Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 19, 2019
Adriaan E. Waiboer, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., and Blaise Ducos Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry Exh. cat. New Haven, CT and Dublin: Yale University Press in association with National Gallery of Ireland, 2017. 320 pp.; 180 color ills. Hardcover $60.00 (9780300222937)
Musée du Louvre, Paris, February 22–May 22, 2017; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, June 17–September 17, 2017; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, October 22, 2017–January 21, 2018

The exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, on Vermeer and “other” Dutch genre painters of his era, was easily one of the most significant international events of last year. Conceived by Adriaan E. Waiboer of the National Gallery of Ireland and developed in close collaboration with two museum colleagues—Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and Blaise Ducos from the Musée du Louvre in Paris—this project was widely received as a groundbreaking presentation of the intricate web of relationships among artists working in seventeenth-century Holland who looked at, emulated, and competed with one another. Unlike other exhibitions centering on the work of Vermeer, most notably the blockbuster of 1995–96 (at the National Gallery of Art and Mauritshuis, the Hague), this time around the proverbial “Sphinx of Delft” was presented not as a towering genius of Dutch art, but as an artist whose ways of thinking and working were just as deeply shaped by the cultural codes and practices of the period as were those of his contemporaries.

In many respects, this exhibition builds upon another one, organized nearly twenty years ago: Vermeer and the Delft School (2001), conceived by Walter Liedtke and presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an attempt to define the painter’s place within the artistic culture of his hometown. Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, however, went much further by exploring connections among artists from various local settings or “schools”—both in terms of shared theoretical ideas and practices.

Judging by the reception of this exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the only venue where I was able to see it, the organizers conveyed this argument to the audience quite effectively. In room after room, one encountered museumgoers engaged in close looking and conversations about similarities among the works on view: how a painting by Gerrit Dou of a lady at a clavichord from the Dulwich Picture Gallery compares to Vermeer’s young woman at a virginal from London, or how the evocative image of a man writing a letter by Gabriel Metsu from the National Gallery of Ireland feels next to a painting on the same subject by Gerard ter Borch from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This encouragement of the museum audience to consider the relationships between the artists in this exhibition is reinforced by the beautifully produced catalogue. In the introductory essay, Adriaan E. Waiboer delves into this network of art practitioners to show that genre painters influenced each other not only with respect to fashionable themes and motifs but also in tеrms of compositions, shared vocabulary, and even dispositions and gestures of figures in their ostensibly unmediated scenes from daily life. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. expands upon this argument by drawing attention to the theoretical grounds for these similarities—most notably, the praise for naturalism in seminal texts such as Philips Angel’s Lof der schilder-konst (1642), or the discussions of the relative merits of paintings in the “antique” versus “modern” manner in later treatises such as Gérard de Lairesse’s Het Groot Schilderboek (1707). Nonetheless, in line with his other publications on this artist, Wheelock never fails to note that despite all of Vermeer’s connections to his contemporaries, his characteristic “elusiveness” and subversion of established codes set him firmly apart from their more pointedly moralizing glimpses of Dutch daily life. The theoretical underpinnings of “genre” images are also the subject of an excellent essay by Eric Jan Sluijter on the various modes of imitation among these interrelated artists and the manner in which these self-conscious emulative gestures earned them additional esteem among “experienced art lovers” (Konst-vroede Liefhebbers).

In another group of essays, we read about the various “material” aspects of these images. Marjorie E. Wieseman focuses on the love for luxury goods in seventeenth-century Holland, reflected in various “high life” facets of these paintings—from refined dresses to beautiful musical instruments and other elite furnishings of these domestic interiors. Similarly, Piet Bakker addresses the prices that these small but finely painted masterpieces could command among art lovers as another marker of their status as objects for the elite. E. Melanie Gifford and Lisha Deming Glinsman write an excellent summary of various technical matters related to these inventions: from the pigments used for these paintings to the handling of the medium and the ways in which the “fine” manner (especially pronounced in the work of the Leiden fijnschilders such as Dou) affected market values for works by different painters. In the concluding essay to this portion of the catalogue, Blaise Ducos writes about another facet of the critical recognition of these “small masters”: the foreign visitors to artists’ studios in seventeenth-century Holland and the ways in which those visits could be used to contribute to a kind of international reputation.

