Vermeer And The Masters Of Genre Painting (At The National Gallery Of Art)

I have never been a tremendous Vermeer fan; I appreciate him, but do not love him nor seek him out. Overall, I was as enthralled by his featured contemporaries as I was by the master himself.

But I was deeply struck by a tiny aspect of a Vermeer. Woman with a Lute featured metal studs securing the leather covering a chair that ‘popped’ so dramatically that I had to stop, because in that first moment, I would have sworn they were three dimensional. I looked for some kind of painterly trick, but there was none. And it’s not like the studs were (to my amateur eye, at least) something of thematic or compositional importance. They were (presumably) a representation of the same plain (brass, I would guess) studs on the chair that was the model for this chair. But, wow.

Woman with a Lute

I saw a similar effect in the gold decorations on the sleeve of a woman in another Vermeer, Young Woman Seated at a Virginal.

But I can’t help but feel like that, if I were given sixty seconds to grab one from off the wall and make a run for it, I would not go for Vermeer (assuming we are thinking about keeping the painting and now trying to pawn it; in which case, Vermeer would have more value). His moralizing feels too stern and off putting, like a white evangelical church in Appalachian hill country that forbids dancing.

The exhibition (as the curators note) is heavy on images of women. It might almost be called feminist. So it felt a little sad that my favorite painting is actually one that features no women at all. But I have always been drawn to representations of writing and books and maybe I am looking for myself in these.

Man Writing a Letter, by Gabriel Metsu

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