Posts Tagged ‘Is Vermeer Overrated?’

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 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.

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.

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.