In a marked departure from typical museum catalogues dedicated to “old masters,” this publication does not include long entries for individual works. Instead, there are a few more essays by these and other contributors on the thematic subcategories in this exhibition, from love letters and music making to notions of privacy and the challenges of establishing the moral tenor of some of these conversation pieces. The short entries list all of the exhibited works alphabetically by artist and date, with summary references to earlier publications. These entries are complemented by very useful appendixes: timelines with whereabouts of various artists, both within and outside Holland; graphic tables that show some fascinating statistical data, including documented visits by collectors to artists’ studios and vice versa; the geographical distribution of paintings and their prices; and notes on the technical analyses undertaken in the course of the preparation of this exhibition. All of these summaries, lists, tables, and thematic essays are of use to scholars and the general audience alike, bolstering the argument that no artist in seventeenth-century Holland, even one who looks and feels as exceptional as Vermeer, worked in isolation from his peers.

At the same time, as a visitor to this exhibition, I was repeatedly made aware of the fact that for all the museumgoers who conversed about ways in which different artists responded to one another, or how they reflected on common themes, many others stood for inordinate amounts of time in front of Vermeer’s paintings, seemingly unaware of any other works hanging next to them. Is this simply a function of this artist’s extraordinary stature in our culture at this particular historical moment, or something more than that? A recognition that he is fundamentally different from his peers in his perspective on the quotidian reality, in his approach to pictorial narratives, and in terms of how he actually handles his medium? Whether this “specialness” is real or a product of decades of cultural mystification is ultimately a matter of subjective judgment. What this exhibition did, however, was to give the visitor a rare opportunity to consider Vermeer within his milieu, allowing us to make comparisons, deliberate about the aesthetic qualities of his works versus those of his peers, and ultimately make our own determination concerning his similarity or difference from them.

At the same time, his special status continues to be affirmed with other projects, including the recently launched virtual museum known as Meet Vermeer. Spearheaded by the Mauritshuis and developed as a collaboration between all of the institutions that hold his extant paintings, this digital humanities initiative hosted by Google Arts & Culture makes it possible for anyone with a cell phone and a reliable internet connection to walk through an imaginary set of rooms and enjoy all (thirty-six) of his paintings through super high-resolution images. In addition to the works in various museum institutions, Meet Vermeer also includes The Concert (1664), missing since the notorious heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Advertised as a “dream come true” for Vermeer devotees, often known as “pilgrims” who travel all over the world to see his paintings, this online resource is a truly remarkable accomplishment. The virtual galleries are enriched by brief textual descriptions of each work with pertinent art historical information. Thanks to the flexible platform at Google Arts & Culture, this project is also augmented by additional features that can be continuously built upon: from an essay by the director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker, on the lasting appeal of this artist to one authored by the writer Tracy Chevalier, whose 1999 historical fiction, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, turned that modest, exquisitely painted portrait of an unknown young woman into the “Mona Lisa” of the North.

There is no question that Meet Vermeer is a wonderful addition to the growing body of digital humanities projects dedicated to individual artists or masterpieces and that it strikes a welcome balance in its scope and tone, which will surely secure it a broad, appreciative audience for many years to come. Yet in our enthusiastic reception of this widely publicized undertaking, we should not overlook another important precedent: Essential Vermeer, that amazing online resource on scholarly data and images developed over almost two decades by a single individual, the artist and art historian Jonathan Janson. Originally initiated in 2001 and updated to a new version in 2014, this ongoing archive is continuously enriched by new information, from notes about exhibitions and publications to any new “discovery” about Vermeer’s work. In a recognition of his pioneering role in the digital humanities, Janson was also asked to be a consultant on the Meet Vermeer project and has contributed his own essay to it.

As noted earlier, the greatest appeal of Meet Vermeer is the possibility for a virtual pilgrimage: we can imagine ourselves in front of works of art we cannot otherwise visit and scrutinize them to the most minuscule level, for as long as we wish to. Essential Vermeer, on the other hand, is a treasure of information, which makes it far more useful as a teaching and research tool. Most importantly, however, the two complement each other very effectively and will surely prompt scholars and students to think of other similar digital projects. Consider, for instance, the immensity of effort and resources that go into the planning and realization of special exhibitions such as the one under review. Could one not imagine developing a virtual version of such ephemeral events, which would make it possible for scholars and casual museumgoers alike to visit them long after the works on view return to their respective institutions? 

Aneta Georgievska-Shine
Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Maryland