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Vermeer and the Delft School - Carel Fabritius - Pieter de Hooch
National Gallery

Of course, I booked a ticket for the opening day of ‘Vermeer and the Delft School’. It was first shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and includes thirteen superlative examples of the paintings Johannes Vermeer and seventy works by his contemporaries. As soon as I read about the exhibition, I queued for ages to get my first day ticket. You cannot image what a great unexpected emotion it was for me to be in Room No. 7 of the National Gallery surrounded by only the best of Vermeer. You look around and the public that pushes you towards the pictures immediately resolves your indecision and one has no choice but to surge forward with the mass of people with whom one shares this emotional moment. You feel completely full of happiness, it takes your breath away, you experience complete fullness. As I don't have a family life, I don't have a social life; as I don't have a love life, I don't have a sex life. However, I DO HAVE AN INCREDIBLE CULTURAL LIFE, that gives me all manner of pleasure and happiness and balances my life quite well.
The problem with Vermeer is that each painting is perfect and you could easily spend hours in front of only one work; every Vermeer has similar moments of magic created by the way the artist brings the effect of light into his mainly dark interiors.
This is the unmissable exhibition of the century was first organised by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (March 8 to May 27, 2001, New York), where it was seen by more than half a million art-lovers, (www.metmuseum.org, E-mail education@metmuseum.org). The exhibition is now on at the National Gallery in London, June 20 to September 16, (www.nationalgallery.co.uk Email information@ng-london.org.uk). The last Vermeer exhibition, held in 1996, offered twenty-three of his pictures hung together for the first time and attracted record crowds in The Hague, Netherlands. In the middle of this city, only 20 minutes from Delft, home of the school of art with which Vermeer is associated, there is one of the most beautiful gallery-rooms in the world, in the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, (Koninliijk Kabinet van Schilderijen ‘Mauritshuis’ (E-mail communicatie@mauritshuis.nl). On one side of the room is a window that overlooks the heart of the city and on the other three walls hang three wonderful Vermeers (www.xs4all.nl/~kalden/Vermeer_main.html). One of these is ‘The Girl With the Pearl in Her Ear’, who turns and looks mysteriously over her shoulder at the viewer. Another is ‘View of Delft’ (not in the National Gallery exhibition), painted in 1661. Here, "his town comes across as a prototype of Heaven, with its inner-harbour waters ruffled by the merest cat's paws and the sunlight diffused by high, unthreatening clouds," according to author Anthony Bailey. (A View of Delft: Vermeer Then and Now, by A. Bailey, published by Chatto & Windus at £16.99). Marcel Proust declared it "the most beautiful picture in the world" and he left his death-bed for the last time to see it one last at the Jeu de Paume in 1921, Paris. The third painting is of ‘The Goddess Diana with her Maidens’, less know to the world. Mauritshuis also houses works by Rembrandt, Holbein and Cranach.

Room No. 2 of the National Gallery exhibition is dedicated to views of the interiors of two famous Delft churches, the Out Kerk (Old Church) and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), both built in the early 15th century. These Churches can be seen in most painting of the city. "The masterly perpectival rendering of the interiors of Delft's churches The Nieuwe Kerk and Oude Kerke by de Witte, Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet and Gerard Houckgeest are as sober and as measured as the churches themselves. It is difficult to warm to these paintings. Warmth is not the point: endurance is, and being put in our place by Dod's laws and human perspective. The light may be cold here, but it is the same light that falls through Vermeer's windows." The New Church is a very important Dutch monument, as it contains the tomb of the national hero, William the Silent. When you enter the exhibition in the Room No.1, there is a map of the Dutch Republic in 1648 as it was at that time. Vermeer was baptised in the New Church and his parents are buried there, but Vermeer himself is buried in the Old Church. This delightful city was visited in the 16th century by plague, famine, and Protestant riots. In the 17th century the whole city it was blown up by Protestants. One of the painters whose work can be seen in the Hague exhibition, Carel Fabritius, died in the explosion.

