Today (14 March 2023) is Vermeer Day! We ordered tickets online on 28 December shortly after we first heard about it and although the exhibition was on at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam between February and June, all tickets were sold out by the middle of February.
The museum is an impressive late 19th century building that has been completely modernised inside and is very well laid out. The relatively short queue moved quickly and we were soon free of coats and bags and ready to enjoy the exhibition. The exhibition texts are in Dutch and English and the paintings are arranged thematically. Of the 38 known paintings by Vermeer, 27 appear in the exhibition, the others were either too fragile to travel or their owners refused to let them be included. From auction catalogues, titles or at least subjects of some other Vermeer paintings are known but they have since disappeared.
The paintings are hung in small rooms, making it necessary to wait patiently for an opportunity to get close up to them amidst a press of people. There are two paintings I will talk about separately when I do a post about Delft where we spent three days after Amsterdam. These are the View of Delft and the Little Street as they are the only two cityscapes featuring his home town that Vermeer produced .
At the beginning of his career when he was in his early 20s, Vermeer painted 4 paintings on religious / mythical themes. At first sight, I would find it hard to say they were by Vermeer as three of them at least are so different in style to the paintings for which he is well known. He produced them in his early twenties when he was still finding his way and apart from their subject matter and style they are also the biggest canvases he created. The mythological painting is Diana and her nymphs: none of the characters are looking at each other or out at the viewer, seemingly locked in their own interior worlds. One curious feature is that two of the nymphs (in the foreground) and Diana all look alike, possibly indicating that he used the same model in different poses. I am sure this same face (model) appears in his other paintings. This will be a recurring theme through the exhibition: the same clothes, models, props recur throughout his work.
The first religious painting is of an obscure saint, St Praxedis, based in Rome who collected relics of matryred Christians. In Vermeer’s treatment she is squeezing a sponge holding blood into a vessel, obviously taken from the decapitated body of a martyr seen on the ground behind her. Once again there is no connection with the viewer as St Praxedis concentrates intensely on the task she is undertaking. Again that sense of an interior world to which we do not have any access.
The second religious painting is much more impressive, Christ in the house of Mary and Martha. This seems to me to be the first painting where Vermeer uses light in an interesting way to focus on Christ teaching. It is also the first where there is a connection between the three characters: Jesus looks at Mary, who has been complaining that she is doing all the work while Martha sits listening to Christ teaching, as he explains that listening to the teachings is more important. Martha, her head resting pensively on her right hand sit at Christ’s feet looking up at him. The main focus is on Christ’s right hand against a bright white tablecloth background as he gestures towards Martha.
The final painting in this section is an odd and slightly disturbing one, called The Procuress, a common theme in Dutch 17th century painting apparently. It depicts a girl being pressed into sleeping with a man leaning over her from behind with his hand on her left breast, The girl’s coif is askew and her cheeks are flushed from the drink she has been taking. She holds a wine glass is in one hand and a flagon sits on the table to her left. The man about to take her virtue is dropping a silver coin into her outstretched hand watched avidly by the shadowy figure of the procuress in the centre of the painting. The most bizarre feature of the painting though is the man sitting on the left, dressed in extravagant black and white clothing and a floppy hat with feathers, luxuriant brown locks cascading round his head. He has obviously had a few to drink It’s odd because he is smiling broadly at the viewer, holding a raised glass in one hand and the neck of stringed instrument in the other. This character has been described as a self portrait by Vermeer, on the basis that he looks like the same character, dressed in the same clothes that can be seen from the back in his later Art of Painting. Why would Vermeer put himself looking so merry in such a moralistic painting.
The other odd thing about the painting is the foreground, consisting of a highly patterned, mainly red coloured carpet covering up the the lower halves of the seated characters , as if they had put a rug round themselves to keep warm. In fact it solves a few problems of perspective that might have distracted from the main subject of the painting. Carpets in odd places are also a recurring theme of Vermeer’s paintings.
Finally, and this is the disturbing part, it is the beginning of another theme in the exhibition: women seemingly being forced or encouraged to drink by men who themselves are not drinking.