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Don't be Delft!
Vermeer and the Delft School (London)
Member Name: MykReeve
Vermeer and the Delft School (London)
Date: 16/07/01, updated on 16/07/01 (223 review reads)
Advantages: Impressive collection of Delft school paintings, Supremely good text introducing each room and accompanying each picture, Save money on flying around the world to see Vermeers!
Disadvantages: High admission fee, Gets crowded, Have to pre-book
I must confess that I wasn't a particularly big fan of Vermeer, though I have always been intrigued by his work. Spectacularly little is known of the painter's life, he died having sold no paintings during his life, and leaving a substantial debt to his wife and eleven children. After his death, many of his paintings were incorrectly attributed to other artists, and it was only in the late Nineteenth century that his genius was recognised by the art community, and efforts were made to rediscover the artist's works.
Vermeer's paintings represent some of the most impressive examples of Dutch painting. He showed an incredible ability to create highly detailed atmosphere in his paintings, and proved himself capable of emulating the styles of earlier artists, such as Caravaggio. With few exceptions, Vermeer's paintings depicted sunlit interiors of buildings, with one or two figures.
It is thought that the artist only painted around 50 paintings before his untimely death in the mid-1670s, of which just 35 have survived. It is impressive, then, that this exhibition has managed to collect more than a third of these paintings. The exhibition was organised by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has already been exhibited, in associated with the National Gallery in London, where it is currently on display.
The exhibition looks, not only at Vermeer's works, but also at the Delft School, an artistic community that thrived in the city of Delft throughout the 17th century. The city was a major cosmopolitan centre in the Netherlands at that time, connected to the country's other major cities by a canal network, and is located near to The Hague. Thanks to these connections, wealthy patrons, and the court at The Hague, were able to ensure that the art market of Delft flourished.
The exhibition consists of seven rooms, in the basement of the National Gallery's Sainsbury Wing, wi
th the art arranged in approximately chronological order.
ROOM 1: PAINTING IN DELFT 1600-1650
In the first room of the exhibition, visitors are introduced to the styles of the Delft school, and the diversity of subjects of the paintings. While, over this period, Delft became known as a centre of portrait painting, other subjects included still lives, interiors and battles, all of which are represented in this room.
The first room does a good job of expressing the diversity in the Delft school. The dominant picture of the room, a large 'Portrait of Michiel van der Dussen, his wife, Wilhelmina van Setten, and their children' (1640) by van Vliet, provides a good introduction to the school. The portrait is alive with details providing information about the family – a crucifix on a table in the background hints at their Catholicism, for example.
Another portrait, by van Miereveld, Delft's most successful portrait painter, 'Portrait of a Young Woman' (1630), can also be found in this room. Van Miereveld's painting, in contrast to van Vliet's, concentrates on the accurate representation of its subject, with vastly less attention played to the background.
Two still lives, by van der Ast and Vosmaer, can also be found in this first room, both illustrating the Delft tendency to select flamboyant and exuberant selections of exotic flowers for their paintings.
Probably the most interesting of the paintings in the first room, however, are the interiors, which paved the way for Vermeer's unique style of atmospheric, delicately sunlit interiors. Interiors by Palamedesz, van Velsen and van Bassen, are on display in the first room. Palamedesz and van Valsen's pictures are very similar in style, which seems reasonably given that the latter was a student of the former, and both show the importance of lighting in creating atmosphere. Palamedesz's painting, 'Company Dining and Making
Music' (1632), shows a group of people in a brightly-lit room, with the eye automatically drawn to a central figure, leaning on a chair, who has turned to catch the eye of the viewer. Van Velsen's 'A Musical Party' (1631) shows interesting use of lighting – most of the figures, in the centre of the painting, are well illuminated, however, at the left hand side of the picture, a smoking figure stands in silhouette.
Van Bassen's 'Renaissance Interior with Banqueters' (1618-20) does a good job of introducing a common theme in Delft painting – careful consideration of perspective. Particular care has been taken by the artist in constructing the perspective of this painting, especially with respect to the patterning of the tiled floor. Van Bassen was an architect, and specialised in the design and painting of palace interiors, so it is unsurprising that he took so much effort over this aspect of his works. However, such attention to perspective became important in the Delft school, and is also evident in Vermeer's works.