The view of the placid waters in ‘The View of Delft’ is no longer. There are new buildings all around, and the Koornmarkt and the Capels bridge live on only in memory; the water-gates were torn down in 1830 and now there is a busy canal-road. However, even with the apparent hyperrealism of the painting perhaps the view was never realistic. In fact, many details appear strange: Vermeer's gates, in accordance with true perspective, protrude too far; the mild morning sun seems wrong for the time of day; the bridge is at a slightly dubious angle; the canals are too quiet in the early summer daylight on the main route to the river that was a principal commercial artery of the greatest trading nation on earth at that time. All of these elements are very mysterious but, at the same time, magnificent. I don't think a painting has to show exactly what is there, rather it is how Vermeer the artist, or indeed any artist, sees his subject.

The fact remains, however, that Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ enraptured the world, and is considered the best example of 17th c. Dutch. It remains a typically Vermeer-ish enigma. Anyway, some of Vermeer's town has been preserved, for example, the ancient houses on the beautiful Koornmarkt have been rebuilt after the catastrophic floods and the war of 1673. Delft was the centre of Vermeer's existence; he lived here for all of his 43 years, proving that it does not take wide horizons to produce genius. The Town Hall, remodelled in 1618, is where Vermeer published the banns of his marriage to Catharina, a Catholic; Vermeer was a Protestant Calvinist. Delft society disapproved of his marriage to a Catholic so he must have loved her very much to defy them and, indeed, to portray her in his paintings. Of thirty-five Vermeers, of which only three can be reasonably dated, at least a dozen are refined, obsessive studies of the same pretty blonde, modelled perhaps on Catharina. In some of these paintings, the blonde appears pregnant. Vermeer had fifteen children, three of whom died early. He married at the age of 21 and died at the age of 43. There is some doubt in Delft as to the exact location of his house because many buildings dating from his time have been demolished. There is however, a white commemorative plaque on one of the houses, assumed to be where the couple probably lived with Catharina's mother, the wealthy Maria Thins, and where the Master Painter executed most of his famous works, such as ‘The Milkmaid’, ‘The Music Lesson’, and ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

Room No. 2 of the exhibition is also dedicated to the Architectural Paintings, mainly the interiors of the New Church. By 1650 a new generation of painters turned their attention to the existing buildings of Delft and adopted a different perspective scheme - oblique angle or two point perspective so you have this magnificent exhibition room of the most beautiful interiors of churches - a perspective to die for. Today Delft is more know for the fields of tulips and daffodils ringed and threaded by waterways and bridges. For Samuel Pepys, the English traveller of 1660, this was "the most sweet town".

In Room No. 5, Carel Fabritius depicts a view of the city using optical effects and pictorial illusions and, in the middle of the room, there is a wooden box where you can see the painting inside the box, a view that give an effect of illusion. In his book Vermeer's Camera, Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces, Professor Philip Steadman of University College London, proves beyond doubt that Vermeer himself used a camera obscura to trace the scene he later painted. Steadman spent 30 years pouring over his canvasses. "The painting ‘The Soldier and the Laughing Girl’ looks as if it is a snapshot grabbed by a modern camera and this sort of perspective was very unusual in Vermeer's time, an effect which becomes even more intriguing when you consider the precision of the maps in the background. These, I discovered, were real maps which were copied with quite astounding accuracy. The Victorians also noticed that the blurring of some of the objects in his paintings seemed to mimic the out-of-focus areas of photographs", says Prof. Steadman.

Even Leonardo da Vinci had toyed with this contraption, which uses lenses and mirrors to reflect images on to tracing paper inside darkened booths. X-rays have shown that, unlike most artists before and since, Vermeer did not bother with under-drawings or sketched outlines and appears to have painted straight onto the canvas. ‘The Music Lesson’ (also know as ‘A Lady at the Verginal with a Gentleman’), depicts a mirror that reflects the image of a part of the room where the camera obscura should be seen. Professor Steadman, who revealed his findings at the Hay-on-Wye Festival, believes this was deliberate. He says, "You can see the easel and the canvas, even the foot of the stool where the artist might have sat, but not Vermeer himself. In putting the tools of his trade at the precise point where you would expect to see a camera, I suggest, Vermeer is laying a deliberate false trail." Prof. Steadman re-constructed the room to prove his point and found that a camera positioned where the artist's camera obscura might have been, produced an almost identical picture. It was a mirror in the so-called ‘Mother-in-law's Front Room’ series that provided the professor with the clinching proof. In ‘Allegory of the Faith’, much of the left foreground is masked with a curtain. Our knowledge of this technique does not devalue Vermeer's paintings. As Steadman argues, "It may seem to be a form of cheating, but what he did was no short-cut by any means. He would have pricked the outline of what he was doing out with a pin in a piece of paper and then covered it with ground charcoal so it left a stain on the canvas.

