Posts Tagged ‘Dutch art’

Is Vermeer Overrated? Part 4

May 27th, 2013
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer

Vermeer’s Milkmaid alone brought 329,446
to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008.

Part 123.

Is Rubens greater than Vermeer? Can we honestly say that the Girl with the Pearl Earring merits the status of “the Mona Lisa of the North”? Impossible questions to answer? Complicated, definitely. After all, today no one even agrees on what art is in the first place. But before attempting the impossible, I would like to address each of the five reasons for which the historian Rabb claims Rubens’ art is superior to Vermeer’s because, unless you are averse art historical fencing, they are interesting.

Claim no. 1. Rubens had a dominant role in the development of the art of his time—Vermeer did not.

It is true; Vermeer had virtually no impact on his contemporaries. Surviving paintings which show signs of his manner are fewer than twenty and most of them were produced by moderately-talented Dutch painters known only to well-informed art historians (e.g. Jacobus Vrel and Cornelis de Man). Michael van Musscher—an enterprising fellow who was able to recycle just about any motif he set his eyes on—did a relaxed remake of Vermeer’s solemn Art of Painting, hardly an event which drives forward the course of art. Gabriel Metsu, equally eclectic and remunerated as Van Musscher but more gifted, paid homage to Vermeer by scattering a few of the latter’s trademark pointillés upon a pair of slippers of an elegant seamstresses’ skirt in his Woman Reading a Letter with her Maid. A few of Metsu’s interiors do indeed betray a compositional rigor unusual for this artist but characteristic of the work of his Delft colleague although problems of dating obfuscate who was really looking at who. Without fear of rebuttal, it is fair to say that Vermeer’s influence did not extend far beyond the picturesque city bastions of his hometown Delft. On the other hand, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian and Rubens, indisputable “greats” by anyone’s standards, can be credited not only with shaping the course of European art, but to some degree of Western thinking as well.

Whether Vermeer’s ambitions were lowly or lofty, almost everything in his life and art is scaled down in respects to Europe’s giants: the dimensions of his pictures, the hierarchy of his subject matter and the social status of his clientele pale in comparison. Even his personal ambitions were anything but spectacular.

Michelangelo was commissioned to fresco 12,000 square feet of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican by Pope Julius II. He designed and oversaw the construction of the dome of the basilica of St Peters, the spiritual and geographical heart of the Roman Catholicism.

Titian received honors in every city he set foot. In Venice has was adored, and he virtually expunged the city of rivals enjoying the patronage of enlightened Italian courts where he painted the portraits of Doges, princes and cardinals. A biographer told the story that during a studio visit Emperor Charles V picked up a brush for the artist to which Titian responded, “Sire, I am not worthy of such a servant.” The Emperor replied, “Titian is worthy to be served by Caesar.”

Velasquez aspired to become a knight of Santiago, a prestigious Spanish military orders reserved for noblemen. At the age of 24, he became the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV of the Spanish empire, which had reached its seventeenth-century territorial zenith which spanned 12.2 million square kilometers. Velázquez was entrusted with painting royal portraits and with decorating of the Escorial. In 1660, he was charged to organize one of Europe’s greatest ceremonies, the wedding of the Infanta Maria Theresa to Louis XIV of France.

Closer to home, the career accomplishments of Van Mieris, Ter Borch and Dou, the Netherlands’s top tier artists, easily outstripped those of Vermeer. Dou once received the astronomical sum of 4,000 guilders (good to buy three or four average Dutch houses) from the States of Holland for a painting entitled The Young Mother while Van Mieris was paid 2,500 by Cosimo III of the Medici family for a Family Concert. Ter Borch was so successful that he could afford the luxury of settling down in Deventer, away from the bustling art market in Amsterdam, and become a gemeensman (city counselor) in 1666. All three received invitations to European courts.

