Ver­meer: a strangely mod­ern painter who stands apart

The more you place the Dutch mas­ter in his mi­lieu the more he steps out of it

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Ai­dan Dunne

Apart from the un­heard of feat of mar­shalling more than a third of Jan Ver­meer’s known paint­ings, Ver­meer and the Masters of Genre Paint­ing: In­spi­ra­tion and Ri­valry, which opens at the Na­tional Gallery of Ire­land on June 17th, does an ex­cel­lent job of plac­ing the artist in his cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal con­text.

In the Nether­lands of Ver­meer’s time it was not solely, or even pre­dom­i­nantly, the aris­toc­racy or the church that com­mis­sioned and col­lected art. The emer­gence of a thriv­ing mer­chant class en­cour­aged the de­vel­op­ment of an art mar­ket that catered for their tastes. Con­tem­po­rary visi­tors noted that paint­ings hung in shops, tav­erns and other com­mer­cial venues, as well as in pri­vate homes, and were traded like other com­modi­ties.

It sounds like a tem­plate for a con­tem­po­rary mar­ket econ­omy. The mar­ket was com­pet­i­tive and eco­nom­i­cally chal­leng­ing, with artists vy­ing for cus­tom. That meant they had to bal­ance nov­elty with fa- mil­iar­ity. Nov­elty to turn heads, fa­mil­iar­ity so as not to lose their au­di­ence. If his­tory paint­ing still dom­i­nated the hi­er­ar­chy of sub­ject mat­ter, genre, still life and land­scape were of­ten more por­ta­ble and af­ford­able. A painter iden­ti­fied with one genre or the other took a com­mer­cial risk by switch­ing, so few did.

The ma­te­ri­al­is­tic char­ac­ter of the cul­ture not only in­flu­enced an emer­gent view of paint­ings as spec­u­la­tive com­modi­ties but also af­fected their value. For ex­am­ple, the num­ber of fig­ures or ob­jects de­picted in a work, and the level of de­tail, in­flu­enced how much they were worth.

Emo­tional truth

That was the world Ver­meer lived in. Set against this the pop­u­lar idea of the artist that dom­i­nates to­day. In pop-cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tions Van Gogh is the per­fect stereo­type of the artist as tor­mented, mis­un­der­stood ge­nius, out­sider and rebel. It’s a no­tion that gained cur­rency dur­ing the Ro­man­tic era, when sub­jec­tiv­ity and emo­tional truth were given prece­dence over the ra­tio­nal val­ues of the En­light­en­ment. It’s a view of the artist that has flour­ished in moder­nity.

Ver­meer was given a Ro­man­tic makeover in Tracy Che­va­lier’s novel Girl with a Pearl Ear­ring, and the sub­se­quent film adap­ta­tion star­ring Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Colin Firth. One can see why Adri­aan Wai­bour, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s cu­ra­tor, might want to re­lo­cate Ver­meer and his work in the artist’s own time and place.

As Ver­meer and the Masters of Genre Paint­ing demon­strates, how­ever, the more you place Ver­meer in his mi­lieu the more he steps out of it. He worked within an evolv­ing set of tech­ni­cal and genre con­ven­tions, but in the com­pany of his con­tem­po­raries he stands apart in ways that give his work an ex­traor­di­nar­ily fresh, mod­ern char­ac­ter and ap­pear­ance. Mod­ern is not nec­es­sar­ily good, but sub­sti­tute time­less for mod­ern and you get a sense of Ver­meer’s achieve­ment.

We are used to see­ing images as me­di­ated by the cam­era lens, and it is gen­er­ally agreed that Ver­meer, who lived at a time of dra­matic ad­vances in op­ti­cal science, used some form of op­ti­cal ap­pa­ra­tus in cre­at­ing his paint­ings.

Ex­actly what or how is still a con­tentious sub­ject, partly be­cause there is a con­cep­tion that the use of op­ti­cal aids in some way di­min­ishes the qual­ity of his achieve­ment, that it is cheat­ing.

