Vermeer and the Dutch Masters who influenced him

Art lovers have long recognized the genius of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Now, the influence other Dutch Masters had on HIM is being recognized as well, as Rita Braver now shows us: 

Johannes Vermeer could take an ordinary moment -- who hasn't stared into a mirror? -- and transform it into a celebration of the human experience.

"Our activities, our daily life seem important, because of what Vermeer allows us to see about ourselves," said Arthur Wheelock, curator at Washington's National Gallery of Art.

Vermeer's "Young Woman With a Pearl Necklace." Gemaldegalerie Berlin

"It's just extraordinary light; there's almost an ethereal quality," said Braver of Vermeer's 1664 painting, "Woman with a Pearl Necklace."

"Yeah, it is, and it's so subtle."

Vermeer was born in the Dutch town of Delft.  There is only one image of him -- believed to be a self-portrait -- and little else is known about his short life.

He was only 43 when he died, and only about 35 of his paintings have been discovered. 

The National Gallery exhibit has TEN of them. 

Wheelock is something of a Vermeer virtuoso. He also curated a blockbuster 1995 exhibit here, as Charles Osgood reported on "Sunday Morning."

From 1996: A landmark Vermeer exhibition

It was a record-setting exhibit.  Even the Clintons, then the first family, came to view.  And Vermeer Fever helped propel the novel "Girl with a Pearl Earring" into a bestseller that became a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

Now Vermeer is back for a return engagement in D.C., with a twist: "This show is every bit as wonderful as that show," said Wheelock, "but now you have an opportunity to look at a Vermeer and compare it."

This time, Vermeer's paintings are shown in tandem with works by a roster of other Dutch Masters who all influenced each other in the mid-17th century.

Left: Vermeer's "Woman Holding a Balance" (c. 1664). Right: Pieter de Hooch's "Interior with a Woman Weighing Gold Coin" (c. 1664). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Braver asked, "Did these guys walk around and look at each other's work? How did they know what was going on?"

"Well, that is the core question," Wheelock replied. "Sometimes they were master and student. Sometimes they were drinking buddies. Sometimes they were relatives."

Most of the works focus on an emerging class of educated, well-to-do Dutch women.

Take this painting of a woman writing a love letter by Gerard ter Borch, and one on the same subject by Vermeer made a few years later:

Left: Gerard ter Borch's "Woman Writing a Letter" (c. 1655). Right: "A Lady Writing" by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665). Mauritshuis, The Hague; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Braver asked, "Do you think he knew about that work?"

"Yes, I do think so," Wheelock said.

"Do you think he was trying to copy it, or one-up him?"

"No, I think copying is not the terms we want to use. We are thinking about the artist inspired and saying, 'Oh, that is a wonderful theme that I can explore in my own work.'"

And while Vermeer is the star of the show, that wasn't the case during his lifetime. "Other artists had more of a narrative in their subjects," Wheelock said. "Vermeer's very quiet, restrained, timeless images really were not part of that period's fashion."

You see that restraint in Vermeer's "The Lacemaker," on a rare loan from the Louvre in Paris. The woman, focused intently, is set against a simple wall.  But another lacemaker, painted 15 years earlier by Nicholes Maes, includes objects important to the woman's life, like a Bible, and a portrait of Martin Luther.

"This is telling us more of a story," said Braver.

"More of a story. Larger space allows you to perceive somebody in a very specific time and place," said Wheelock. "Vermeer removes that time and place."

"It's like a television close-up shot, only it's a painting!"

"Yeah, that's exactly right."

Although most of the paintings feature women, men DO make an appearance.

Braver asked, "So, did you just say to yourself, 'I've gotta get some pictures of guys in here'?"

"Well, they're not just guys," Wheelock laughed.

In fact, these three all focus on another emerging theme in Dutch life: scientific pursuit. Vermeer's portraits of a geographer and an astronomer, both bathed in warm daylight, alongside another astronomer (this one by Gerrit Dou).

From left: "The Geographer" (1669) and "The Astronomer" (1668) by Johannes Vermeer, and "Astronomer by Candlelight" (c. 1665) by Gerrit Dou. Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt; Musée du Louvre, Paris; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

"Dou does something which is quite wonderful," said Wheelock, "He has a student studying at night with the light of a candle."

So, how did Vermeer seep into the public consciousness as someone who was a really special artist?

"His paintings are beautiful," Wheelock laughed, "and they became better known. They started to be in public collections, and that made a big difference. Once you've seen one of these Vermeers, it gets inside you and becomes part of you. You never forget it."

But while there might not be anyone quite like Vermeer, it turns out there is an even bigger canvas to study.

Braver said, "It almost seems like with this exhibition you're saying to the audience, 'Okay, you love Vermeer, but we're gonna show you some other artists what you might not have focused on in this time.'"

"The full story of the relationships has never been explained or explored before," Wheelock said. "So this was an opportunity to do it a wonderful, rich way."      

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