Vermeer’s lost followers

November 15th, 2008
Vilhelm Hammershøi

Although Vilhelm Hammershøi may or may not be of your liking (he does little for me), his Vermeer-like works inadvertently bring up a question which has always puzzled me: why did Vermeer’s art have such a limited impact on artists of his own time or those who followed?

By my count there exist less than ten paintings by his contemporaries which display unequivocal influence of Vermeer’s hand. Gabriel Metsu scattered a few pointillès here and there in a love letter motif while Michiel Van Musschen, (the kind of enterprising fellow who recycled just about anything he could get his hands on) did a slightly googfy version of Vermeer’s grand Art of Painting. Van Musschen’s version is hardly the stuff which makes the dynamics art history so compelling. As far as we know, Vermeer had no apprentices and not even one of his many children was sufficiently inspired to follow their father’s steps. Bluntly put, Vermeer fathered no school or movement and anticipated not a single formal or expressive development which painters felt called to elaborate upon either in his own time or centuries later. Vermeer’s “lesson” barely extends beyond the area occupied by his easel. Admired yes, occasionally “quoted” yes, but emulated no.

Vermeer’s historical disappearing act is generally explained by the fact that it was the artist himself who corralled his own fame by painting and selling a truly paltry number works in his beloved, but small town Delft. How far could his “lessons” reasonably spread in a pre-photography world where paintings were destined to largely inaccessible private homes? But still, exceptional paintings did get noticed in the Netherlands even if they were done slowly like those of Carel Fabritius, Gerrit Dou, Gerrit Terborch or Frans Van Mieris.

It seems a singular coincidence that Vermeer reached his apotheosis during the twentieth century when art history invested so much energy and enthusiasm defining the causes and effects in the evolution of European painting. He stands out as an artistic father with no children, a domino which fails to knock down the next.

2 Responses to “Vermeer’s lost followers”

  1. ARech

    First: When I saw the images of Hammershøi’s interiors of an almost oppressive quietness several months ago, I was far deeper touched and felt far more of a ‘Vermeer’ in them than in, say, every of the ghostly Vermeer-fakes of a Han van Meegeren, which long fooled even the greatest Vermeer-connoisseurs of the 19th up to mid-20th century.

    That Vermeer probably decided not to have an apprentice or that none of his many children followed him in his artistic career may have perhaps rather pragmatical reasons. It is easy to imagine that in a household with a patrician mother-in-law, devoted to the Catholic faith, and with up to fifteen children, there was simply no sufficient room and time for an apprentice, even as apprentices often lived with their master in his own household to be able to observe and learn their art as closely as possible. Moreover, Vermeer had also to run the art-dealing business which he had inherited from his father, and later had still to help his mother running the ‘Mechelen’-tavern until her death in 1670. Besides, we should not forget, that he was twice elected Dean of the Delft St. Luke’s Guild, all in one for four years. All these duties certainly left no time for a real good teaching of an apprentice.

    That none of his children took over his business may partially be seen in the severe oeconomical situation both of his family in particular and that of the Netherlands – after the devastating so-called ‘rampjaar’ 1672 – in general, which marked the beginning deline of the glorious Dutch Golden Age. And besides, it was (and still is) rather unusual, that a child of a great artist, whether a composer or a painter or a poet, follows earnestly and with the same or similar success to his or her father’s art. The Brueghel- or Van Mieris-family are rather the exception, not the norm.

    To my opinion, Vermeer’s art shares its fate with that of so many great artists. Most of the famous composers whose music we love and appreciate so much today, had to live, to cope, to struggle with the ignorance or even relentless rivalry in their time. And it took several centuries until they found the adequate estimation and the right place they deserve in the ‘hall of fame’ of the greatest artists of all time. So it is certainly with Vermeer. During his too short of a life he was unable to gain that fame of a Rembrandt, Dou or Van Mieris, to say nothing of Rubens or Van Dyck. But since his re-discovery in late 19th century it was certainly Vermeer whose unsurpassed, sublime art inspired far more artists of nearly all sorts than a Dou or a Van Mieris ever did. And when speaking of the greatest Dutch artists, it is Vermeer, who is mentioned in the same breath with Rembrandt and Frans Hals, and it is he who ranks now among the greatest artists of all time, not so much his undoubtedly quite successful painter-colleages from Leiden or Amsterdam.

    As for today’s time, I am firmly convinced that Jonathan Janson’s unique ‘Essential Vermeer’ together with his invaluable manual ‘How to Paint Your Own Vermeer’ and the following ‘Looking over Vermeer’s Shoulder’ are of most effective help to those painters who earnestly wish to try and emulate Vermeer’s unique art of painting and composition. For some of them it might be the first time that they have the real opportunity to gain profound knowledge of the Old Masters’ Painting technique.
    So at the end, Vermeer might not have been a ‘domino’ knocking down his immediate followers, rather those coming later, but then up to the end of the long row.


  2. Jonathan Janson

    AR , it seems to me that the great part of the Classical painting masters we admire so much were appreciated in their own times, in fact surprisingly so if we consider their limited perspective. This is certainly the case in the Renaissance and I would say the Baroque seems to follow along quite well. Things start deteriorating later on in the 18th century when craft, which can be objectively defined and therefore evaluated, begins to detach itself from artistic production. In fact, as Jonathan Brown pointed out in his book on the technique of Velasquez, in the times of the Great Masters “artistic content and craftsmanship were inseparable and so it is no coincidence that until the mid-nineteenth century, all of the greatest Masters were likewise the greatest technicians.” I fail to find an exception to this rule.

    My knowledge of music is unfortunately nil, so I’ll pass on that part on your observations.

    Your comment of Hammershøi points out a weak spot in my post, thanks. I wrote that he is not too my liking. If there is one thing that decades of picture-looking has taught me is that one must see a painting directly in order to form a worthwhile opinion. How many bad reproductions have fooled me into thinking negatively about a picture? Brueghel always left me cold until I took a trip to Vienna. This may work the other way around as well. ,Although it may smack of heresy, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” always lets me ever-so-slightly down every time I am in the Mauritshuis.

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