From 10 February to 04 June 2023, The Rijksmuseum’s opened the largest Vermeer exhibition ever. It is a once-in-a-lifetime event showcasing a man whose art echoes throughout the ages and whose achievements go beyond the intelligible. Let’s go and explore!
The best men in art are found by a process of elimination. It may be a challenging statement to call Jan Vermeer of Delft the greatest painter who has ever lived. Yet in sheer downright painting, he was in most respects the leader of all. There were giants, of course, such as Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrandt, who did very wonderful things, but none of these ever conceived of arriving at tone by an exquisitely just relation of colour values — the essence of contemporary painting that is really good.
Various qualities in Vermeer’s work are those for which the best painters of our day strive: his design, his colour values, his edges, his way of using the square touch, his occasionally pointillé touch, all of which are qualities that one seldom observes in other old masters. We of today particularly admire Vermeer because he has attacked what seems to us significant problems or motives, and has solved them, on the whole, as we like to see them solved. The yellowish jacket. And with this he has been able to retain some thing of the serenity, poise and finish that we regard as peculiarly the property of the old masters. Our present-day work is often petulant that of the old masters was generally serene.
True it is, as will appear in the discussion to follow that Vermeer was not always wholly successful. Nobody ever has been, and doubtless no one ever will be. It is silly to ascribe to one’s hero all the virtues, it is enough to point out the qualities which he possesses.
By and large, Vermeer has more great painting qualities and fewer defects than any other painter of any time or place. He was born in 1632 and died at the age of forty-three in 1675 and it is when one compares him with other great artists of his own day and land that his superiority is most manifest. Terborch, by comparison with Vermeer, appears sleazy and mannered, de Hooch looks hot and stodgy. Even Metsu, perhaps the most accomplished technician of them all, seems rather artificial and by no means alert to colour values. Each of these men, of course, had extraordinary qualities. But Vermeer combined within himself most of their good qualities and avoided many of their defects.
His manner of seeing is the basic excellence of Vermeer’s art — the thing that sets it apart from the work of other men. Where others had a genius for drawing or for colouration, he had a genius for vision. One arrives, while studying his work carefully, at a feeling that he looked at things harder than others have looked at them. Many painters acquire a manner of making things, a partipris, which impels them to distort nature to suit their book. Vermeer, too, had his manner of workmanship, but after he had laid his picture in, and indeed carried it quite far, he seems to have sat back and looked at what was before him again and again to see if there was anything he could do to his picture to make it portray more closely the real aspect of nature — la vraie verité, as Gustave Courbet liked to call it. His almost perfect rendering was the outcome of perfect understanding.
There is a tendency in appraising the work of artists to adore warm, picturesque personalities. To some writers Rembrandt is a delight not so much on account of the qualities of his painting as because of his remarkable way of living. Goya is admired not merely because of his good painting but also because he was a bull fighter. Many feel that they must have the work of a man rich, warm, passionate. They are not interested that it shall be right. Many of us, indeed, have forgotten that there is a beauty in rightness that there really is no beauty without it.
Vermeer’s art has this quality of cool, well-planned rightness to the full. He holds, as it were, a silver mirror up to nature, but he tells no merely pleasant tale as he holds it. His work is as intensely personal as any that was ever done, but it offers a personality disengaged from self-consciousness during the making process…
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