The new exhibition at the National Gallery, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, which runs till 17 September, is well worth a visit. This is both for the art in itself – Vermeer is a wonderful painter and many of the other artists featured are also very good – and for what it tells us about the relation between ‘great art’ and ‘the times’ i.e. the history and society, in which it is produced.
This exhibition features ten great paintings by Vermeer (he only ever produced about thirty odd) alongside works by other artists from the 17th century Dutch Republic – the likes of Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Steen and Gerard ter Borch – who painted similar subject, ie domestic interiors , women playing musical instruments, counting money, receiving suitors and so on.
What this shows is that Vermeer, as is almost always the case with major artists, was not some lone genius simply expressing the unique quality of his own soul, but part of a collective working on common themes which, for historical reasons, had a real resonance in that society. It was the same with Picasso, Braque and the Cubists in Paris around 1910 or Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in the Renaissance.
So the question arises as to why scenes of middle class domesticity had such an appeal at this time. The key lies in their class character. The Dutch Republic was the product of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ between 1556 and about1600 in which the middle class of burghers overthrew their Spanish Habsburg rulers and the aristocracy associated with them. This changed the whole nature of art which had previously been totally dominated by the Church and the Court. The middle class emerged, for the first time, as the main consumers of art.
Moreover, by the 1660s when these paintings are produced, the heroic period of the Dutch Revolt is over and the middle class is settling in to enjoy the fruits of its victory – they are prosperous and contented and want to see their new life celebrated on their walls. This is also a society in which women, by the standards of the day, are relatively emancipated, and this too is reflected in these works which feature women more than men.
Having said this it is also clear that there is a significant qualitative difference between Vermeer and the other artists presented here. As you go into each room it is the Vermeer that catches the eye and dominates. His paintings are simply that bit more alive, more vibrant, more intense than all the others.
In my opinion it is principally Vermeer’s extraordinarily sensitive use of light that is key to this. It lends to his work an apparent transcendental quality. When de Hooch paints a Woman Weighing Coins it’s a woman weighing coins; when adjacent to it we see Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance it is a woman weighing her whole life in the balance.
The conventional art critical response to this difference is to say that Vermeer’s work is ‘timeless’. They say the same of Rembrandt and Das Vinci and many great artists but reall what is happening is that the artist is responding so intensely to the essence of their historical moment that it continues to resonate, especially as there are important continuities in the social relations between the past and the present.
In this case there is a real continuity between the aspiration of the Dutch capitalist middle classes for domestic tranquillity and that of many of the capitalist middle classes today. It is this aspiration raised to the highest possible level that is expressed with such power by Vermeer.