fitted in well with the Dutch Republic’s new urban upper class; like the portraits which Rembrandt preferred.
As the film notes, there are contradictions between Vermeer’s life and his work. His art usually has a peaceful, quiet atmosphere; but the painter lived in a probably noisy house with eleven children.
Vermeer also often depicted affluent persons at home, but he was not rich himself. In 1672, the Dutch republic was at war with France and other enemies. The art market collapsed and Vermeer became poor. The shock of poverty killed him in 1675.
Vermeer did not become famous initially. In the nineteenth century, French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger rescued him from undeserved oblivion. Thoré-Bürger was a radical democrat who praised the realism of his socialist contemporary Gustave Courbet. Though an opponent of French Roman Catholic clericalism, he appreciated Roman Catholic Vermeer for depicting mainly scenes from urban daily life, not religious or historical themes, still considered superior by the nineteenth century art establishment.
After this rediscovery, Vermeer’s paintings became dramatically more expensive, making lots of money more than the maker ever made; like happened to many other artists. 12 out of 36 paintings are now in the USA.
New research on Girl with the pearl earring: here.