I was recently reminded that it has been 20 years since the National Gallery of Art hosted the first ever Johannes Vermeer retrospective. Featuring 22 of the artist’s 35 paintings that were known to exist by the artist, the 1995 exhibit came at a time of a government shutdown and on the heels of a metro area blizzard, and I certainly remember attending.
I must admit that I have read, not remembered, that the government debacle kept the gallery closed for 19 days of the 3 month exhibit and many that truly wanted to see it, were not able to. I can recall though, going with a friend who had a VIP status of sorts, in a – “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” fashion, which helped avoid the massive lines that formed.
20 years later, in tribute to the exhibit’s anniversary, the powers that be have brought back Vermeer’s 1663 “Women In Blue Reading a Letter”. As an artist, seeing this painting instantly reminds me of something I strongly remember about seeing those 22 paintings of Vermeer so many years ago, just seven years into my own painting career and it’s something many will not agree with. I don’t think Vermeer stretched himself all that much as an artist.
It‘s as I can hear the “WHAT?!!” coming out of many a mouth right now, but I’ll try my best to explain. It would be easy to think I’m off my rocker here, as this is Vermeer we are talking about, but this was one of my vivid observations years ago. Vermeer lived 43 years, from 1632 to 1675, but only painted 35 paintings that we know about. Not a whole bunch and most used the same formula of his subjects looking left, some facing the viewer, but pretty much all draped in the same natural left window light of his parents home that he apparently inherited. There are of course [a few] exceptions like “Girl With a Red Hat”, but you get my point.
Being there and seeing them, I just felt that he was not extending himself much as an artist and wasn’t exploring his range as a painter. I wondered why? Because seeing “View Of Delft”, his home town and I think his only landscape, I felt Vermeer was a talented exterior painter and “The Little Street”, truly sends that message home for me. It has me then scratching my head why he seemed to imprison himself as he did, using the same set to try and tell a different story over and over again. It is fair to re-mention that this was the 1600s. It’s not as though painting was easy, but hey, it seems Vermeer had time to father 11 children, so he had good reason to get out of the house and take a painting break!
My point with all of this is not to question Vermeer’s talent, it is rather questioning his decisions about subject matter and a fixation on one thing, much in the way Monet did late in life with the pond behind his house and the 250 water lily pond paintings he did. I guess when you look at those numbers, Vermeer’s couple of dozen interior paintings don’t seem all that out of line. Not until you again consider he only did 35 altogether. I will say though, he sure got very good, very quickly! I just think about what else could have been.
In closing, I wish all of you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays and a very Happy and Healthy New Year!
Live An Artful Life, Tom