Dutch Masters Season Part 3: Johannes Vermeer
There can be no doubt about just how famous this Dutch masterpiece is. While very little is known about the woman featured, how the painting came about, or even about the life of the great Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, this portrait has so captivated audiences across the world that speculation surrounding the work has inspired novels, films and stage shows. It is of course, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Het Meisje met de Parel). And of course, for every masterpiece, a Norm must stand it its place. Here, as my final instalment of the Dutch Masters Season, is Norm with a Pearl Earring, painted on a little 7″ x 5″ canvas with acrylic.
And the original
It’s a simple painting at it’s heart, but the intensity of the colour contrast against a black background with the glint of a pearl and the wide open welcoming eyes of the model have no doubt contributed to making this painting one of the best known portraits in the world. It is by no means the best of Vermeer’s work, an artist who is renowned for his mastery of sumptuous domestic scenes, including startling realistic windows, checkerboard floors and decorative furniture, and scenes of ordinary middle class life in the family home. In fact it was Vermeer who made the ordinary king in his work centuries before the impressionists swept aside grand classical themes for a focus on everyday life. As such, almost all of Vermeer’s paintings appear to be set in the same two rooms in his home in Delft where he worked, showing the same furniture in various arrangements. Nonetheless they show exquisite skill and attention to detail, and collectively have made Vermeer the darling of Dutch art.
I leave you finally with an image of my favourite Vermeer painting, The Art of Painting, a work which has a truly chequered history which requires no fictionalisation. Set in the same room as most of Vermeer’s paintings, it is nonetheless unique because it appears to feature a self-portrait of the artist, and because it never left the artist’s side. It is thought to have been painted as a showpiece by the artist so that he could use the work to advertise his skill to visiting potential patrons. It is unsurprising therefore that the work is lavish in its detailing – just look at the map on the wall full of creases and the detail in the chandelier. But for being well painted, the items in the work also have their own significance. It is widely thought that Vermeer, a Catholic, painted the work as a allegorical stand against the new protestant rule in the Netherlands. As such, the map of the new Netherlands is creased and torn, suggesting divide and unrest in the nation, while the absence of candles in the chandelier, adorned as it is with the double headed eagle – symbolic of the former Catholic Habsburg rulers of Holland – represents the suppression of the Catholic faith and the darkness which had consequently settled over the land. The girl is the Muse of History, Clio, evidenced by her laurel wreath, holding a trumpet (depicting fame) and a book by Thucydides.
Of even greater significance is perhaps what happened after Vermeer’s death. First, the painting was party to an outrageous act of fraud, as the name of Vermeer’s great rival, Pieter de Hooch, was forged onto the work with the result that it was not recognised as a Vermeer work until 19860. Secondly, in the second world war, after the Nazi invasion of Austria, the work attracted the attention of top Nazi officials – Hermann Göring attempted to acquire the painting, but his efforts were blocked by Hitler himself who acquired the work for his own amassed collection of stolen European masterpieces. Shortly thereafter, during the war, the painting undertook numerous perilous journeys as the Nazis moved it from place to place in an attempt to keep it safe, finally ending up, and being discovered in, a salt mine near Munich. It was presented to the Austrian Government by the Allies in 1946, happily still in one piece, where it has remained ever since.
See you in Amsterdam…
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