On the other hand, out hero Vermeer seems to have been content to become a  schutter in the militia of his tiny Delft (population 20,000) which counted amongst them “the most suitable, most peaceful and best qualified burgers or children of burgers.” He may have been acquainted with Constantijn Huygens, loosely described as Holland’s Renaissance man, but his only proven tie with the upper crust of Dutch society was that with his patron Pieter van Ruijven, a Delft burger who paid a fortune for an aristocratic title but would have been forgotten to history had he not been linked to Vermeer. One painting by Vermeer was estimated by its owner, a prosperous Delft baker, to be worth 600 guilders but it is not know if this sum represented a real commercial value or an attempt to enhance the baker’s social status and the value of the artist’s work in the eyes of the diffident Frenchmen who had visited Delft in order to see the artist’s work. Having escaped from his father’s inn and installed himself in the Papist corner, shielded by his mother-in-law’s patrician standing and money, may have been a significant rise in social status for Vermeer who had been born to a family of a tradesman.

Curiously, although Vermeer’s fame and monetary value soared in the 20th century, his painting, which has been incessantly associated with the values of modernism, continued to inspire very few colleagues (except for forgers). Perhaps, his only legacy in “modern” times (if you can call it a legacy—I wouldn’t) is the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.


Is Vermeer overrated? Part 2

May 3rd, 2013

See part 3 and part 1.

Adriaan E. Waiboer, curator at the National Gallery of Ireland and leading expert in Dutch painting, recently addressed Vermeer’s superstar status in a perceptive study* of the historical fames of Vermeer and Gabriel Metsu. Metsu was one of the most accomplished painters of the time and was enthusiastically collected by his contemporaries: Vermeer less so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Metsu not only maintained but, perhaps, improved his standing as one of the most celebrated painters of the Dutch Golden Age.  Metsu’s works were snatched up for noble collections throughout Europe. Vermeer’s name, instead, had all but vaporized. In 1783 Louis XVI of France spent a fortune, 18,051 francs, on a Metsu after he had declined two Vermeers, the Astronomer and the Geographer. Sixty years later, the writer John Smith declared “the superiority of Metsu over every artist in the Dutch school” and dubbed Vermeer as one of Metsu’s “imitators.” In order to increase market value, some Vermeers were attributed to painters including Metsu himself.  This state of affairs was completely reversed by the end of the 19th century when Vermeer was “rediscovered”  and his reputation and monetary value soared. The Dutch painters Metsu, Frans van Mieris and Gerrit Dou, who had commanded unlimited approval for centuries, were unceremoniously relegated to lower rungs of the Dutch art ladder almost to the embarrassment the triumphant image of Dutch art established by the “moderns” Frans Hals, Rembrandt van Rijn and Vermeer.

Gabriel Metsu catalogue

Although recognizing the values of Vermeer’s art, Waiboer posits that the reevaluation of the Delft master has been skewed by a modernist penchant for “streamlined and stylized aesthetic, as evidenced by contemporary design and architecture,” and that this fact has unjustly penalized Metsu. Metsu, then, has been largely viewed through a “lens colored by their admiration for Vermeer,” thereby inhibiting the “appreciation of the true qualities of his [Metsu’s] work.” While not officiating an outright revision, the savvy art historian nonetheless declares that the game is far from over. “As artist’s critical fortunes have always fluctuated and will do so in the future, our views on Metsu and Vermeer will undoubtedly change. The question is in what way? Will Vermeer’s fame continue to grow in the next centuries, or will Metsu’s eventually superseding that of his contemporary again?”

There can be no doubt that modernist values, which confer a premium to pictorial values while penalizing explicit narrative and moralistic finger-wagging,  have greatly benefitted the reevaluation of the supreme Dutch triumvirate. What remains to be seen, however, is if it will be Metsu or Gerrit ter Borch to challenge Vermeer’s position. For while the compositional originality, supreme technique and level of psychological introspection that Ter Borch gave to his figure pieces may be reasonably weighed against Vermeer’s talents, the chameleonic nature of Metsu, who openly and with amazing ability cloned the work of his cutting edge contemporaries, makes it difficult to understand just which version of Gabriel Metsu—Mestu-Dou, Metsu-Ter Borch, Metsu-Van Mieris or Metsu-Vermeer—will rival Vermeer-Vermeer.

By the way, Waiboer has recently published a catalogue raisonne of Metsu. Although I have not yet had the fortune to read it, I imagine will be of great help in redefining the role of this valuable and quintessential Dutch painter.