The website ‘The camera obscura from Aristotle to Zahn’ (www.cinemedia.net/SFCV-RMIT Annex/rnaughton/CAMERA_OBSCURA.html) provides a good description of this device. It consists of a darkened box or a room with a small hole on one side. When bright light passes through the hole, the scene outside the box will be projected inside it, with or without improving additions such as mirrors, lenses, or ground-glass screens. The image produced can then be traced onto paper or canvas by anyone capable of holding a pencil. ( I wonder if I hold a pencil, will my future be there?). Years ago, Professor Steadman persuaded the BBC to re-create and film the room in Vermeer's ‘The Music Lesson’, with the woman at the virginal played by a static Carol Vorderman. Steadman also believes that at least a dozen of Vermeer's beast-know paintings are set in one and the same room. All is set out as compellingly as any classic closed-room mystery. He says that Vermeer's camera obscura (Latin for dark room) was nothing less than a room within a room, a darkened cubicle large enough for the artist to sit in, apart from the carefully-staged scene he was painting. Steadman argues that countless artists, from Caravaggio to Constable to Canaletto, relied on optical aids. The dramatic change of style of Vermeer's painting around 1656 almost certainly resulted from the introduction of this tool, invented in the 16th century and first used for solar observation.

The captivating National Gallery exhibition displays two Vermeer’s owned by the Gallery itself, ‘The Milkmaid’ and ‘The Art of Painting’. London is also home to ‘The Guitar Player’, on display in Hampstead's Kenwood House and ‘The Music Lesson", in the Queen’s Collection at Windsor Castle. (The Queen lent ‘The Music Lesson’ for the 1996 exhibition in The Hague, but not for this one.) Five paintings in the exhibition are from the USA. ‘The Mistress and the Maid’ is on loan from the Frick Collection (N.Y.), and the others are from the National Gallery (Washington D.C.), and one each from Boston and Princeton, New Jersey. In France, the Louvre has two Vermeers, ‘The Astronomer’ and ‘The Lacemaker’. In Holland the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has, among others, ‘The Little Street’, another Delft cityscape and ‘The Love Letter’. In The Hague are perhaps the two most famous Vermeers of all, the extraordinary ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘The View of Delft’ at The Mauritshuis.

It is said that Vermeer's paintings are so few because he was too busy managing an inn and a picture-framing business. His subjects were modest, small-scale domestic scenes, capturing everyday 17th century life such as ‘The Girl With the Red Hat’, a magical painting, extraordinarily described as looking like "crushed pearls melting together". He painted quiet interiors featuring very often just one woman. In Room No.3 we have the Early Vermeer. The large and robust figures reflect a type of composition influenced by the Italian painter Caravaggio who was active in Utrecht. Vermeer's mother-in-law owned some of his works and they were favoured by the court in The Hague. Willem van Vliet and Christian van Couwenbergh also adopted Caravaggio's style. The painting ‘The Procuress’ focuses on the everyday life of such a woman. Here his style is more confident than his earlier paintings and includes what is possibly the only self-portrait of Vermeer. He is looking directly at us and raising a glittering wine-glass to the woman, as he grins. There have been doubts whether ‘The Procuress’ is in fact by Vermeer, something that has remained a mystery like his use – or not – of the camera obscura. Vermeer used friends for models, such as van Leeuwenhoek as ‘The Astronomer’ and ‘The Geographer’. He also used his family and servants. Tanneke, for example, was the model for ‘The Milkmaid’ and ‘The Letter Bearer’. Some paintings focus on a lone woman, whether preparing to weigh gold on a scale, pausing by a virginal or simply glancing at us from under a sensuous red hat. His most potent paintings of all are the domestic interiors that depict everyday rituals. In the untypically large and elaborate ‘The Art of Painting’, a young woman dresses up as the Muse of History with a laurel wreath and trumpet, and a stylishly long-haired artist begins to paint her. However, Vermeer denies access to his face, he has a capacity for placing this woman by lights that transform her surroundings and this transforms us also.

