Is Vermeer overrated? Part 1

April 29th, 2013
Looking at Vermeer's Lacemkaer and Astronomer

See part 2 and part 3.

Vermeer’s popularity has risen above fame and become mystique. An estimated 330,000 viewers braved freezing snow and 24-hour queues to catch a glimpse of 21 Vermeer paintings at the Washington National Gallery of Art. The miniscule Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (hardly a masterpiece by anyone’s estimate), was auctioned in 2005 for $30,000,000: buyer, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas billionaire casino mogul known for his dabblings in the high end of art collecting (Wynn is remembered by art market elites for having accidentally punctured his $48,000,000 Picasso, Le Rêve, with an elbow). Vermeer devotees even get silly. A foremost art scholar and powerful dealer in Dutch art, whose life-long dream has been to uncover one of Vermeer’s lost cityscapes, drives his SUV around NYC sporting a customized “VERMEER” license plate.

While Vermeermania is a fact, not everyone is in love with the idea of being in love with this artist. His “hitherto dominant standing as one of the two premier Dutch painters, Rembrandt for drama and Vermeer for transcendence,”1 no longer goes publicly unchallenged. Lamenting the twentieth-century censure of Gabriel Metsu from the first-tier of Dutch painting masters, one critic wrote unapologetically, “the winner-takes-all syndrome operates as much in the arts as it does in business and politics, and no artist has benefited more than Johannes Vermeer” and “if you spend enough time with Metsu’s work, Vermeer’s accomplishment seems a little narrow, and the mechanics of art-world popularity even more arbitrary.”2 After a prolonged visit to eye-opening Gerrit ter Borch exhibition in Washington, another critic claimed, “Ter Borch is a greater, more important artist than Johannes Vermeer” and that the latter’s “eccentricities and weaknesses,” rather than intrinsic artistic worth, were the primary ingredients for the recipe that made him “the perfect” painter for the modern age.”3 Even the famous twentieth-century English painter Francis Bacon had once complained, “Everybody likes Vermeer, except me. He doesn’t mean anything, he has no significance.” While the most commonly attributes of his art— restraint, equilibrium, and a certain measure of mystery are not discounted, some serious art historians hold that the best works by Pieter de Hooch can stand comfortably next to the canvases of Vermeer, a high-treason proposition for any Vermeer devotee.

It may be that Vermeer’s super-star status has not only monopolized public interest and obscured other meritorious Dutch painters, but has drained already dwindling funds for alternative research and exhibitions for less glamorous artists. On the other hand, a temporary exhibition with a mediocre Vermeer and a fold-out brochure continues to guarantee the cash-strapped cultural institutions a dramatic increase in ticket sales. If three or four paintings, or a particularly likable work by Vermeer, can be leveraged for a temporary exhibition (with or without a worthwhile thematic agenda) the museum may have a major cultural event on its hands with winding queues, photo ops, banging museum shop cash registers and an increase of institutional prestige. Until Vermeer stops paying off, very few have a vested interest in tampering with his mystique.

1. Kennicott, Philip. “Gabriel Metsu at the National Gallery, out-Vermeering Vermeer.Washingtom Post. April 8, 2011.
2. Kennicott, Philip. 2011.
3. Gopnik, Blake, “Exquisiteness In Plain View.” Washington Post. November 7, 2004.

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