ROOM 2: ARCHITECTURAL PAINTING
The art in this second room continues the themes of lighting and perspective, and examines their importance in the development of the Delft school in the 1650s and 1660s, with particular attention paid to church interiors. The two churches in the city of Delft were common subjects of Delft paintings at the time; the Oude Kerk (Old Church), and the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), which was home to the tomb of William the Silent, an important Dutch national monument, from the 1620s. Many of the paintings of church interiors include a couple of common themes, illustrating the circle of life – children at play, and open graves.
The largest painting in the room is shows 'The Tomb of William the Silent in an Imaginary Church', which was painted by van Bassen in 1620, before the site for the tomb had been decided. As with the painting in the pr
evious room, van Bassen's attention to detail in perspective is exemplory. However, here, the artist ensures that the tomb is the subject of the painting, by brightly illuminating the tomb and the central area of the church, while the fore- and background areas remain in the shade.
There are some impressive paintings on display in this room by Houckgeest, several of which illustrate a two-point perspective – with a pillar placed centrally and lines of pillars running away from the viewer to both sides, such as his 'Interior the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft, with the Tomb of William the Silent' (1651-2) and 'Ambulatory of the Nieuew Kerk, Delft, with the Tomb of William the Silent' (1651).
Another impressive piece in the second room is de Witte's 'Tomb of William the Silent in the Nieuwe Kirk, Delft, with an illusionistic curtain' (1653). The main part of the picture features a detailed painting of the tomb being visited by a family, however, in the top left hand corner of the picture is a heavy green curtain. The curtain isn't present in the church, but is an illusionistic affectation added by the artist, dropping a shadow not onto the church interior, but onto the picture itself. This was a detail that was extremely popular with art patrons of the time.
In the centre of the room is a collection of ceramic delftware, most of which features blue-on-white representations of the Tomb of William the Silent.
ROOM 3: EARLY VERMEER
Finally, having been introduced to the popular themes of the Delft school, we are allowed to see some of Vermeer's work. Three of the seven paintings in this third room are the work of Vermeer, the others are by contemporary artists of the time, and carry on some of the themes of Vermeer's works.
The largest of Vermeer's works is also one of his earliest; 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' (c. 1655). It is a very atypical painting for
the artist, with bold colours and strong lighting, drawing the viewer's attention to the figures. The style is very similar to that of Caravaggio, who painted in the city of Utrecht at this time – the clothing is painting by long, heavy strokes of paint, producing large regions of single-coloured canvas.
The next of Vermeer's works in the room is 'The Procuress' (1656), which is one of his better known pieces, and his first known depiction of a contemporary subject. The figures to the right hand side of the picture are a prostitute and her client. The client hands the prostitute a coin, while the procuress looks on in the background. To the left hand side of the picture is a foppish, voyeuristic figure, grinning at the viewer, while suggestively holding a glass over an erect lute. This figure is thought to be Vermeer's only self-portrait. It's a highly moralistic picture, we are left in no doubt over the transaction that is taking place, and the figures' involvement in it. While the style of painting retains a heavy debt to Caravaggio, there are more details to the pictures' textures than the previous work, which is more typical of Vermeer's style. Also, we can see what one critic described as "crumbs of crystallised light", tiny hints of the artist's care and attention over lighting in his pictures.
The third Vermeer is 'Diana and Her Companions' (1653-4), the earliest of Vermeer's paintings in this exhibition. Again, the artist's use of large blocks of colour reflects the work of Caravaggio.
The room also holds two self-portraits by Carel Fabritius, painted in 1648-50 and 1654. These are early examples of this artist's work, heavily showing the influence of his teacher, Rembrandt.
ROOM 4: THREE DELFT MASTERS – FABRITIUS, DE HOOCH AND VERMEER
This room holds works by these three artists, painted during the late 1650s. All three painters und
erstood perspective and geometry well, and focused on painting interiors with few figures, creating a palpable atmosphere.
There are two works by Vermeer in this room. The first is another well-known one, 'The Milkmaid' (1657-8). The depiction of manual labourers was not a new theme in Dutch art, however, what was new was Delft's sense of restraint. This is a very plain image, with a gentle element of sensuality. The light tenderly illuminates the milkmaid, as well as showing up imperfections in the back wall of the room. Vermeer's attention to detail in this painting is truly exemplory, from the stippled bread loaves to the nail holes on the back wall.
The other Vermeer in this room is 'The Glass of Wine' (1658-9). Again, Vermeer's theme is far from original – the picture follows an established tradition of showing small groups of people drinking. What is unusual about this painting by Vermeer, however, is that we see full-length figures, much like the works of de Hooch in this room. The painting depicts a seated woman drinking, while a standing man readies himself to pour more wine for her. As with many of Vermeer's paintings, the realism of the picture makes us wonder about the story behind the picture – is the man flirting with the woman? Is he trying to get her drunk, so that he can have his wicked way with her? The lighting is again superb, subtly lighting the room, and interacting well with the materials in the room. This is often described by critics as Vermeer's first "fully mature" work.
