Vermeer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When I was in New York last month, I visited the wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent hours wandering through the different galleries. The Met has a vast collection, so I have decided to do a few posts focussing on specific works I enjoyed. Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) is one of my favourite artists, his mastery of lights and textiles is enchanting, and I am always intrigued by the quiet and mysterious stories in his paintings. Five of his works are in The Met – it was wonderful to see so many together! I hope to see them all in person – I have seen eighteen so far. The selection in The Met were quite varied – including an allegorical painting, a tronie or character study that has links to the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring, and some of his meticulously painted genre scenes.

Allegory of the Catholic Faith (c.1670-72)

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In some ways this painting is rather different from other Vermeer paintings I have seen – rather than being a genre scene, it is a purely allegorical work. However, some aspects such as the tiled floor or the curtain drawn back to reveal the scene, are familiar. The painting is very interesting, and on closer examination it contains much symbolism – a bible crushes a snake, an apple on the ground recalls the Original Sin, the lady (representing Faith) stands on a globe and a glass ball suspended above her represents heaven.

Woman with a Lute (c.1662-63)

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Music is a frequent theme in Vermeer’s art, featuring in twelve of his works. This reflects the importance of music in seventeenth century Dutch society, in which it was a popular pastime. I really enjoyed the Vermeer and Music show in the National Gallery of London last summer. The setting (Vermeer’s studio) and the ermine trimmed jacket are also familiar features of his work. The way the woman looks out of the window, the viola de gamba on the floor, and the songbooks on the table suggest that she is expecting company. These subtle hints of stories and relationships are part of the enigmatic charm of Vermeer’s work.

Study of a Young Woman (c.1665-67)

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As in Girl with a Pearl Earring, the subject of this portrait stands out from the dark background. It is quite a small work, and is very striking. It is a tronie, or character study, in which the sitter is dressed in a costume. For all its simplicity, it is also a very technically skilful piece – the folds of the fabric are rendered beautifully, and the young girl’s face is very soft and distinctive. Like many of the women in Vermeer’s paintings, she wears a pearl earring, which catches the light, but the effect is less dramatic here than in other works.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (c.1662)

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Another distinctive Vermeer painting, with the light falling from the left and his familiar studio setting, this work reminds me of The Milkmaid. The seventeenth-century Dutch costume is another attraction of these works, the attention to detail in their depiction shows the garments were expensive and valued. Vermeer’s genre scenes act as a record of social history. The small scale of the works, and their domestic themes reflect the economic prosperity of the Dutch Golden Age, in which the middle class or bourgeoisie formed a greater part of the market for paintings. This harmonious painting, capturing a moment of reflection in which the woman gazes out of the window, reflects the domestic life of this newly prosperous middle class.

A Maid Asleep (c.1656-57)

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Unusually, this work is not set in Vermeer’s studio. However, the different setting is interesting as it gives us an insight into the seventeenth-century Dutch interior. The detail is exquisite – such as the embroidery on the table cloth. The empty chair at the table is intriguing – suggesting that the maid may have has company, and the open door behind her gives a tantalising glimpse into the rest of the house. The contents of the still life on the table and the maid’s rich attire further suggest that she may have been entertaining a guest, as does the painting of Cupid behind her. The painting within a painting often holds a clue to deciphering the story in Vermeer’s works, and adds another intriguing layer of interpretation.

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