Is Vermeer Overrated? Part 3

May 8th, 2013

See part 2 and part 1.

The most straightforward and articulated “attack” on Vermeer’s mystique was delivered in a thought-provoking article* by the Princeton specialist of Early Modern European History, Theodore K. Rabb, in which the artist’s acclaim is challenged via a comparison with Peter Paul Rubens, the grandiose baroque painter who not only defined a good swath of painting his own age but left a lasting impact on the course of art history. Rabb questions why modern viewers prefer to quietly “ponder, explore and relish the limited but subtle beauties of Vermeer” rather than the more “enthralling, universal” values of Rubens. According to Raab, the characteristics which determine Rubens’ artistic greatness, and which can be marshaled to demonstrate Vermeer’s limits, may be encapsulated in five points. The parentheses are mine.

  1. Rubens had a dominant role in the development of the art of his time. (Vermeer didn’t.)
  2. He commanded an enormous range of subject matter. (Vermeer didn’t.)
  3. He commanded a wide range of expressions. (Vermeer didn’t.)
  4. He had an enormous output. (Vermeer didn’t.)
  5. His technical versatility was extraordinary. (Vermeer’s wasn’t.)

Here is the historian’s explanation as to what might have favored Vermeer’s apotheosis and Rubens’ downgrade.

“That such deification [of Vermeer]  has taken place prompts an obvious speculation: why should this be? Taste is, of course, ineffable, but two considerations may be worth pondering. The first is the steady devaluation of history in both British and USA culture. As a serious pursuit it is in steady decline, shrinking as a classroom subject and as a basis for public discourse. In that context an artist’s historical importance is easily devalued. That Raphael, like Rubens, owed huge debts to his forerunners, and in turn shaped the future, gives him little credit when aesthetic judgment comes to the fore. A second consideration is that recent generations have lost the capacity to appreciate the Biblical, classical and historical references that infuse Rubens’ paintings. As cultural horizons contract, the private and domestic supplant the public and the grand. It may not be irrelevant that a Vermeer is likely to be visible only to a few people at one time, whereas a Rubens can tower over a crowd. We may be living, in other words, in an age that prefers small pleasures to large. We cannot settle into dreamy contemplation of Rubens. He overwhelms. He demands soaring, energetic attention.”

Although it is impossible to negate Raab’s principle points, and his unflattering explanation of why our cultural background may have undermined our appreciation of Rubens is worth serious thought, the historian’s challenge will appear to most as an unprofitable, judgmental apples-and-pears comparison; at worst, an unsolicited invitation to return to the rigors of academic regime where black was once black and white was once white. After all, in comparison to any preceding time, ours is an “everybody is a winner” age that dreads once-and-for-all cultural definitions, hierarchy and, perhaps equally important, winding up on the wrong side of the fence. How many players in the art world prefer to carve out a safe haven of a subtle, but restricted range of grays rather than risk being remembered as a Van Gogh heckler or a true beleiver of Van Meegeren’s horrid Vermeers?

I believe that Raab’s head-on dealing with the matter of who is better than who, on the contrary, is legitimate, interesting and useful. If nothing else, the historian underlines how peculiar and how uniquely ahistorical Vermeer’s standing appears when set aside those of Europe’s towering master. And this should guard us against lulling into a certain loving-to-be-in-love complacency which, perhaps, has tinted the proper understanding of this artist for a good half century.

*Theodore K. Rabb. “Why is Vermeer so revered?” The Art Newspaper 208 (01 December 2009, pp. 39-40.

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