Thursday 27 July 2017

What Lies Beneath: Woman with a Balance, Johannes Vermeer

Woman with a Balance Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) Oil on canvas, Widener collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Woman with a Balance, c.1664. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Widener Collection, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
Woman with a Balance, c.1664. Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Widener Collection, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Niall MacMonagle

Keats's 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever' makes perfect sense once you step inside the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting exhibition at the National Gallery.

Conceived and initiated by the NGI, this is a brilliantly curated show and has already been seen by 320,000 people in the Louvre. In Dublin until September 17, these 63 paintings, including 10 Vermeers, then travel to Washington DC.

Curated by Adriaan Waiboer and arranged in five themed rooms (Beauty and Leisure; Love and Seduction; Privacy and Intrusion; Music and Harmony; Virtue and Curiosity), this unique collection tells not only individual stories but, in sequence, becomes a fascinating narrative of mid-17th century painting.

Displayed against Queen of the Night Blue walls, paintings by Vermeer's friends and rivals speak to each other in terms of theme and composition - and Vermeer's own works, seen within this context, become dazzling examples of how an artist can capture lives lived, moments in time.

These works connect with us across the centuries. Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 and died there aged 43. Having converted, he married a Catholic - even though Catholics were discriminated against in 17th century Netherlands. Fifteen children, four of whom died before they were baptised, would suggest a busy household - yet Vermeer's quiet, beautiful masterpieces frequently portray individuals preoccupied with letter-writing, music, pouring milk, making lace, astronomy.

In this exquisite Woman with a Balance, Waiboer's favourite Vermeer, a woman contemplates the empty scales delicately held in her right hand. Painted circa 1664, the woman in a linen headdress and fur-trimmed jacket stands before a table with pearls. Behind her, in a Last Judgement painting, Christ weighs up the Saved and the Damned.

Pregnant perhaps, the woman with the beautifully contemplative Virgin-Mary like expression is weighing things up too. Through masterful handling of light, the gold curtain, the gold detail in the picture frame, the peep of gold in her dress all catch the eye, an eye that always returns to her little finger above the empty scales. See this show and you'll see the light.

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