Dutch Master of the Golden Age

When the National Gallery reopened this year, they began with a free exhibition about the little known Dutch painter, Nicolaes Maes. Having learnt from the great master of painting, Rembrandt, Maes produced over 1000 artworks, 900 of which were portraits. This exhibition only contained 50 artworks but managed to provide a detailed journey of Maes’ artistic progress, beginning with historical and biblical scenes and ending with depictions of everyday life.

Nicolaes Maes was the second son of a wealthy cloth merchant Gerrit Maes and Ida Herman Claesdr. He was born in Dordrecht in the Netherlands in January 1634, but there is no record of his childhood. During the 1640s, he received a mediocre art education in his hometown but, unsatisfied he travelled to Amsterdam to train under one of the greatest artists in history: Rembrandt (1606-69).

Maes spent five years in Rembrandt’s studio alongside upcoming artists from all over the Dutch Republic. Together, they mostly learnt to paint histories, usually of a biblical nature, which Rembrandt believed to be a hard genre of painting to achieve. The students were not left to their imaginations; they were encouraged to encompass scenes from everyday life or use props and models. As well as this, Maes and his contemporaries were expected to copy works by Rembrandt as part of their composition training. As time went on, Maes began to incorporate his ideas with a blend of Rembrandt’s, eventually developing his unique style.

It is not easy to put Maes’ earlier works into chronological order because he tended not to sign or date them. His earliest signed and dated painting is Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which he produced in 1653 during his final year with Rembrandt.

Loosely based on an etching by his master, Maes managed to convey the scene in an original manner. The painting shows a scene from the Book of Genesis. Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, is being dismissed along with her son Ishmael. Abraham’s wife had given Hagar to him so that he could produce an heir. Fourteen years later, Abraham’s wife Sarah miraculously gave birth to a boy, Isaac. Concerned that Ishmael would receive her son’s rightful inheritance, Sarah commanded Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. The constrained emotion on both Abraham and Hagar’s faces suggests neither of them was happy with the outcome.

Christ Blessing the Children is considered to be Maes’ earliest surviving painting, although initially wrongly attributed to Rembrandt due to the similarity in style and lack of a signature. It is also of contrasting size to the other artworks Maes produced while in Amsterdam. His paintings were “cabinet size”, but this biblical scene is much larger with a height of 81.1 inches (206cm) and a width of 60.6 inches (154cm).

Maes took inspiration for this painting from the Book of Mark when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15) Following this, Jesus blessed every child in his presence.

The majority of Maes’ surviving early works are religious. Biblical stories include the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), The Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 14), Christ before Pilate (Matthew 27) and The Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke 2). Maes painted the latter after he had left Rembrandt’s studio and used an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) as a basis. Maes made a faithful copy of the engraving to the tiniest detail. The proportions are exact and the colour and shading he added to the image highlight the holy family and their visitors.

One of Maes’ religious paintings extends beyond the Bible. Using his imagination and traditional beliefs, Maes experimented with portraiture by painting The Apostle Thomas. The apostle, sometimes known as Doubting Thomas, established seven churches in India between AD 52 and AD 72. Maes imagined what the older man looked like during his mission in India and, at first, the portrait appears to be of a reticent elder. Painted in the manner of Rembrandt, Maes indicated the man’s identity with the subtle inclusion of a set square in his left hand. As well as being one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas was a builder or carpenter, a profession that used a set square for accurate measurements. Some traditions believe Thomas was martyred by a spear that had a head resembling the set square, which has since become his symbol in works of art.

Maes returned to his hometown at the end of 1653 and married Adriana Brouwers, the widow of a Dutch preacher. It was around this time that Maes established himself as an independent painter, but his training was far from over. Maes had not been home long when he travelled to Antwerp, Belgium to study the works of Flemish painters. He particularly admired Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1549-1641), who are the most famous Baroque painters to have come from Antwerp. Painter and tapestry designer, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), provided Maes with lots of artistic advice during his stay in the city.

