Lessons in Dutch Painting From a Compelling, Mysterious Star
Johannes Vermeer: Convert and Master of Light
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By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, NOV. 29, 2012 (Zenit.org).- As fall drives Romans out of the piazzas and into the warmth of indoors, a new exhibit invites visitors into the cozy interiors of Dutch art. "Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Painting," held in the ex-papal stables on the Quirinal Hill, not only offers a chance to get to know one of history's most compelling and mysterious painters, but also to enjoy an overview of Dutch painting itself.
The rise of a nation
After Rome and the burgeoning Baroque, the Netherlands was the most exciting area for art in the 17th century. By the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, the Low Countries of the north had ousted their Spanish overlords and founded the independent state of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Their territory was mostly marshland, but the indomitable Dutch reclaimed their land from the water through almost superhuman efforts. Their proximity to the North Sea placed them on a major trade route and allowed global import and export of merchandise. National pride, commercial success and confidence in human achievement was a sure-fire recipe for great art.
The new republic, however, was mostly Calvinist, a religion that took a dim view of art. Nonetheless, the Netherlands earned a reputation for religious tolerance by allowing several provinces to remain Catholic, and it welcomed many Jews, Huguenots and other religionists as well. But unlike Rome, where the greatest patrons were members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, in Holland, artists would have to find another route to success.
It was in this stimulating mix of an urbanized civilization, where three out of four people lived in a city and the population boasted the highest literacy rate in Europe, that the art market was formed. Like the Tuscany of the Middle Ages, several Dutch cities witnessed a vast artistic production. As Siena, Florence and Cortona faded from the world stage, Leiden, Amsterdam and Utrecht rose. By 1650, there were 650 to 750 painters in Holland, producing about 70,000 works a year, with portraits being virtually the only pieces made on commission.
A genius rises from the marsh
Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 in Delft, a lively town a few miles from the Royal Court at the Hague. Built along a large canal that offered easy transport, the city grew wealthy supplying textiles and beer to the courtiers, and produced the blue and white ceramic Delftware, omnipresent in 17th-century still-life painting. The city, with a population of about 25,000, counted 5,000 Catholics, living in a part of town called the "Papist Corner" where there were three "hidden churches."
Vermeer's father was an innkeeper, which, during the boy's formative years, allowed for close study of human nature. Although his father also dabbled in art, Vermeer's early training remains unclear -- though with 26 professional painters in Delft alone, it must have been relatively easy for him to pick up the tricks of the trade.
Beyond his acquired skills, Vermeer had a gift for creating mesmerizing light and seductive surfaces, all with seeming effortlessness. As historian Paul Johnson describes his painting, it "appears to have been achieved not so much by brushwork as by magic, as if the paint invisibly floated onto the canvas like snow, then dissolved into it." Although small, the works stand out in each room of the Roman exhibit, drawing visitors as if hypnotized toward them. (Then the alarms invariably sound, as there is a three foot safety distance from the works!)
The show transports viewers out of the grandiose and chaotic piazzas of Rome to the quiet streets of the Netherlands. Jan van der Heyden's "View of the New City Hall in Amsterdam" tries to command our attention with the large white municipal building overshadowing the old Gothic church, but Vermeer's "Little Street" is what captures the eye.
An exquisitely painted brick building rises in rectangular blocks then extends into a zigzag of triangular rooftops, forming a backdrop much like the Roman theaters of old, but Vermeer has raised the dignity of wood, plaster and brick to that of marble and granite. The actors in his set do not recount a mythological tragedy, but are women sweeping, cleaning, and sewing -- maintaining order, instead of imposing it.
This work also demonstrates the extraordinary technique of the artist. Some sections are as smooth as glass but a thick impasto forms the spill of ivy on one side, lending a three-dimensional quality to its lushness.
