Thursday 23 November 2017

Why Vermeer is Dutch gold

As a new exhibition of Johannes Vermeer opens in Dublin, Tracy Chevalier, whose novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was inspired by his most famous work, explains the artist's enduring appeal

Inspiration and rivals: Young Woman Seated at a Virginal by Vermeer, c1670-72 features in the Dublin exhibition
Inspiration and rivals: Young Woman Seated at a Virginal by Vermeer, c1670-72 features in the Dublin exhibition
A Woman Playing a Clavichord by Gerrit Dou, c1665 which features in the Dublin exhibition

Is it possible for there to be too many Vermeer shows? In the past 21 years, I have been to six in Europe. It would be one thing if 17th-century superstar painter Johannes Vermeer had been as productive as Rembrandt or Picasso, whose works number in the hundreds and which might justify multiple shows. But Vermeer's output is tiny - 36 paintings - which means works are getting shown again and again, in different settings.

So I admit I sighed when I heard there was to be yet another Vermeer show, first in Paris and now in Dublin. Go on, show me something I don't already know. (I have seen all 36 in the flesh - many more than once - having made that a life ambition when I was a teenager.) Mind you, I am not really complaining: of all the art in the world, Vermeer's paintings are the ones I'd happily see over and over.

What is it about Vermeers that are different from - and better than - other paintings? This is an apt question, for the new Dublin show, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, is all about that comparison, placing Vermeers next to other Dutch paintings of the period and pointing out the similarities and differences.

Indeed, that is the great strength of this exhibition, making me want to fly to Ireland to see it. Curator Adriaan Waiboer has come up with such a simple, clever way to arrange the works on show that I am amazed few have thought to do so before. Forget organising by painter or by chronology: he has chosen to group the paintings in this show by scenes from life.

All of the paintings of women playing keyboards hang together, for example; or playing lute; or writing letters or making lace; or pouring drinks for men, or being visited by doctors (perhaps as a result of pouring the drinks). There are astronomers looking at globes on one wall; women standing with their backs to us on another; even three paintings where people tickle sleepers with straw.

Many of these paintings I had seen before, and used them for research while writing my novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, about Vermeer's most famous painting. (It is not in this show - go and see it in the recently restored splendour of the Mauritshuis in The Hague.) But I feel I am looking at them afresh.

For one thing, there's something deeply satisfying about spotting the similarities in the different painters' works. In those of people playing music together, for instance, there is often a boy servant bringing in a drink on a tray. I began to look for him, and was disappointed to find in one of the paintings he is carrying a lute instead. In the paintings where a woman is being examined by a doctor, he always has with him a round flask containing his patient's urine - a common method of diagnosing pregnancy.

After a while, it becomes clear that these Dutch paintings are reproducing standard scenes, rather the way modern photos of weddings or holidays or sunsets have similar tropes. Golden Age Dutch painters used genre scenes to make moral points or to have a bit of fun. The doctors looking at the women's urine, for example, or the women pouring drinks for men, seem to make fun of, or tut-tut at, the women's predicament. (As per usual, it is almost always women who are judged.)

What's startling to me in seeing the exhibition's 10 Vermeers in amongst the other paintings is to discover that they are not unusual, at least in subject matter. Set among other women trying on jewellery or writing letters or making lace, Vermeer's women seem almost ordinary.

Sometimes, too, other painters have made superior works. Gerrit Dou's Woman Playing a Clavichord, for instance, strikes me as a warmer and more approachable painting than Vermeer's Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, even though she is sitting further back from us than Vermeer's musician. The shape of the curtain theatrically pulled back, her fuzzy hair, the softer folds of her skirt, her open expression, and the brighter colours Dou has chosen all welcome us in more than Vermeer's rather stiff, formal woman. She is also sitting more comfortably, at the right height for playing, and Dou has painted her hands much more skilfully than Vermeer has managed.

In a series of paintings of women dressing and primping themselves, Vermeer's Woman with a Pearl Necklace stands transfixed before a mirror, holding up a pearl necklace. She wears a tell-tale ermine-trimmed yellow coat seen in other Vermeer works, as well as five-pointed ribbons in her hair. A plain wall behind her sets her off, and a chair and table jumbled with cloth, a jar, a brush hold us back from her. I'd always thought I loved this painting. But when I compare it to the nearby Gerard ter Borch's Young Woman at Her Toilet with a Maid - gracefully curved as she fiddles with her décolletage - or Jan Steen's Young Woman with a Letter who stares boldly at us in her equally bold orange and yellow outfit - I begin to find Vermeer's necklace woman a little flat, even lumpen. And yet, no matter how fresh and inviting other painters' works are, I still feel different standing in front of a Vermeer. I am not sure how he did it - but there is simultaneously a distance and an intimacy that his peers rarely manage together. It's possibly because he may have used a camera obscura while painting - it focuses some parts and blurs others, also intensifying light and colour.

That is what drew me to Girl with a Pearl Earring in the first place: when I look at that painting, I feel I know her, and yet don't know what she's thinking. The mystery and the desire to understand the worlds he creates are for me what still sets Vermeer apart from the rest.

Tracy Chevalier's new novel New Boy is out now published by Hogarth

Vermeer and The Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry runs until September 17 at the National Gallery of Ireland. The catalogue is published by Yale University Press and edited by Adriaan E Waiboer

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