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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:



The best-known artist of Delft is Johannes Vermeer, but the thriving town had many other fine painters and draftsmen living or working there in the late 17th century. To understand their influences on him and his ultimate mastery, some of his most luminous paintings are shown alongside works by others from the Dutch city at the not-to-be-missed Metropolitan Museum of Art's Vermeer and the Delft School.


Quick, who made more studio recordings than any other singer in history, won an Academy Award, was a star of radio from 1931 through 1962 and also one of the best jazzmen ever? If you guessed Bing Crosby, you're right, and Gary Giddins' good biography of the crooner's early years, A Pocketful of Dreams, more than does Der Bingle justice.


Jane Austen continues to have both her worshipful fans and scholarly admirers. The essays of Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees looks at some the reasons why.


A Timeless Light at His Window

Vermeer and the Delft School

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

"A most sweet town, with bridges and a river in every street,'' was the observation by that indefatigable diarist Samuel Pepys on visiting Delft in 1660. The thriving town in Holland was more than a picturesque stop on the Englishman's travel itinerary, it was home to a number of thoughtful and gifted artists and equally important, of well-to-do patrons of art. This is the Delft that is at the center of a remarkable exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It will remain in New York through May 27, and will then be seen at London's National Gallery from June 20 to September 16.

The most renowned of Delft's artists is of course Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), who lived there his entire life, and by placing him squarely in the context of what other artists and craftsmen of his time and place were thinking and doing, the exhibit underscores the influences on Vermeer's work and at the same time acknowledges his transcendent vision and mastery. When an artist is so beloved by the public as Vermeer is, it is important to recognize the world he knew. Knowing what Vermeer shared with other Dutch artists of his own period, writes Walter Liedtke in the comprehensive and excellent catalogue to the exhibit, is "necessary to understand not only how the artist represents a certain time and place but also how he is extraordinary.''

Holland had enthusiastically embraced the new science of optics. Shifting perspectives and optical effects were sources of delight and interest to Dutch artists of the 17th century -- Vermeer was particularly interested in how things actually appear -- and these elements appear to great effect in the architectural paintings in Delft from 1650 on, especially the church interiors. These soaring and illusionistic depictions of towering columns and expansive arches, dramatic exchanges of light and shadow in cavernous spaces are dazzlingly well-represented in the current exhibit.

Playing with vanishing points, stretching, foreshortening and flattening shapes, the Delft architectural painters imparted a sense of calmness, order and permanence to these interior views that are echoed in the domestic paintings of the time. Although formal and classic, the large church paintings are gracefully humanized. They are populated by ordinary people, in ordinary clothing, who are dispersed in foreground and background -- often turned with their backs to the viewer -- going about their daily business.

The growing middle classes of Holland liked to see themselves and their surroundings in their pictures. The private life inside the home became a fit and interesting subject for both painters and collectors. Tile floors, textured walls, multi-paned windows, wooden doors, richly colored curtains and carpets were meticulously and naturalistically rendered with all the attention given a still-life. There are a number of works on display by Pieter de Hooch, who painted in Delft from 1655 to 1660. He created precisely composed, rectilinear interior views that are strikingly like those of Vermeer. Like him, De Hooch gave special care to the subtleties of texture and to reflections and subtle plays of light.

Unusual for his time, Vermeer had no lengthy apprenticeship or training to become an artist and remained in the city of his birth. His father had learned to be a weaver of fine fabrics, but abandoned that profession to become an innkeeper and was an art dealer. The young Johannes married into a family that was more prominent socially than the Vermeers, and he and his wife Catharina lived with his well-off mother-in-law. On the upper floor of the house was the studio where he painted. When he died, he had eleven living children. Essentially, he could be considered self-taught, absorbing and trying different approaches until quickly developing a mature style. Liedtke writes that "Rembrandt in Leiden is comparable to the early Vermeer in the balance he achieved between willfully learning from other artists and from direct observation.'' One difference is, of course, that the ambitious Rembrandt went on to Amsterdam and its more sophisticated art world.

Young women figured in Vermeer's early history paintings, and he responded to the popularity of pictures portraying smartly dressed young ladies with paintings of females that have instant iconic recognition: the slightly surprised and knowing woman with slightly parted lips in Girl with a Red Hat; the vulnerable yet wary adolescent of Girl with a Pearl Earring and the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher's figure in her trim blue-and-yellow gown and crisp white head-and-shoulder covering caught in the moment of opening and looking out a window.

They are of their time, but suffused with the light that Vermeer saw on and around them, they are timeless. He gleaned styles and ideas from other painters and, as this exhibit so brilliantly illuminates, transformed them by his genius and uncanny eye for the truth.

Next: Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams

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©2001 Emily Mitchell for SeniorWomenWeb

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