"Vermeer is strange", was how Van Gogh, an admirer, described him. Furthermore, his pictures are, to use the Dutch word, "schoon": clean and beautiful. His subjects are family, wife, daughters, servants, reading or writing letters, playing musical instruments, sitting in front of a mirror as they don a string of pearls, unaffected by great events. As Bailey says, "in most of his pictures, which are interiors, the rooms with withdrawn; sunlight enters from one side, usually the left, and illuminates the young woman who seem to be in a reverie."

‘Young Women Seated at a Virginal’, No. 36 in the London exhibition, is a picture that came to light only 90 years ago. It is possibly attributed to Vermeer, but one that has divided scholars for almost a century. For the first time, this painting is shown alongside his undisputed masterpieces. Some regard it as the Master’s work but many reject the attribution. Vermeer fakes are not unknown; Hans van Meergeren painted three, one of which was bought as genuine by the Nazi, Hermann Goering. N.36 belongs to a Belgian art dealer, who hopes to have the work recognised as genuine. I don't feel it resembles Vermeer's work, in my humble opinion.

Vermeer's painting has been a great attraction to thieves. Hitler had ‘The Art of Painting’ pilfered from Vienna, and in 1971 a waiter stole ‘The Love Letter’ from the Rijksmuseum. ‘The Guitar Player’ was stolen from London's Kenwood House in 1974 and ‘The Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid’ was stolen twice, in 1974 and 1986, from a private estate near Dublin. ‘The Concert’ was stolen in 1990 is still missing.

In Room No.1, a selection of early Delftware is also on display. This blue-and-white tin-glazed earthenware, based on Chinese porcelain and imported into the Netherlands around 1600, has been produced in Delft since the 17th century. This city is also very famous for its industry of luxury goods such as tapestries and precious metal objects. Vermeer often features blue Delftware as tiling along the edge of walls, something that can be seen in ‘The Geographer’ and ‘The Milkmaid’. I love this feature and in the Gallery shop, they are selling paintings as fridge magnets and other small Delftware items. I intend to buy the collection!

Also included in this wonderful show are great painters such as Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt, who stayed in Delft only for a few years. Less than a dozen works can safely now be attributed to him. His chiaroscuro makes him a great example of the Delft School. He died at the age of 32 in a bomb explosion. Exhibited are two self-portraits, his view of the city and his magnificent little painting of ‘The Goldfinch’ on a perch.

The exhibition also contains paintings by Pieter de Hooch. Last year The Dulwich Picture Gallery devoted a first exhibition to Pieter de Hooch. Vermeer, as the leading light of the Delft School, led to the discovery of de Hooch, who painted interiors in a similar style, using a variety of reflected lights showing mothers gurgling to their children, soldiers flirting, maids cleaning, children playing, and so on. You can see how gorgeous the predominantly orange-coloured brickwork is. De Hooch who was born in Rotterdam in 1629, to a bricklayer father, died in a mental home. He was always busy but never rich. ‘Two Soldiers and a Serving Woman with a Trumpeter’, probably executed in 1654-55, seems curiously disjointed. His fascination with lights in ‘The Courtyard’ takes us outside, away from the usual interiors, where a woman clasps a little girl's hand near an old monastic plaque referring to the virtues of "patience and meekness". The plaque is still there.

As a final touch to the exhibition, a real celebration of Vermeer, one can enter the competion for a give-away dinner at the National Gallery, a two course meal at Crivelli's restaurant in the Sainsbury Wing. The question to be answered is ‘What is the name of the Peter Greenaway/Louis Andriessen opera based on Vermeer's life?’ Answers on a postcard, please…..

Vermeer is really a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. In London the exhibition is smaller, but we are all fascinated this painter, whom the 19th c. French critic Theophile Thore, who ‘discovered’ the hitherto unknown Dutchman, called ‘The Sphinx of Delft’, a Sphinx of pure genius, as the world now knows. Marguerite Youcenar's novel Two Lives and a Dream is based on Vermeer. But before her, Marcel Proust's character Swan and Bergotte are both besotted with Vermeer. We never find out in ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ whether Swann finishes his 'essay' on Vermeer, but we follow Bergotte in his final illness to the exhibition in Paris where the ‘View of Delft’ is to be seen and dies after seeing it - as it were, after a view of perfection.

They say "see Naples and die". As Proust said, he would like to die under a painting by Vermeer, so I would, "see Vermeer and die".

Verinha Ottoni.




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