Posts Tagged ‘Milkmaid’

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.


Johannes Vermeer home again

April 13th, 2013

Cheered by thousands, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands reopened today her country’s national museum after a 10-year renovation. And after years of whizzing around the world, the four Rijksmuseum Vermeers have finally come home for a much needed rest. Actually, the Milkmaid and Little Street logged only one trip aboard each, but the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter made a last minute trip around the globe while the travel lof of the Love Letter is too long to list (if you are up to this kind of thing I keep track of all Vermeer exhibitions here). Sending Vermeer’s Woman in Blue to Japan funded a highly detailed catalogue of Dutch Golden Age paintings, a three-volume set on artists born between 1600 and 1630. Meanwhile, the spectacular online database featuring 280,000 objects, half with accompanying images, has been completed.

The renovation of the Rijksmuseum took twice as long as expected and costs rose much higher than planned. Among the glitches, designers had to grapple with asbestos and the obligation to incorporate an existing bike path into their design. Administrators hope to double the attendance from one million pre-restoration visitors per year, to two million.

Rijksmuseum: Impressions of a Revamped Museum

March 30th, 2013

Drs Kees Kaldenbach, art historian, 29 March 29 2013

After a prolonged period of closing and restoration, nearly 10 years that felt like an eternity, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum will be reopened on Saturday morning 13 April 2013 by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. That same afternoon the building will be open to all visitors. Exceptionally, even for important international art museums, in future it will be open to visitors all year-round, even on Christmas and New Years Day.

Drs Kees Kaldenbach at the Rijksmuseum opening

Fans are holding their breath. Sneak previews are possible only for the happy few. One week beforehand the Friends and Patrons of the Rijksmuseum will be allowed in (the latter paying a whopping 1000 euros annually). Obviously, the international press also gets full and privileged access to roam, say ooh and ah, and to take notes and some photographs.

Professional TV footage with heavy cameras will be finished by then – because of rules about electric fire and security measures involving microphone boom poles, extra professional minders and firemen have to be present. I was one of those lucky few allowed access to the unfinished museum on 28 March 2013 because the BBC was shooting a TV programme to be broadcast on Monday night, 15 April, in the BBC4 TV series “Openings”.

As I am knowledgeable about Dutch fine arts and Vermeer in particular, I was invited there on-camera to say something expressive and worthwhile about the experience of just being there – back in the main Rijksmuseum building – taking in the scenery for the first time in 10 years. The crew, with interviewer art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon also wanted to probe my feelings on seeing the four Vermeer pictures back in their final space in the Gallery of Honour or “Eregalerij” in the upper central axis of the Rijksmuseum. It boasts distinguished neighbours; Rembrandt’s Night Watch beckons visitors at the far end. A special role was also played by my daughter Suzanne, now aged 25, who has only faint memories of the museum as it was. In 2002 it was a maze of ill-lit corridors in which one could all too easily lose one’s way.

As you can see in these fairly poor photographs (click here to access photographs), the cubicles on either side of this Gallery of Honour are now painted grey, with plain wooden floors. Each cubicle has its own dividing wall. As there is no daylight, the lighting is electric here, with advanced LED lights (of the correct colour temperature), beaming from above.

What forms the real and unexpected WOW-effect is the dazzling set of patterns and colours in the front part of the dividing walls and the neo-gothic church-like upper arched structures. These patterns are especially abundant in the front grand hall with the bright leaded glass with stained glass panels inserted. The colours, murals and patterns all around in that hall, painstakingly slow and meticulously restored, form a dazzling riot. It reminds one of Roman Catholic church interiors from France and the Netherlands in the 1880s. (One can visit a beautifully restored, notable example in the Dutch city of Delft: the Maria van Jesse church.) Garish colours; what Italian art lovers would dismissingly label as a “north of the Alps kind of art, produced for women and children”. The original Rijksmuseum architect, Pierre Cuypers was a proud and fierce Roman Catholic. His daring stylistic choice of Neo-Gothic as the style, led to a public outcry in 1885, well before the opening months of the museum, because the edifice looked much like a “Roman Catholic Archbishop’s palace”. There was a deep feeling of betrayal; old school, nationalist Calvinists and politicians abhorred this stylistic choice, as did the royal House of Orange. For them the core of the Dutch state was essentially Protestant-Calvinist, born out of a struggle against the local ruler (victorious over the King of Spain, in 1648). Therefore, Calvinists became solidly anti-Roman Catholic. As a result of this politicized situation, the Dutch king decided not to be present when the Rijksmuseum building opened in 1885.

We now go fast forward. From 2001 on, the building was gutted, and many paintings have been in storage for as long as 10 years. The best works were still presented here as The Masterworks during that time in the small wing at the south end of the Rijksmuseum building. Superfluous paintings and objects were put in permanent storage or wisely lent out, distributed in many other museums and galleries such as the large Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam. Some museums abroad received valuable temporary loans of great masterworks, for instance by Vermeer. Loans form a game played on a high level among museum directors. Loaning a very good painting is useful when new exhibitions are in their preparation phase, and other specific loans are requested.

During my sneak preview I have only seen about 20% of the new building. And what I saw bowled me over. Everything in the Rijksmuseum is now spacious, clean and shiny and brilliant and exciting. One of the amazing architectural design decisions is re-creating the two central voids on the left and right of the building, positioned to the side of the central Gallery of Honour axis. They are now again completely empty and covered by glass in order to let a flood of daylight into many galleries, even down to the basement bookstore level. Thus these bright, light-filled halls are akin to the bright sculpture hall in the Louvre.