*Adriaan E. Waiboer, “‘Why buy a Vermeer when a Metsu is available?’ The Relationship between Two Dutch Genre Painters”, Gabriel Mestu, New Haven and London, 2010, pp. 29-51.

Gabriel Metsu overview in Dublin

March 7th, 2010

Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667)
4 September – 5 December, 2010

National Gallery of Ireland , Dublin
Curator: Dr. Adriaan E. Waiboer

from the museum website:

This exhibition will pay homage to the Dutch seventeenth-century artist, Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667) and his exquisite scenes of daily life, which rank among the finest of the Dutch Golden Age. It will also highlight some of Metsu’s lesser known achievements in the fields of history painting, portraiture and still life. Metsu started his career in Leiden, where he painted biblical scenes on a large format. After his move to Amsterdam in the middle of the 1650s, he changed his specialisation to intimate scenes of daily life. As Metsu’s style became more meticulous in the 1660s, he focused increasingly on representing the pastimes of the upper class. He died at the age of thirty-seven, having painted a varied oeuvre of more than 130 paintings. Few of his colleagues were as versatile as Metsu and his handling of the brush was almost unrivalled. Moreover, his paintings display a unique approach to daily activities, marked by a psychological interest in the people he portrayed. An accompanying catalogue will be published to coincide with the exhibition.

other venues:

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (16 December 2010 – 20 March 2011)

Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art (17 April – 24 July 2011)

Vermeer lecture

February 25th, 2010

lecture by Paul Taylor
4:00 pm – Friday, 5 March 2010
Auditorium of the National Library complex
5 Prins Willem Alexanderhof
The Hague

The Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD) aims to spotlight art historians who have conducted pioneering research on Dutch art. The first lecture, entitled Vermeer, Lairesse and Composition, will be given by Dr Paul Taylor, deputy curator of the Photographic Collection at the Warburg Institute in London and a specialist in Dutch seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art and art theory. The text of the Hofstede de Groot Lecture will be published as the first volume in a new series of publications (Waanders Publishers).

Paul Taylor has distinguished himself with his investigation of several key Dutch painting concepts, such as houding, gloe and lakheid, on which he has published various scholarly articles: “The Concept of ‘Houding’ in Dutch Art Theory” (1992); “The Glow in Late Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Dutch Paintings” (1998); “Flatness in Dutch Art: Theory and Practice”(2008). By thoroughly analysing these terms, searching for comparable terms in Italian and French writings, and linking them with pictorial aspects of Dutch seventeenth-century painting and drawing, he has singled out in a remarkably original fashion several pictorial qualities that are characteristic of Dutch visual art in the Golden Age.

The Hofstede de Groot Lecture is named after the art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930), whose extensive art-historical documentation forms the basis of the RKD collection.

The Hofstede de Groot Lecture will be followed by a reception.

date: Friday, 5 March 2010
: 4:00 pm (you are welcome as of 3:30pm: tea and coffee will be served)
:    free of charge
location:  Auditorium of the National Library complex, 5 Prins Willem Alexanderhof, The Hague
official language:    English
registration (mandatory)

Am I looking too hard?

December 21st, 2009

A hitherto unrecorded and unpublished painting by Cesar van Everdingen,  A Girl Holding a Balance of Plums, was recently sold at Sotheby’s for a tidy sum. has it that the work was “subject of considerable bidding battle this evening. It saw interest from six potential buyers who competed strongly and whose determined bids took the price to 1,161,250 GBP, which was 16 times the pre-sale estimate of 50,000-70,000 GBP.” Luckily, the painting can be inspected with the zoom feature on Sotheby’s website accompanied by valuable background information.

To modern sensibility, bred on the precept that only the blunt and the rough can possibly signal sincerity, Cesar Van Everdingen’s elegant paint handling and sometimes aloof subject matter does not always excite non-specialists. And yet, his superlative technique and enviable sense of pictorial synthesis was held in high esteem in Vermeer’s time, higher than Vermeer’s. But what does Van Everdingen have to do with Vermeer?

