by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Vermeer Finally Makes a Trip to Italy

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 4 December 2012
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
'The Little Street' by Vermeer, circa 1658



Johannes Vermeer was considered in his home country to be an expert on Italian art. In May 1672 he was called to The Hague along with the Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens to adjudicate in a dispute about the sale of 12 Italian paintings. Vermeer and his colleague were scathing about their quality, judging them to be worth nowhere near even a tenth of their price.

Although from the 15th century onward many Dutch and Flemish artists journeyed to Italy, Vermeer, given his limited financial resources, seems never to have traveled outside Holland. Yet he clearly saw enough Italian art in local collections to acquire a sound knowledge of it, and his own painting manifested this in ways that are not necessarily immediately evident.

Italian collectors were avid commissioners and buyers of art from the Low Countries, but not a single Vermeer canvas ever reached Italy. This seems primarily because of the brevity of his career and a small output of two to three pictures a year for very few local patrons. At the time of the artist's early death in 1675, a single buyer in Delft, Pieter Claez van Ruijven, owned 21 paintings, about half of the known total. Vermeer's fame today rests on only some 35 to 37 surviving pictures, scattered around collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

'Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art' is the first exhibition of the artist's works ever to be held in Italy. It is curated by Walter Leidtke, Arthur K. Wheelock and Sandrina Bandera and contains eight Vermeers (although the authorship of one or two of these is debated) and an impressive lineup of 49 other works, including many outstanding pieces by his contemporaries.

Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632 to a clothmaker turned innkeeper and art dealer. Almost nothing is known of his training, but he was registered as a master of the local artists' confraternity, the Guild of St. Luke, in 1653. He later served twice as its head, in 1662-63 and 1670-71.

The exhibition opens with one of only two of Vermeer's surviving images of Delft itself, the familiar but ever enchanting 'Little Street.' The paintings that follow - by Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet, Emanuel de Witte and others - take us on a tour of the little town's canals, streets and gardens and into the interiors of its lofty, whitewashed Protestant churches.

There is also a canvas by Egbert van der Poel of the most dramatic event of the era, the explosion in 1654 of the national powder magazine in Delft, which devastated a large part of the city and killed many of its citizens. Der Poel's daughter lost her life in the blast, as did his neighbor, the distinguished painter Carel Fabritius (represented later in the show by a self-portrait and a portrait).

Beyond such accidental disasters, the subsequent paintings by Vermeer and his contemporaries of tranquil domestic scenes reflect an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity that followed the end of a decades-long war of independence waged by the United Dutch Provinces against their Spanish masters, the peace being formalized in 1648 when the Dutch Republic's borders were internationally recognized by the Treaty of Westphalia.

Vermeer began his career with aspirations to paint Biblical and classical scenes. Only two of these works from the first half of the 1650s survive: 'Christ in the House of Mary and Martha' and 'Diana and Her Companions,' now in Edinburgh and The Hague respectively. Both are based on Italian models and works by local painters heavily influenced by Italian art.

In April 1653 Vermeer converted to Catholicism to marry Catharina Bolnes. Her mother, Maria Thins, had initially opposed the marriage, probably not only on religious but also social and financial grounds. Nonetheless, Maria also owned pictures and her brother had practiced as a painter in Rome, where he died at the age of 26.

After their marriage Vermeer and his wife lived in her mother's house, where he appears to have had a studio. She bore him 11 children who survived infancy, and providing for his constantly expanding family, along with his very slow rate of painting, meant that they were chronically short of money. A local baker became the owner of one painting and acquired two more as security against the substantial sums the household owed for bread.

In the third room of the show is a curious painting, 'St. Praxedis,' of a 2nd-century Roman saint, attributed by Arthur K. Wheelock to Vermeer and dated by this scholar to the period soon after the artist's conversion to Catholicism. It is a copy of a mid-17th-century Italian picture by Felice Ficherelli, still in Italy in a private collection, which is also exhibited here. How Vermeer could have seen the picture cannot presently be explained, unless perhaps he made a copy of a copy that had found its way to Holland.

As far as is known, after 'Christ in the House of Mary and Martha' (and possibly 'St. Praxedis') Vermeer did not return to a religious theme until 'The Allegory of Faith,' unquestionably intended for a Catholic patron and the final picture in the current exhibition. The setting bears a remarkable resemblance to that of 'The Allegory of Painting' (now in Vienna), but Vermeer has substituted the figures of the artist and of the Muse of History, Clio, with an Italianate female personification of the Faith, derived from Cesare Ripa's 'Iconologia' (translated into Dutch in 1644), combined with a series of symbolic religious objects, while in the background hangs Jacob Jordaen's 'Crucifixion.'

Vermeer's engagement with interiors and domestic scenes, of which he was to become the supreme master, was originally stimulated by the demands of the Protestant market, which had no interest in buying religious pictures.

The fourth and fifth rooms of the exhibition offer a superb array of these genre pieces by Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) and Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681), along with Vermeer's own 'Young Woman With a Glass of Wine' (around 1660). Long recognized as having had an important influence on Vermeer, de Hooch and ter Borch are rightly given particular prominence. Also included here are other contemporaries of whose work Vermeer took note: Nicolaes Maes and Gabriel Metsu. A number of artists, including Pieter de Hooch and Metsu, were influenced in turn by Vermeer, as can be seen in the remaining five rooms of the exhibition on the floor above.

Three of Vermeer's classic light-filled compositions set in the left corner of rooms are displayed on the upper floor interspersed with relevant works by his fellow artists, along with his almost miniature 'Girl With a Red Hat' and the large 'Allegory of Faith.' Two wonderful pieces here, surely inspired by Vermeer's dazzling example, form a two-part epistolary mini-drama: Metsu's 'Man Writing a Letter' and 'Woman Reading a Letter' from Dublin.

How Vermeer managed to imbue his interiors with such extraordinary atmosphere and sense of timelessness almost defies analysis. The central paradox is that their naturalism results from the most elaborate orchestration of the arts of illusion.

The artist worked in a sparse studio, using a number of props. His amazing light effects are the result of exceptional powers of observation, a phenomenal visual memory and sheer painting technique. Despite his paucity of funds, he employed expensive materials, notably lapus lazuli, and worked laboriously. Thus, his images were not taken directly from nature but meticulously constructed over a period of weeks and months. And through this intensely personal process he managed to bring together the ideal and real and depict moments that are at once fleeting and seemingly eternal.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023