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The Mysterious Women of Vermeer

Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence

an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England, October 5, 2011–January 15, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition by Marjorie E. Wieseman, with contributions by H. Perry Chapman and Wayne E. Franits
Fitzwilliam Museum/Yale University Press, 227 pp., $35.00
Queen Elizabeth II, Royal Collection
Johannes Vermeer: The Music Lesson, circa 1662–1663

The Louvre has lent one of the most revered of seventeenth-century oil paintings, The Lacemaker of Johannes Vermeer, to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, one of England’s most distinguished museums; and the Fitzwilliam has organized an exhibition around the loan, presented under the title “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence.” The thirty-two assembled canvases and panels, all executed in mid-seventeenth-century Holland and all bearing some form of female subject matter, amply justify a detour to Cambridge. They invite you, however, to think about much more in Dutch painting than the art of Vermeer, for only four are actually the work of the so-called “sphinx of Delft,”1 the painter who has over the past century become such a public obsession.

Think what painstaking patience a Mondrian canvas embodies: all that blocking in, pushing brushloads of oils up to the edges of straight lines and neatly squidging the paint into right-angled corners. Walking around this exhibition, you encounter the ancestry of that handiwork. Typically, the framed objects facing you on the wall present systems of interlocking colored compartments. The seventeenth-century Dutch picture-maker—or at least the fifteen now on view—would pass much of his working day filling the rectangle on his easel with smaller rectangles: patches of pigment to denote window and door frames, panes, panels, beams, bricks, and tiles; to describe stiff wooden chairs and tables in the houses thereby assembled; to furnish those houses with further framed rectangles, pictures within pictures.

A canvas by Samuel van Hoogstraten, the largest included—which is not to say much, for it is only forty inches by twenty-eight—has been labeled View of an Interior, but you could read it like one of those 1960s Frank Stellas in which colored stripes head inward concentrically from the canvas edge. What it presents is a doorway giving onto a doorway giving onto a doorway that gives onto a table, a chair, and two half-occluded picture frames. A couple of slippers at a threshold and a couple of figures glimpsed within a frame are minimal sops, teasingly thrown to any viewer who demands that a picture should have a subject.

Van Hoogstraten, a clever and versatile artist—a pupil of Rembrandt’s, the deviser of a doll’s-house “perspective box” now in London’s National Gallery, and the author of a treatise on art—seems to be drily trying out the proposition that he is adding one more right-angled artifact to a world already full of them. A world that is not only right-angled but right-thinking—clean (a waiting broom contributes to the interior’s verticals), well lit, well furnished: a world of recent manufacture, a world that is primly modern. During the 1650s and 1660s, the decades this exhibition considers, the United Provinces were at their apogee of international power, having dominated global shipping and finance since the century’s turn. Their run of economic good fortune spurred on new buildings and new fashions across a network of cities.

The Fitzwilliam’s artists were second-generation beneficiaries of this upgraded civility, working for a picture market that continued to flourish. That scene had moved on from bold, rude pioneers such as Rembrandt and Frans Hals. The new men’s imaginations had been formed by an environment that was at once thoroughly urbanized and fundamentally orderly. Insofar as their art reflected that environment, the canvas had become chessboard-like, and they were looking for ways to refine their game.

What the exhibition concentrates on, therefore, is a range of moves for bringing a queen—a female protagonist—into play. In an assemblage of boxed spaces similar to van Hoogstraten’s, a 1667 canvas by Cornelis Bisschop, such a figure appears sat on a doorstep—a young, modestly dressed housewife, taking a knife to an apple. The S-twist of peel about to fall from the fruit to her lap becomes the composition’s pivot and dynamo. It unites the preoccupied figure and the rooms behind her in a pervasive purposeful hum, so that the ensemble becomes a meditation on self-contained activity, a celebration of quiet inward-turnedness. In fact, intentness is what these painters most often ask their female figures to supply. At base, they give the canvas—the marketable rectangle, this inviting game board—something to be about. The format leads, and the subject follows.

That is to say that, just as Vermeer himself does not exactly hog the limelight in “Vermeer’s Women,” no more do the actual lives of women. Another exhibition might have counterpointed some of the male reveries of compliant femininity shown here—Pieter de Hooch, for instance, ensconcing a sweetly smiling Woman and Child with Serving Maid in a decorous urban dream-home—with a remarkable contemporary quintet of prints by the Amsterdammer Geertruyd Roghman—somber female testimonies on the experience of housework, heavy, unhopeful, and careworn.

But Roghman was a solitary swimmer against the flow. The current that Marjorie Wieseman, the exhibition’s curator, wants to investigate is one of males butting their pictorial imaginations into the women’s quarters. Her essay in the exhibition catalog notes that, owing to a strong if not rigid segregation of spaces, men must often “have felt like strangers in their own home.” Nicolaes Maes, another Rembrandt pupil, led the way in juggling rectangles so as to open up that inner foreignness. His Eavesdropper pans from a townhouse’s streetside business spaces to its deep rear basement, revealed through a door swung open: within that backdrop, a window stands open, and an interloper leans in to canoodle with the housemaid; meanwhile, her mistress hovers on this side of the door, overhearing their sweet talk; but it is only we who see all.