Back in the 1950s, these spaces were completely filled with a maze of rooms, clogging the visitor’s natural orientation and hindering obvious pathways.

All the way on top at the front of the building below slanted rooflines, a series of completely new galleries have been opened. I saw only the 20th century gallery containing a 20th century Dutch airplane and a section about De Stijl including Mondrian, WW2 objects and 1930s style rooms.

Basements, formerly unused except for by staff and the heating plant, have also been revamped and are now also filled with art objects.

The stated revolution in the Rijksmuseum presentation policy and style is that furniture as well as art and design objects have now been placed side by side with paintings from the same period. They form each other’s context, backdrop and sphere of influence.

I also saw a throng of trainees, the future new, official museum guides who were being instructed by the museum staff.

Yes, yes, yes, I can hardly wait to see the other 80% of the Rijksmuseum. To revisit my long-lost friends and personal favourites.


Something to Smile About

February 2nd, 2011

Google has recently added some extremely detailed (and nuanced) digital images of Vermeer’s works in their googleartproject Google Art Project collection. So far, I have discovered these… Enjoy please.

The Love Letter

The Little Street

The Milkmaid

Woman with a Pearl Necklace

Officer and Laughing Girl

The Glass of Wine

Milkmaid video

September 26th, 2009

Awake New York!

September 10th, 2009

Vermeer’s Masterpiece The Milkmaid
September 10, 2009–November 29, 2009

Not that I vilify large-scale art exhibitions, but small, though-out exhibitions with a sharp focus generally stick more with me. So when the MET announced that Vermeer’s Milkmaid would be the central piece of a special exhibition, I knew luck found me. Chance has it I will be in NY during the Milkmaid’s New York sojourn having already made plans to attend an opening of a show of my watercolors in a Manhattan gallery.

Along with the Milkmaid, five Vermeers of the MET permanent collection will be on display plus a few keys works to help clarify the exhibition’s point (three more are housed at the Frick a few blocks away). Anyone affected by Vermeer and who lives within a reasonable distance will not pass up this opportunity.

Museum goers will be in good hands: the exhibition is curated by Walter Liedtke who, as few,  has channeled so much productive energy into making sense of Vermeer’s 36 extant works and bits and scraps of historical information. Accompanying the show is a booklet (by Liedtke) which takes a rather original look at a remarkable picture.

Liedtke also discusses the artist’s unique patronage and its influence on the artistic and psychological aesthetic of the Milkmaid and other works by Vermeer on a MET  podcast.

Visitors’ comments are very welcomed.

See my interactive study of the Milkmaid here.

A not-very-special special and a digital gem

March 20th, 2009

The Rijksmuseum has developed a webspecial to flank their temporary exhibition of Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance normally housed at the NGA.  It briefly investigates 3 aspects of Vermeer’s painting with comparative details of the Milkmaid (Rijksmuseum), Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (Rijksmuseum) and the Woman Holding a Balance (NGA). This special is nothing special, mind you, even though it might  interest those who tip their  toes into the water for the first time.

Lest one be disappointed at a missed chance (the code and text of the project must not have required more than a few hours to put together) visitors should remember that the Rijksmuseum offers a great deal when compared with other museums which house Vermeer paintings, especially, if you know where to dig. The quality digital scans of the museums’s holdings plus the depth of collection information can be daunting. Compare for example, the digital scans of the two Vermeers in the London National Gallery which cannot be downloaded by the viewer and bear unsightly watermarks capable of souring even the staunchest Vermeer devotee.

No doubt, the best part of this special are the downloadable images readily accessible on the press release page. In particular, the hi-resolution image Woman Holding a Balance is so accurate in color and exposition that it easily betters any printed image I have ever seen, a digital gem of sorts. The shot of the exhibition installation with the Milkmaid, Woman Holding a Balance and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter is moving (see  image above photo: Jeroen Swolfs) if one recalls the time the Milkmaid and Woman Holding a Balance were hung together in Amsterdam in 1696 (see the post on the exhibition below).

Following the Rijksmuseum’s policy, the downloads are free for everyone and require no sworn oaths or bureaucratic sign-ups. Their heart is in the right place.


press release and images of the paintings on display:

Woman Holding a Balance travels to the Rijksmuseum

February 23rd, 2009

Woman Holding a Balance
11 March to 1 June 2009
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Vermeer’s Milkmaid and Woman Holding a Balance will be temporarily reunited in Amsterdam after 300 years. Vermeer devotees will recall that these two paintings were auctioned off there to the same buyer at the Dissius sale of 21 Vermeer paintings in 1696, 21 years after the artist had died.

Both works achieved handsome sums, 175 and 155 guilders respectively, inferior only to the much larger View of Delft at 200. Let’s remember that the average Dutch worker’s wage was something like 500 to 700 guilders per year.

The man who was willing to pay the price, Isaac Roooleuw, a Mennonite merchant, clearly knew what he was getting. He was a painter. However, Roooleuw enjoyed them very little since five years later he was forced to sell them by foreclosure, each to a different buyer.

Although these works are divergent in theme and technique and were made years apart, I can’t think of a more revealing couple in all of Vermeer’s oeuvre. The Milkmaid is the personification of earthly sunlight. The Woman Holding a Balance, on the other hand, possesses a moon-like splendor that when observed directly, eclipses even it own complicated allegorical structure. The viewer has the sensation that it is possible to physically penetrate the space of picture’s crystal-clear penumbra had it not been for the sacral figure of the young woman who waits for her scales to  balance.

I do hope that they will be displayed in close proximity.