Many people who have no contact with, or interest in painting recognise the name Vermeer. This might be because of his disappearance from art history for over two centuries until his rediscovery by the art historian, Gustav Friedrich Waagen, and critic, Theophile Thore-Burger, because of the few works that are known to be by him or, latterly, his appearance as the central character in the novel "Girl with a pearl earring". Knowledge of the painter's short life is so fragmentary that its reads like an incomplete jigsaw and there are also the stories of, and book by, painters who sought, with varying success, to produce fake "Vermeers". Whatever the reasons, any exhibition with the painter's name included is certain of financial success and public interest.
In 2001, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organised an exhibition, "Vermeer and the Delft School" which was subsequently seen at the National Gallery, and this book was published to accompany the show. Its aim was to show the context of Vermeer's work in the history of painting in Delft, its genres and the works of two of Vermeer's contemporaries, Carel Fabritius and Pieter de Hooch. Illustrated essays on "Delft and its History", "Painting in Delft before 1650", "Painting in Delft after 1650" and "The Three Dutch Masters", Vermeer, Fabritius and de Hooch. In addition, there is a brief Suggested Further Reading list.
There are over 150 works included in the catalogue, although this is deceptive as just over a third were shown in London and are illustrated here. Whilst Vermeer's work was certainly highly-regarded during his lifetime and he had patrons and collectors, he did not create a school of followers which may be another reason for his disappearance from view for such a long time. His meticulous style of painting meant that he was only to complete a handful of works each year.
In the 1400s, Delft was a thriving centre for cloth-making and beer-making, and it was becoming a centre for religious teaching with altarpieces produced by painters who moved to the town and who were organised within the Guild of St Luke. Towards the end of the 16th century, artists from Flanders moved to Delft because of its greater religious tolerance. History painting, portraiture, genre painting, landscapes and still lifes were all part of the emerging Delft tradition. After the 1650s, these same motifs remained popular and were joined by the cool, quiet architectural paintings of churches which, today, are quintessential Delft.
Fabritius is well known as Rembrandt's most accomplished pupil and an influence on Vermeer. Unfortunately for him, he is also remembered as the painter who was blown up by an explosion of one of the Delft ordinance magazines in 1654. Fabritius' works include a stern "Self-portrait" of 1634 and the charm of his "Goldfinch" painted in the year of his death.
Pieter de Hooch was, together with Vermeer, the foremost genre painter of Delft between 1650-75, and his "Courtyard of a House in Delft" of 1658, in the National Gallery, is very restrained yet provides so much information about life in the mid-1650s.
However much one admires the work of these artists, it is to Vermeer that one returns: "The Milkmaid", 1657-8; "Woman with a Balance", 1663-4; "The Art of Painting", 1666-8, which remained in the artist's possession, and "Young Woman Standing at the Virginal", 1670-2, where paradoxically the inclusion of the instrument enhances the silence and solitude, are almost impossible to describe in terms of the various levels that the artist superimposes. I have found, once again, that it is just the one work "Girl with a Red Hat", from the mid-1660s, that fails to move me.
Women, silent and introspective, represent the summit of Vermeer's oeuvre and, perhaps, it is in today's world of noise and everyday rushing that Vermeer's works have most to say to us.
This is an interesting and informative introduction to the artist but those wishing for a more comprehensive presentation should look out for the catalogue of the exhibition in New York.