That is sim­ply mis­taken. In his book Se­cret Knowl­edge: Redis­cov­er­ing the Lost Tech­niques of the Old Masters David Hock­ney doc­u­ments a per­sonal ex­plo­ration of the his­tory of artists’ use of op­ti­cal de­vices. He ar­gues that “from the early 15th cen­tury many Western Artists used op­tics – by which I mean mir­rors and lenses (or a com­bi­na­tion of the two) – to cre­ate liv­ing pro­jec­tions”.

What­ever Ver­meer’s method­ol­ogy and op­tics, he man­aged to cre­ate painted images that are sub­tly but un­mis­tak­ably un­like any­thing pre­ced­ing them.

Ver­meer con­veys a sense of great pre­ci­sion and de­tail by deftly sidestep­ping both. The im­pe­tus to­wards finer and finer de­tail is clear in the paint­ing of his time. It hinges on draw­ing, be­cause you can keep draw­ing to an in­def­i­nite level of pre­ci­sion. But that is not how we usu­ally see things, just as we do not see out­lines.

Ver­meer ex­pressly avoided the preva­lent use of black out­lines, to the point he could leave “am­bigu­ous con­tours, which he ren­dered at times with fine gaps ex­pos­ing un­der paint be­tween the forms”, or by de­lib­er­ately blur­ring the di­vi­sion by drag­ging paint from one form into an­other.

‘‘ There is a mis­con­cep­tion that the use of op­ti­cal aids in some way di­min­ishes the qual­ity of his achieve­ment, that it is cheat­ing

Rad­i­cal and in­spired

These may seem like mi­nor tech­ni­cal points, but they were rad­i­cal and in­spired, and in­di­cate a painter of con­sum­mate abil­ity and in­de­pen­dence. In their com­par­a­tive anal­y­sis of ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques E Me­lanie Gif­ford and Lisha Deming Glins man also de­scribe how artists adapted each other’s tech­ni­cal tropes and tricks. Sev­eral clearly paid at­ten­tion to Ver­meer, whose vir­tu­osic wet- into- wet paint­ing, “broad han­dling and soft de­tail” were dif­fi­cult to em­u­late, although some did try.

Com­par­ing con­tem­po­rary ver­sions of a straight­for­ward, pop­u­lar sub­ject, a lace­maker at work, Blaise Du­cos notes the dif­fer­ences be­tween Ver­meer and his peers. Whereas Cas­par Netscher “ties him­self in knots in his search for hy­per-re­al­ism”, Ver­meer “chooses to ren­der his forms un­sta­ble, even some­times prob­lem­atic”. Com­par­a­tively speak­ing, he also crops the im­age dras­ti­cally, draw­ing us into the woman’s con­cen­trated labour. Sev­eral com- men­ta­tors have re­marked on the “ab­strac­tion” of later Ver­meer, where de­tails dis­solve into smears and blobs yet mirac­u­lously co­here in the over­all im­age.

Beyond tech­nique, the psy­cho­log­i­cal qual­i­ties of Ver­meer’s work tran­scend his time. The com­mu­nal, anec­do­tal nar­ra­tives of genre paint­ing, of­ten de­liv­ered with heavy, nudge-nudge em­pha­sis, co­ex­isted with in­di­vid­ual sub­jects, but Ver­meer ad­vanced this lat­ter mo­tif into new ter­rain. The Pol­ish es­say­ist Zbig­niew Her­bert wrote that a French trav­eller “noted with sur­prise that 600 guldens were asked for a paint­ing by Ver­meer that rep­re­sented only one per­son”.

One per­son was Ver­meer’s pre­ferred sub­ject. Time and again he is drawn to present to us a per­son com­pletely ab­sorbed in their task, their dis­ci­pline, their pas­sion, their world. It is a no­tion that was gain­ing cur­rency in his time and re­mains true and in­valu­able in ours. Ver­meer is, ex­traor­di­nar­ily, a painter of our time as he was of his own.

Woman Writ­ing a Let­ter with her Maid. ■ COURTESY OF NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF IRE­LAND

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