Fabritius's 'The Goldfinch (Het Puttertje)' (1654) is a superb piece of work, depicting the small bird upon a perch. The shadow the bird casts on the wall beyond it is only light, as if to suggest that the bird has only just landed on its perch. By contrast, the neighbouring painting, also by Fabritius, 'The Sentry' (1654), depicts a sentryman sat sleeping on a bench. H
is shadow, unlike that of the bird, is more solid and more sharply defined, suggesting that he has been there for some time. The figure of the sentry is also cheekily juxtaposed against an relief of St. Anthony Abbot, a paragon of self-discipline and diligence.
ROOM 5: VIEWS OF DELFT
Another Vermeer-less room, this room of the gallery holds pictures of the city of Delft, and its courtyard gardens. Vermeer did paint a 'View of Delft' (1960-61) and a 'Street in Delft' (1657-58), however, neither of these are in the exhibition, though there is a print of the 'View of Delft' on the introductory text panel for this room.
My favourite of the paintings in this room were by van der Poel – one entitled 'Celebration by torchlight on the Oude Delft' (1654) and the other entitled 'Seashore by Moonlight' (1660-64). The exhibition makes little of these paintings, which probably points more at my lack of appreciation of aesthetics than at a fault on the gallery's part. Both paintings are of locations after dark, and both show, in my opinion, supremely good use of light. In the former painting, a street flanked by a canal in the city of Delft plays host to a torchlight procession, with the effulgent light of the torches illuminating the buildings and revellers. The latter painting is much smaller, and shows a section of coast illuminated by the light of the moon.
The exhibition focuses more on the works of Vosmaer and de Hooch. De Hooch's works both focus on people in the city's courtyards, and my favourite of these is the beautiful 'The Courtyard of a House in Delft' (1658), which shows a serving woman and a child in the courtyard of a house. Through a small alleyway, we can see another woman, presumably the woman of the house, looking out onto the main street beyond. It's a touching image, and is supremely richly painted, with very natural colours. The figures' gestures a
re very well observed, and the lighting is typically well rendered.
One of Fabritius's last works, 'A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall' (1652), is on display here. It features extremely sharp perspective, seemingly distorting the view of the Nieuwe Kerk, with the road in front of the church angling off to either side of it. A perspective box accompanies the painting, through which visitors can peek at a reproduction of the painting on a concave surface.
ROOM 6: PAINTING IN DELFT 1650-1675
This was a period associated with greater naturalism in the Delft school and a preference for still lives and landscapes over interiors. It was also over this period that investment in the painters of the Delft school began to lessen.
One wall of this room is taken up by still life paintings, similar to those in the first room of the exhibition – two by van Aelst, one by van der Ast, and one by Steenwyck. My favourite of the paintings in the room was Steenwyck's 'Still Life: An allegory on the Vanities of Human Life' (c. 1640), sometimes simply referred to as his 'Vanitas'. The picture serves as a reminder of the transience of human life, collecting together objects representing the end of existence and the passage of time – a skull, a watch, an extinguished oil lamp. The picture also contains a collection of objects representing appropriate pursuits for an intelligent man – books, a shell [biology?] and a sword. The light comes from the top left hand corner of the picture, and creates beautiful textures on the surfaces of the objects.
One wall holds three paintings by Verkolje; two portraits depicting an ostentatiously wealthy couple ('Portrait of Johan de la Faille' (1674) and 'Portrait of Margaretha Delff, Wife of Johan de la Faille' (1674)), held in absurdly intricate frames; and a picture entitled 'The Messenger' (1674).
M 7: VERMEER
This is the room you've really come to see – this room exclusively contains pictures by Vermeer; nine of them in total, though the authenticity of one of these is still disputed. All of the paintings in this room were completed in the 1660s and 1670s, and show quiet, enigmatic, introspective figures. The techniques which we have seen developed over the course of the exhibition are in evidence here – the subtle lighting, illusionism, perspective, symbolism and morality.