Critics have long pointed to Van Everdingen’s hand for the large-scale, idiosyncratic Cupid that appears in three works by Vermeer, its boldest appearance being in the Lady Standing at the Virginal (it also starred in the  Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window but was later painted out by artist himself). However, Vermeer’s interest in Van Everdingen may have gone beyond citing his Cupid as a convenient iconographical prop. Walter Liedtke, in his recent complete catalogue of Vermeer, points out a stylistic kinship between the extraordinarily economical treatment of the head of the mistress in the Frick and Van Everdingen’s classicist  Still-Life with a Bust of Venus in the Mauritshuis.

To be sure, Van Everdingen’s  A Girl Holding a Balance of Plums is a big brash  picture. At first glance it is about as unVermeer-like as you can get. Yet her outrageous hat which projects a suggestive shadow just over her eyes and her seductively parted lips may not be lost on those who know Vermeer’s  Girl with a Flute.  Dutch painters produced countless numbers of such works who, like everyone in the Netherlands, were intoxicated by exotic whares that swelled Dutch ports  (Van Everdingen’s hat is from Brazil where Vermeer’s is obviously of Oriental extraction). If one wishes to push the case beyond the literal, the challenging rendering of the hat’s geometrical design could have stirred Vermeer attention, fascinated by the curious perspective of the decorative stripes on his own oriental hat.

Since art-history detective work is neither one of my talents nor ambitions, I gladly  leave further comparison to those more qualified.

700 + Rembrandts on show (sort of)

July 1st, 2009

Digital reproduction of 317 known paintings, 285 etchings and more than 100 drawings of Rembrandt van Rijn go on display next week at the former Amsterdam Stock Exchange.

Ernst van de Wetering, a leading Rembrandt scholar who supervised the project, said that the exhibition, unique in its kind, will offer viewers “a walk through Rembrandt’s mind.” All works will be reproduced in their original size and shown chronologically. He argues that the reproductions have the advantage of stripping away the aura of awe viewers often have when they see an original, which hinders their assessment of the work.

If that is not enough, some have been digitally enhanced by Van de Wetering himself, hoping to restore the color and detail they had when they left Rembrandt’s studio nearly 400 years ago.

Here, one may see Van der Wetering’s point and one may miss it entirely. Perhaps it’s a matter of assuming a realistic point of view. Without splitting hairs, the exhibit is at least (or cynically, at most) a very good and very big Rembrandt unfolded art book.

Being a painter, I am pretty well trained to look at paintings, so if aura is there, I assume it is produced by the inner workings of the painting  itself and not for other reasons. And again being a painter, the virtual restoration part leaves me puzzled. I accept age and decay as well as the aging and decaying of paintings. One may reasonably suspect Rembrandt did too.

“The Complete Rembrandt, Life Size”
the former Amsterdam Stock Eschange, Amsterdam
July 5 – Sept. 7. 2009

Vermeer echo

June 20th, 2009

Following even Vermeer matters little know to the general public, Pieter Groenewegen’s Mountain Landscape with Travelers has been temporarily loaned by the Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder Gallery (Amsterdam) to the Prinsenhof-Museum, Delft.

Although you may not associate Groenewegen’s rather conventional landscapes with the sublime masterpieces of Vermeer, Vermeer evidently found Groenewegen’s Mountain Landscape with Travelers sufficiently intriguing to incorporate not once, but twice in his Lady Standing at the Virginals. To be fair, the word intriguing should be reserved to Vermeer’s pictorial sleigh of hand rather than to landscape itself. Here is the story in a pill.

Some years ago, Dr Gregor J. M. Weber (Head of the Department of Fine Arts in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) noted that the landscapes which appear on the lid of the virginal and in the gilt frame on the background wall of A Lady Standing at the Virginals showed remarkable similarities. Other than the overall composition, the succession light and dark layers of rocks and trees, the roofs of the houses and the waterfalls of two landscapes were virtually identical. Weber concluded that they were both based on the same painting.

Although many Dutch landscape painters composed their works along these lines, Weber noted a much greater similarity with the work of Pieter Groenewegen from Delft and concluded that the work must have been by him. By coincidence, Weber saw a photograph of Groenewege’s Mountain Landscape with Traveler and informed the two Amsterdam art dealers, John and Willem Jan Hoogstader, of his finding who were amazed when they discovered they were the owners of the very picture in question.

