Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art at the Scuderie del Quirinale

The Little Street - Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer (1632 – 1675) was a modestly successful painter in his own lifetime, famous locally in Delft for his small and intimate interiors. Today, over three centuries since his death, he is acknowledged as one of the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age, with art lovers flocking to see his work in galleries across the world. Remarkably, the present Vermeer show at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s paintings ever to be held in Italy, and to mark the occasion the curators have gathered a total of eight works by Vermeer, an impressive number when one considers that only 34 paintings attributed to the man have survived to the present day. These eight pieces by Vermeer are accompanied in Rome by a superb selection of paintings by his contemporaries.

It is sometimes difficult to pinpoint what makes Vermeer's work so magically timeless, yet once experienced, a first hand encounter with a Vermeer painting is one that stays with the viewer forever. I was sixteen when I first saw The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and remember so well the feeling of joy that painting, with its dazzling ultramarine and yellows, gave me when I finally saw the original with my own eyes. (Incidentally, The Milkmaid travelled to Rome in 1954, where it was exhibited at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, but it isn't, alas, part of this present exhibition.) In many ways Vermeer is an elusive artist – his paintings are loved by so many, yet very little is known about the man, with the gaps in our knowledge of his life filled in by recent fictionalised accounts in literature and film – but this exhibition, through its judicious selection of works from several genres, and many different artists, provides an effective overview not only of Vermeer's entire oeuvre, but also his life in 17th century Delft.

The very first painting we see on entering The Golden Age of Dutch Art is the delightful The Little Street, Vermeer's painting from around 1658, which places us firmly in the painter's neighbourhood with its small, higgledy-piggledly red brick buildings, its everyday folk going about their domestic routines, and, of course, that northern light. A snapshot of Vermeer's life and times, this is the perfect opening to a very special exhibition.

The Girl with the Wineglass - Vermeer
Vermeer is undoubtedly most famous for his interiors, and the staples of the genre such as courtship and seduction, letter writing, playing a musical instrument, and tippling, are all well represented - The Girl with the Wineglass (1659-1660) from the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum is a gorgeous, showstopping example in the final room on the lower level. The girl in a vivid red dress, with her unusually brazen stare had drawn a small, mesmerised crowd on the day I visited. With its perfectly harmonious balance of primary colours, and the light infusing the scene from an open stained glass window, this painting is quintessential Vermeer. It was almost certainly inspired by Pieter de Hooch's Woman Drinking with Soldiers, which hangs in the Louvre. Whilst that painting is absent from this show there are several other truly wonderful paintings by de Hooch in the same room, most notably Card Players in a Sunlit Room (1658), on loan from H.M. Queen Elizabeth II, with its open doorway revealing the world beyond the interior scene, and the Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft (1657-60), which further exemplifies de Hooch's extension of the domestic space from the interior into a courtyard.

Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft
Pieter de Hooch
From de Hooch's comparatively large group portrait, the star attraction on the upper floor is surely the smallest image in the exhibition. For many years subject to debate as to whether it was even by Vermeer at all, Girl with a Red Hat (1665 – 1667) from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C ., is simply exquisite. As if to seal the question of its attribution, it was chosen as the poster image for the Scuderie show. The only known painting by Vermeer to have been executed on a wooden panel, this example of a "tronien" - a Dutch portrait in which the sitter usually wears hats or exotic costumes and plays the part of a fictitious character – is most striking for the compositional impact of the vibrant red hat, and the opulence of the blue robes, which are balanced by the purity of the white scarf, and of course, the light and reflected light from an unseen source.

Man Writing a Letter
Gabriel Metsu
Other works to look out for on the upper floor are two companion paintings by Gabriel Metsu where the influence of Vermeer is unmistakeable - Man Writing a Letter (1662-65) and Woman Reading a Letter (1662-65) from the National Gallery of Ireland, as well as Pieter Janssens Elinga's Interior with a Gentleman, a Woman Reading and a Housemaid (1670), an exquisite study in the play of shadows and light.

Absolutely unmissable!

Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art is curated by Walter Leidtke, Arthur K. Wheelock and Sandrina Bandera, and continues at the Scuderie del Quirinale until 20 January 2013.

Image usage note: web-resolution, fair use rationale on all images.