Take for example, 'Allegory of the Faith' (1670-72). In the lower left-hand corner of the picture, we see a snake crushed by a block of stone. The stone symbolises the cornerstone of the Church, Jesus Christ, and the snake represents the Devil. In the background of the picture, we see Christ's crucifixion depicted, and on a table to the right hand side of the picture, we see a crucifix, a chalice and a crown of thorns. The subject of the picture is a woman, standing on a globe, looking skyward toward a glass sphere. She represents the Catholic Faith on Earth, and the glass sphere represents God or Heaven. The picture is beautifully lit, and features typically carefully composed perspective.
The pair of Vermeers that would be familiar to a visitor to the National Gallery; 'A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal' (1670) and 'A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal' (1670-72) are both on display here. The two are thought to be companion pieces to each other, depicting young women with, Vermeer suggests through subtle clues, different moralities. The seated woman stands in front of van Baburen's painting 'The Procuress', and looks suggestively at the viewer, subtly suggesting that she might have a less moral idea of love. The standing woman, by contrast, is depicted alongside a picture of Cupid holding up a card signifying that "a lover ought to love only one", and a rugged landscape implying self-denial, bo
th elements suggesting to a virtuous view of love.
'The Art of Painting' (1666-8) is another of Vermeer's better known works, depicting a man painting a model in his studio. It is thought that this was a demonstration piece that Vermeer produced to show what he was capable of. The painter is thought to be Vermeer himself, and the model is thought to represent Clio, the muse of History, because of her laurel wreath, trumpet and book. The inclusion of Clio is thought to signify the honour and fame that a painter can achieve. In order to show off his skill, Vermeer incorporates other art forms into his painting – a map is shown on the back wall of the painting and a sculpted head rests on a table – as if to suggest that these art forms are inferior to painting, as they can be reproduced in a painting.
The other works in the room are 'Woman with a Lute' (1662-3), 'Girl With A Red Hat' (1668), 'Woman with a Balance' (1664), 'Young Woman With A Water Pitcher' (1662). The disputed painting, contributed from a private collection is entitled 'Young Woman Seated At A Virginal' and is undated. The dress of the figure in the disputed painting is quite clearly inferior to that of Vermeer's other later paintings, though recent evidence has suggested that these weaknesses could be attributed to later restoration of the picture.
NOTES ON THE EXHIBITION
The admission fee for the Vermeer exhibition is expensive, however, it compares favourably with the amount of travelling you would have to do otherwise, in order to see all of these paintings. With the exception of the two Vermeers in the final room of the exhibition (from the National Gallery, London), and the first Vermeer in the third room (from the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) all of the paintings by Vermeer in the exhibition have come from galleries around the world.
This is certainly one of the most impre
ssive collections of paintings from the Delft school that you could hope to see. The history of the school is clearly laid out, and the changes in style and theme over time are easy to see, and well explained on the explanatory panels in each room. The text accompanying each picture is well written, and provides useful and informative descriptions. If you're short-sighted, books containing all of the text accompanying each picture are available to borrow with the descriptions written in large print. Adequate seating is provided in most of the rooms of the exhibition too.
An audio guide is available, at the cost of £3.50 (£2.50 concessions), which is worn around the neck, and has additional information on three or four pictures per room, as well as an introduction to each room. To be honest, I didn't find that the additional information on the audio guide really added much to my visit to the exhibition. The text on the panels around the walls of the exhibition provide just as much background on the history of the Delft school as the audio guide, and the additional information about the pictures really didn't include much of any great interest.
The exhibition gets incredibly crowded, particularly the fourth and seventh rooms, so you might have to wait to get an opportunity to look at one of the Vermeers up close. Tickets are sold on a "timed entry" basis, so you'll either have to book your tickets in advance, or get there early in the day, to guarantee admission at the time you want. Around 120 people are admitted in each thirty-minute period, but you are free to take as much time as you like touring the exhibition once you've entered.
So, although I'm not a great fan of Vermeer's work, I did enjoy the exhibition. I learned a great deal about the Delft school, and the themes common to pictures in the school. I also racked up another seven pictures on my personal tally of Vermeers se
en – I'd already seen the four from New York, the two from Washington, and the two from London – taking my total to nineteen.
The exhibition is nicely arranged chronologically, and it's easy to see the common trends and themes as you walk through it, as well as the development in Vermeer's own style. The text accompanying rooms and paintings in the exhibition is very well written and informative, probably more so than in any exhibition that I've been to in quite some time – enough to make the audio guide virtually redundant, in fact!
There are some superb works in the exhibition, and even if this isn't your favourite period of art history, you can't help but be impressed by the attention to detail and atmosphere that the Delft painters managed to introduce to their work.
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