Using computer montage, Weber further analyzed the two depictions in Vermeer’s painting in reference to the real Groenewegen. And although it was evident that Vermeer had used some poetic license in adapting Groenewegen’s landscape to his expressive exigencies, the coincidences were so compelling that the swept away any reasonable doubt of Weber’s original conjecture.

What remains to be understood is the scope of Vermeer’s pictorial trickery. Personally, I have a hunch that the two landscapes were meant to deliberately “echo” each other in order to create a visual analogy to the musical theme which is at the heart of Vermeer’s composition. Visual “echos,” some obvious and some more subtle, seem to be a standard tool in Vermeer’s pictorial repertoire. One example is the curling locks of the youthful Guitar Player which closely well echo the dangling foliage of the landscape behind her. Another is the snow-white cap of the maid and the billowing clouds of the landscape behind her in the Love Letter.

If you would like to dig further into the matter, the Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder has published Weber’s findings with copious diagrams and images in the Hoosteder Journal No 7, Sept, 2000. If you contact them they may send you a free copy. Some information, without images, can be found at <>.

Bigger is not always better

February 8th, 2009

Vermeer, Fabritius & De Hooch: Three Masterpieces from Delft
Feb. 14 – May 24, 2009

Recently some noted museums are taking to small, in-focus exhibitions.

This tiny, but exceptionally focused display sets side by side three master painters of the Delft School: Carel Fabritius, Pieter de Hoogh and Johannes Vermeer.

Fabritius’s interest in illusionism is highlighted in his painting The Goldfinch, one of the fascinating pictures of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Its startling simplicity of figure against the stark white ground has often been seen as a possible starting point for Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace.

The Goldfinch will be hung alongside Pieter de Hoogh’s Courtyard of a House in Delft, a far more complex work from the collection of The National Gallery, London. De Hoogh was one of the most delightfully innovative painters of genre interiors and probable source of inspiration for many of Vermeer’s own works.

Complementing these two works will be the Gallery’s own masterpiece, Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter with her Maid.

museum lectures:

15 February : 3.00
Johannes Vermeer ( 1632-1675)
Lecturer Dr. John Loughman, University College Dublin

17 February : 10.30
Introducing Three Masterpieces from Delft: Vermeer, Fabritius and De Hooch
Lecturer Dr Adriaan Waiboer, National Gallery of Ireland

22 February : 3.00
Carel Fabritius ( 1622-54) and Painting in Delft
Lecturer Dr John Loughman, University College Dublin

24 February : 10.30
Pieter de Hooch in the context of Dutch Painting
Lecturer William Gallagher, Royal Hibernian Academy

Rembrandt’s face discovered in Jan Lievens paintings

February 3rd, 2009

Its not every day that one discovers a portrait of Rembrandt. But now, not one, but four previously unknown images of Rembrandt’s face in works by Jan Lievens have been identified by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art.  Wheelock said he became “vaguely conscious” that it was Rembrandt’s likeness with the artist’s puffy jowls and famous bulbous nose while he was doing research for an exhibition on Lievens soon opening at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Although it is well known that Rembrandt and Lievens had shared ideals and experiences in the first years of their careers, this discovery sheds new light on the intimate side of their relationship.  According to Wheelock, it is Rembrandt who sits in the center of Lievens’  The Cardplayers (detail lower left) making it earliest known image of Rembrandt, just 17 years old. Rembrandt’s features can also be made out in Lievens’ Lute Player (detail upper left).

Although  considered in his own age a child prodigy, art  history has been less kind to Jan Lievens than Rembrandt.  During his adolescence, Lievens’ works were sought by princely patrons in The Hague and London before he reached the age twenty-five. But with the stellar rise in Rembrandt’s fame as the greatest artist of the Dutch golden age, Lievens’ own artistic reputation inexorably declined. This exhibition affords an overview of Lievens’ life and art drawing much needed attention to this neglected master. The catalogue essay argues that in many respects Lievens was the initiator of the stylistic and thematic developments that characterized both artists’ work in the late 1620s.

Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered runs February 7 to April 26 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. See the excellent website dedicated to this spectacular exhibition.