The housemistress smiles at the viewer with a stagey mischief I find jarring. It is as if the picture were congratulating itself on its own ingenuity of contrivance. Maes took from his training with Rembrandt a lovely subtle harmony of tone, but this Eavesdropper‘s archness is pitched on the level of Jan Steen, a painter who is famed in Holland for a distinctive line in humor that suffers in export and who here is represented by two faintly risqué scenes of women pulling on and off their stockings. “Ooh, look!” Perhaps that was the bottom line when it came to the Dutch picture market, with its accent on competitive surface appeal: who knows, perhaps it is the bottom line in the whole business of art. The thought, which Steen’s hard-worked efforts tend to induce in me, flattens the soul. But painting’s potential for depth and strangeness gets vindicated by three nearby pictures, accredited to a certain Jacobus Vrel.

There are no documents on the life of this artist. Evidently he never received a standard studio training, for his figure drawing is patently awkward. And yet—and this reflects handsomely on the Dutch picture market and its openmindedness—his naivety was no bar to collectibility, for the Habsburg archduke in Brussels owned pieces of Vrel’s by 1659. The three panels of his in Cambridge show motherly or grandmotherly figures in austerely furnished interiors. These women’s backs are turned. They tug subliminally at your empathy, making you feel how it is to be confined in such a room as the woman inhabits.

Frits Lugt Collection/Fondation Custodia, Paris
Jacobs Vrel: Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, circa 1650

In one panel, the woman tilts the chair she is perched on so as to peer through a big window in an otherwise empty white room. Outside, all is black—except that faintly, a child’s face looms up through the night to meet hers, causing her to raise her hand in greeting. The glare within and the dark without clamp the two presences, either side of the glass, in an eerie interdependence—each other’s friend and each other’s spook. It stirs on several levels, this reaching beyond tidy Dutch homeliness to the shock of the unheimlich: not least, it shakes up the history of sensibility a little, winding back Romantic obsessions with windows and averted figures 150 years.

No one else works the rectangular board like that. But I see two main ways you might pitch your game. Some players load the entire rectangle with eye-stopping morsels—Steen and, still more, the assiduous Gerrit Dou with his fine-wrought arrays of luxury goods (rare fabrics, polished silver, delicate damsels, etc). Dou’s faith in the intrinsic value of surface effects is at once mind-numbing and humbling in its sincerity. And then there are those who want to set the board in motion by letting loose some squib of interpersonal dynamics. Preeminently I mean Gerard ter Borch. With five pictures on display, each tonally delicious with its own poise and wit, he is in many ways the star of the show. All probably employ as a model his sister Gesina, herself a quirkily original graphic artist: the ter Borchs were a well-traveled artistic clan who eventually settled in Deventer, about seventy miles east of Amsterdam.

Three of the pictures explore what happens if Gesina poses as a housemistress accompanied by a maid. Is the latter to be her coworker or her underling, and who is really whose fool? In an irresistibly amusing fourth picture she’s with a little daughter, and she’s peeling apples while the girl’s big eyes attempt in vain to burn their way inside her zone of concentration. A fifth reduces Gesina’s opposite number to an opened letter, dangling in one hand while the other raises a glass of wine to her lips: it is the viewer who now has the reading to do, inferring what thought sequence has passed through the lady’s mind.

Behind all these turns toward psychology there may well lie a formal ambition. Can the artist, by laying such clues, ratchet up the viewer’s pace of attention? At the same time, these pictures seem to alter the cultural terrain, opening up possibilities for types of fiction that were yet to be written. A further picture of a reader raising her eyes from the page, painted by Eglon van der Neer in response to Gerard’s example, offers the one point in the exhibition where you could reasonably suppose that an individual woman’s mind was the artist’s chief concern.

How do the paintings by Vermeer fit into all this? Besides The Lacemaker, the Fitzwilliam is displaying the complex and ambitious Music Lesson; also, one Young Woman Seated at a Virginal from London’s National Gallery and a second, very minor, from a private collection. From the company these pictures keep, it readily emerges that Vermeer, who turned twenty in 1652, was a creature of his era with its accent on ingenuity and politesse, and that he was hardly exceptional in his famed devotion to female subjects. Yet at the same time, the singularity of his own artistic refinements is underlined by the comparison.

The Music Lesson, painted around 1662, offers a way into them. A young lady stands at a keyboard with a gentleman to a side attending to her playing: the scenario could easily be ter Borch’s. But are we to read into it, psychologically? Yes, says an overhead mirror that surprises us by revealing how the woman’s gaze is turning toward the man. No, says a swooping perspectival recession that sets them apart from us across a palatial expanse of tiling, placing before our eyes instead a brilliantly palpable jug in the foreground. No again, says the entire surface rendering, which is so precious it would have had Dou gawping, for Vermeer has splurged recklessly on lapis lazuli, turning not only the carpet the jug rests on but the shadows on the far wall into an obsessive, vibrant optical feast. Yes, it is certain that the woman over there has a mind of her own. No, it is certain that it is not ours for the having, for all we can do is look. And looking has its own momentum: if there are any psychological dynamics we can hold onto, they are those of our own visual attention.

  1. 1

    The epithet of the critic Théophile Thoré: to be explained further on. 

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