Why is Vermeer’s painting so popular?

April 15th, 2009

In a recent interview, I was asked to explain why Vermeer’s art has enjoyed so much popularity in the last decades. Art historians, art critics, novelists, poets, film directors and ordinary lay people are inebriated by his canvases. Frankly, I am not sure I know the answer. However, the distinguishing features of Vermeer’s art seem to be at odds with much of the most successful art of our own age. That paradox might be a lead.

If pressed, I would take bets that the widespread increase in popularity of Vermeer’s work indicates a spontaneous trend towards unmediated visual experience and artist/viewer communication. The concept of art as an educational instrument may be loosing traction.

Here is how Vermeer’s work stacks up against today’s competition.

  1. Vermeer’s works are small. Today’s cutting-edge artist is generally inclined to work in large, if not monumental, scale. Vermeer’s representations are “scaled down” as in the minsicule  Lacemaker, while today’s artist tends to “scale up” — see Jeff Koons’ £12.9m Hanging Hearts.
  2. Vermeer produced a paltry number of paintings (36 have survived but probably he made no more than 60) and he likely did not utilize available techniques to produce multiples. Our most successful contemporary artists tend to be quite prolific, not to say repetitive.
  3. Vermeer’s paintings were created for private viewing. They were destined to be hung in discreet bourgeois family dwellings where only a select few members of society could see them (public collections did not exit in the 17th c.). Today’s artists demand prominent, public or private platforms to exhibit their work including art fairs and public museums frequented by thousands of viewers.
  4. Vermeer’s art is undemonstrative and evasive. Cutting-edge art tends to be invasive, brash and deliberately disturbing.
  5. As far as we can understand, Vermeer proffered no substantial critique of any know social norm. Today’s artist is almost universally critical of one or more aspects of his society, and his work is frequently conceived a vehicle to direct social change.
  6. Vermeer’s art represents daily life. There is nothing overtly provocative, spectacular, miraculous, shocking, humorous or extraordinary in his subject matter. While he carefully staged his mise-en-scène interiors and contrived his compositions with painstaking  attention, he never painted anything that could not have existed.  His works evokes states of meditative calm. Often, the value of a contemporary work of art is judged from its ability to shock the individual and provoke public opinion.
  7. Vermeer accepted, and in one case rhetorically glorified, the canons of art of his age (see the Art of Painting). The cutting-edge artist is apt to challenge prevailing concepts of the art.
  8. Vermeer’s art does not lend itself to the spoken word; it is essentially silent. He left no written documents regarding his art. Most of today’s artists press their point by appending explanatory documents (ex. exhibition catalogues) to their works or widely publicized interviews.
  9. Vermeer was deeply committed to his craft. A significant portion of cutting-edge art is not materially executed by the artist himself.
  10. The appeal of Vermeer’s art is simultaneously populist and lofty while today’s art favors low-brow dialect (kitsch and vernacular) but comes across as elitist. Vermeer’s art is inclusive where much of today’s art is exclusive.

7 Responses to “Why is Vermeer’s painting so popular?”

  1. Chris

    Thank you for posting this.

  2. Deb Schmit

    Jonathon I just found your blog through Christopher Stott.
    Your work is amazing, and the blog and website, wonderful resources!
    This post confirms what I also believe. That the bland array of contemporary artists slapping paint around on huge canvases, for the sole purpose of filling wall space, has had its heyday. You’ve reminded me that its okay to slow down and think about the process. To hold respect for the timeless quality of enduring art.
    Thank you so much!

  3. Mark Walmsley

    Fine post, Jonathan. You are are right all around, but I especially agree on point 6 about the evocation of calm. I believe what they mean to many people is most about this moment of stillness in everyday life, executed with such craft. I like to think that in major museums (such as the bustling Rijksmuseum I just got back from) full of powerful statements, this stillness is often what visitors find themselves craving the most. The paintings give them permission to be still in their own minds, for a while… And the iconography and further complexities can be built up from there, as one wishes, or not.

  4. Richard A. Smith

    Incorrect for #6. The Thumb cannot exist on Catharina’s hand in the large picture, Lady with her maid. IT IS A KNUCKLE-LENGTH TOO LONG.Vermeer has to be said to be a bad painter of hands , or he did it for a purpose. That purpose must have been a bawdy joke for his friends/family, which would indcate a sense of humour, whether we like it or not!

  5. Sara E. Matson

    Thank you for such a concise summary of why Vermeer seems to attract the popularity he has. We all seem be nostalgic for a more simple, quieter time. On a more personal note, I can say without hesitation, that the very reasons why I dislike most ‘art’ of today is that it more often than not seems to reflect the egos of the artists and not with the art itself. Large scale installations, public sculptures and monuments to absurdity won’t be around in four hundred years but we’ll still be looking at Vermeer and his small scale world with ordinary people. It hardly seems a paradox. Its a simple reality: the general public wants to experience art that speaks to them.

  6. Jane

    Milkmaid at the MET

    Lower right corner of the picture with the ‘delft tiles’ is in another space, very distant. Looks like people, far away, on the edge of a lake or a beach. A visual perspective trick.

    The picture is a direct copy of Sorgh’s painting ‘the Kitchen’. Why did he copy it?

    Not repetative – almost every picture has the window in the upper left corner.

  7. Brenda

    I have a print of the milkmaid it is greenish. it is an up close but yet has the beach in lower right corner. Is this worth anything?

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