On Thursday, in the hours before we left the US to return to Edinburgh, Carol and I made time to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Having cleverly orchestrated a winter weather calamity on the east coast, we were able to suppress visitor turnout to the museum, so that when we arrived at the west wing we were able to walk directly in without a wait.
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is a show the likes of which I dreamed of when I was a grad student in Art History. It not only assembles the world’s greatest Vermeer paintings under one roof — an astonishing achievement, given their value and rarity — but also establishes them in the context of other great 17th century Dutch genre painters whose work informed, and was inspired by, Vermeer’s. Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou, Caspar Netscher, Frans Van Mieris, and the divinely talented Gerard ter Borch are all superbly represented here.
Genre painting is simply the depiction of scenes from everyday life. In Netherlandish art of the 17th century, genre images are most often scenes of women doing things in their homes, people interacting in taverns or brothels, or occasionally men going about their professional activities. Often there is a humorous or moralizing aspect to the pictures. The image at top, for instance, is an excerpt from ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Soldier and an Onlooker, c. 1650, from the collection of the Musée Fabre. It probably takes place in a brothel, though if you’re wondering what the young woman is up to with the sleeping soldier, I haven’t the faintest idea. Whatever it is, both she and the onlooker find it pretty entertaining. It’s impossible to miss the absolutely dazzling technique the artist shows off here with his depiction of surfaces — the woman’s dress, the sheen of the soldier’s breastplate, the sparkling highlights of the brass ewer. More subtle, but no less masterful, is the composition, with its rhythmic massing and diagonal momentum that draws your eye directly to the woman’s left hand.
I absolutely loved this show — not only because it pulled together such a remarkable haul of iconic paintings from Vermeer, but also for its prominent inclusion of equally brilliant artists and pictures that are not as universally known. Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter, for instance, is a flawless gem, as good as nearly anything else in the exhibition.
Ironically, having had the opportunity now to see the greatest works of Vermeer’s sublime oeuvre together in the same place, I believe the very best of them is the one I’ve seen so often in Washington’s permanent collection: the Woman Holding a Balance (above) from about 1664.
Notwithstanding the poor photo quality from my phone camera, it is, simply, a perfect painting. We see a young woman holding a jeweler’s scale, with gold, pearls, and other valuables spread out around her. Her scale’s empty pans hang at equal height, in the moment before she adds weight to one and breaks the equilibrium. In keeping with the theme of balance, the scene is divided into halves of light and shadow, while the floor is half white tiles and half black.
The painting-within-a-painting dominating the wall behind the woman provides the key to the full meaning of the picture. Vermeer liked to include paintings within his compositions, and they often add a layer of meaning. In the Woman Holding a Balance, the background painting is a Last Judgment, wherein the risen Christ judges the souls of the dead to separate the elect from the damned — the saved to our left and the damned to our right. Last Judgment scenes in medieval painting and sculpture often included a figure holding a balance, in which the souls of the dead were weighed — a motif with which Vermeer would no doubt have been familiar. In his painting, the protagonist herself holds the scale, and it is her own soul in the balance.
17th century Dutch painting is rife with examples of “vanitas” imagery — beautiful objects, luscious foods, lovely flowers presented to the beholder as a sort of test. Don’t be led astray by such things, they whisper, when your true treasure awaits in heaven. In Vermeer’s picture, the woman straddles the border between light and shadow; tempted by the golden blandishments of earthly life, she is tellingly framed between the saved and the condemned in the Last Judgment, standing directly beneath the celestial judge.
Beyond its intellectual content, the painting is just achingly beautiful. Unrivaled in any age as a painter of light, Vermeer washes the room in velvety shadows, deftly highlighting the hand holding the balance. He eschews his customary lemony palette in favor of cool grey, sumptuous cobalt, rich brown — suitable to the contemplative mood. The young woman regards the scale with an unreadable expression; her left hand rests on the table as she hesitates before loading the pans.
Poised at the crossroads between dark and light, which path will she choose?