Delft – The Weaver of Light

Anne Gardom and Vermeer at the National Gallery

It is easy to think of Vermeer in isolation from the artistic world around him. His paintings are so well known and well loved, so endlessly reproduced and hung in houses all over the world that he is often seen in something of an artistic vacuum. It is good to be reminded of the historical and artistic context in which he was painting.

The latest exhibition at the National Gallery is valuable in what it tells us of the world in which he lived, and the other painters working in Delft at the time. Delft was a centre of fine portrait painting in the early seventeenth century. The prosperous court and people of the Hague and of Delft itself patronized painters who brought an astonishing degree of realism to their portraits. The often rather plain and serious sitters, surrounded by their apparently placid and docile progeny, are dressed in exquisite brocades, lace, gauze, ribbons and jewellery, and gaze out at us with the comfortable assurance of those who know their place in the world. There are some delightful portraits in the early part of the exhibition – valuable patrons and important commissions for the painters of Delft. These are the paintings that the young Vermeer would have seen as he grew up, the son of a prosperous weaver who also practised as an art dealer.

Celebration

Much admired too were the elaborate and stylized flower paintings where artists could also show their minute observation and technical skill in complex compositions of flowers, fruit and insects. The eye luxuriates among the lusciously painted tulips, peonies, carnations, lilies, roses, irises, to name but a few, the lizards, butterflies, bugs, exquisite sea shells, and even a mouse! It is a riotous and also tightly controlled celebration of life and beauty. Alongside these paintings is hung Hans Steenwyck's An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life. Here the same exquisite and meticulous technique is used to depict something quite different – a shaft of light illuminates a skull, an expiring lamp, silenced musical instruments and books that are closed for ever – Vanitas vanitarum, omnia vanitas.

After 1650 painting in Delft and the Netherlands began to move in a new direction. At the death of Willem II, aristocratic and court patronage began to decline, and there was an increased emphasis on the importance of commerce and trade. The artistic world began to move towards more naturalistic and domestic subjects, reflecting the changing times. We begin to see the delightful domestic interiors and intimate landscapes which are typical of the art of the Netherlands in the second half of the seventeenth century. Vermeer painted his wonderful View of Delft about 1660. It is a sparkling picture – the still, grey water in the foreground with its dark luminous reflections, the buildings also in shadow, and the sun shining through threatening clouds brilliantly catching the background roofs and walls in a burst of yellow and red. The figures of two women stand at the water's edge quietly talking, giving a human weight and interest to the whole scene.

Foundation of faith

Vermeer was only one of a number of painters painting landscapes and domestic and church interiors in a way which has become closely associated with the Netherlands and Delft in particular. The landscapes, some of them fantastic, with their attractive peasants and docile animals have a great charm. The church interiors are wonderful exercises in perspective and scale. The not very large paintings take on a truly monumental quality because of the masterly handling of light and distance. The pictures are full of long perspectives, arcades of heavy arches painted in greys and creams and lit with shafts of brilliant light. The solemnity of these huge interiors is enlivened by active little figures – a gravedigger pulling up a floor, lively and unpredictable children and skinny dogs, quiet passers-by. These magnificent small paintings aptly capture the solid foundation of faith which was so important and fundamental a part of the contemporary scene.

Pauper’s Death

Vermeer was regarded as one of the finest of the Delft school of painters from a very early age. It is strange that so little is known about his artistic background. We do not know when he decided to become an artist, where and how he trained, and whether or not he travelled. He never had a studio with students or apprentices, and he painted an extremely small number of pictures – only thirty-five Vermeers are known to exist. He was known to have a wealthy patron, van Ruijven, who bought about half his paintings. The invasion of Holland by France in 1672 brought immense economic hardship, and he died in 1675 much in debt, and leaving his wife with ten children!

His pictures have been admired, treasured, copied, analyzed and reproduced ever since he painted them. The pictures of his mature period have a quality of painting and an intensity of perception that is almost mesmerising. You walk into a gallery and it is always the Vermeer that draws you. Volumes have been written in analysis and description and will continue to be written, but the pictures speak for themselves. The mystery of his technique is a study in itself – the actual way he paints the gleaming pearls, the tints and glazes he employs, the mysterious quality that his women have, enveloped as they seem to be in the world of their own thoughts and reflections. In the painting The Milkmaid, her absorption and care in what she is doing, the splatter of light on the bread on the table, the shading of the cool grey wall behind her all contribute to the picture's moral and visual authority. Nothing is left to chance, and each element of the painting enhances and inter-reacts with the others. The Girl in the Red Hat caught in a quick glance of recognition, or is it surprise? The Woman with the Balance weighing precious metals in the warm light filtered through a yellow curtain. Pearls and jewels gleam in the light and the woman herself, gentle and reflective, is silhouetted against the painting of the Last Judgement. Is it a painting of a lovely woman absorbed in a congenial task, or is it a reflection on the transience of worldly things, or both, or something else altogether?

This exhibition has much to tell us about Vermeer's contemporaries and the historical and artistic background to his paintings. His paintings remain, as ever they were, brilliant, beautiful and enigmatic.

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions. The exhibition runs until 15 September.

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