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
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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 …

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  1. 1

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