Visitors are also treated to a history of Delft. Emanuel de Witte depicted the interior of the "Nieuwe Kerk," one of the first architectural monuments in Protestant Delft. The spartan interior holds only a few inscriptions and banners, but no painting. The only elaborate structure is the tomb of William the Silent, the heroic prince who led the Netherlands to independence. Two Roman women standing next to me, after looking at several images of Dutch churches, sighed, "they're so plain, they seem naked," before turning with delight to the decorative domestic interiors.
At the outset of his career, however, Vermeer converted to Catholicism, and his earliest extant works are religious images. A "St Praxedes" from about 1655 shows a 23-year-old Vermeer painting a monumental image in true Counter Reformation style; the saint is wringing a sponge of martyr's blood. Copied faithfully from a Florentine master known as Felice il Riposo, Vermeer added only a crucifix in Praxedes hand as if to further attest to his faith. Vermeer's conversion, brought about through his marriage to Catharina Bolnes, daughter of a prominent and wealthy Catholic family, drew him into the circle of the Jesuits in Holland.
Although he would produce little by way of religious subject matter (indeed he produced very little at all -- there only being 36 extant paintings), one of his last works again attests to his faith. "Allegory of Faith," painted in 1670-72 shortly before he died at the age of 43, uses a Crucifixion by Jacob Jordaens as a backdrop. Jordaens, oddly enough, converted from Catholicism to Calvinism.
The figure of faith, taken from the "Iconologia," a popular Roman book on images by Cesare Ripa, rests her foot on a meticulously painted terrestrial globe, one of the most popular objects produced in Holland in the 1600s (every noble Roman family owned one). Above her, a crystalline orb represents the heavens. The serpent of Original Sin lies crushed by the cornerstone of the Church, and the bitten apple rolls away impotent and forgotten. The chalice before the crucifix alludes to Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, while the book is probably the Roman Missal. In a surprising turn of events, while the work was originally for a Catholic patron, it was later purchased by a Protestant banker.
Debauchery versus morality
Dutch art was not made principally for churches, but for homes. Intimate spaces required reduced-format works. The painters of the Netherlands forged their reputations not by depicting Biblical events or the lives of the saints, but with neutral subjects, whether landscapes, portraits, still lifes or, as this exhibit abundantly demonstrates, genre scenes of everyday life.
Vermeer soon entered the tide of genre painters, already swollen with the internationally renowned Gerard ter Borch, the savvy Pieter de Hooch and the excellent students of Rembrandt van Rijn: Gerrit Dou, Nicholaes Maes and Carel Fabritius, who had taken up residence in Leiden, Amsterdam and Delft. All are featured in this exhibition.
The Dutch masters rendered the natural world with tremendous precision. The virtuosity of this circle of artists in depicting the warmth of sunlight, the shimmer of silk, the lushness of fur or the dull sheen of silver inspired each member to greater achievements. Often they explore similar themes: a musical concert, a domestic scene or a lady writing a letter. Like a sonata with endless variations, each artist left his own distinct stamp on a subject.
A favorite theme was the moral precipice. The Dutch enjoyed food, wine and many other pleasures (other Europeans commented that they were always eating, as they say today about Americans), but they were aware that pleasures in excess turn quickly to vice.
In this respect the exhibit offers an interesting contrast between the two most famous painters in Delft -- Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch.
Pieter de Hooch looks with an amused eye at two drunken soldiers courting a barmaid while ignoring the trumpeter's call to assemble, and glances indulgently at card players idling away time, money and virtue. His scenes are fun and somewhat superficial, like a slightly off-color sitcom.
Vermeer's light, almost always from the left side window, seems to usher viewers out of banalities. In his "Young Woman with a Glass of Wine," a vibrant maiden swathed in scarlet personifies the passions of youth. She daintily holds her crystal goblet, precious and intoxicating. Her face succumbs to shadow as her suitor leans in to press his advance, and she turns toward us smiling. Yet light streams in from the partially open window decorated with a figure of the cardinal virtue of temperance. There is still time for her to pull back from the precipice: Will she or won't she?
Through his light, Vermeer ennobles our everyday choices and gives resonance to our tiny theater of action in home and neighborhood, where the moral character of our lives is most often forged.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, "The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici" was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org