During the mid-1650s, Maes moved from history paintings to genre paintings. His contemporaries, Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) had proved there was a niche market for genre paintings, which likely influenced Maes’ direction.

Generally, Maes’ genre scenes focus on women, but not in a sensual or erotic nature like the Renaissance artists before him. Maes did not discriminate between old and young, rich and poor, but used women of all walks of life as his inspiration.

Many of Maes’ paintings show women at work in the home. In the present day, these scenes reveal the Dutch social stereotypes of the 17th century. Occupations such as sewing and lacemaking were symbols of domestic virtue and humility. Maes usually painted these women alone, using chiaroscuro to evoke the presence of a warm fire or candle, suggesting their work was a peaceful activity rather than a chore.

In contrast to these scenes of domesticity, Maes produced humorous, light-hearted paintings, often with a moralising message. A series of six works known as the Eavesdroppers, show women listening to an incident occurring in another room. The eavesdropper looks out of the painting at the viewer as though making them complicit with the act. Maes also painted the scene the eavesdropper can hear but not see.

In one of the paintings, the woman holds her finger to her lips, asking the viewer to be quiet. She can hear the voice of her maid, who is chatting to her lover through a window. In another, the mistress of the house playfully smiles while eavesdropping on a pair of lovers. A man with a lamp has discovered the couple in the basement, and the woman is eager to hear what happens next. A third painting reveals a woman enjoying the sounds of an argument. Although only one person is visible in the other room, it is easy to imagine he is reprimanding someone hidden behind a curtain.

Another amusing painting is The Idle Servant, which is similar in composition to the Eavesdroppers paintings. Maes has painted two scenes, the smaller of which is visible through the doorway, but it is the larger scene where the action (or inaction) takes place. The lady of the house has come into the kitchen to refill the wine decanter and discovers her maid asleep. Rather than waking her, the lady smiles indulgently at the viewer, indicating she finds the situation rather comical. 

The Account Keeper differs from Maes’ other comical genre scenes in that it only contains one figure. By looking at the painting, the viewer feels as though they are the one to have found someone slacking on the job. The older woman has fallen asleep while sorting out her account books. Critics have read a lot into this painting, suggesting there are many moral messages. Counting money is often a sign of greed, whilst dozing is associated with laziness. The sleeping woman is also a sign of distraction and lack of concentration. This, along with the map of the globe on the wall, may suggest she is preoccupied with worldly affairs.

Maes’ focus on genre painting drifted towards the end of the 1650s and by 1660 he had dedicated himself almost exclusively to portraiture. Tax records indicate Maes was a wealthy man, which suggests he earnt a lot from his paintings. He was also well respected and was a lieutenant in the civic guard.

When Maes first started producing portraits, they were rather austere paintings of typically dressed people against a dark background; not too dissimilar to those by his master, Rembrandt. During the 1660s, Maes was influenced by the Flemish style of portraiture, particularly those by Van Dyck. Maes began to think carefully about composition, paying attention to the furniture and surroundings as much as to the sitter.

Portrait of Margaretha de Greer is a cross between Rembrandt’s style and the Flemish style. Whilst the background is still dark, the details of the sitter and the chair in which she rests is much clearer. Margaretha de Greer (1583-1672) was the wife of Jacob Trip (1576-1661), a wealthy weapons dealer from Dordrecht who Maes painted several times. They came from families that belonged to the most powerful clans in the Dutch Republic. Rembrandt had painted their portraits, which goes to show they trusted his student as much as the renowned painter himself.

During the 1670s, Maes’ style of portraiture changed again. He attempted to lighten the mood by staging the sitting in elegant gardens and introduced props to make the composition more intriguing. He painted his sitters in less rigid poses, as though captured mid-movement. When painting children, Maes often depicted them in the guise of a mythological character and styled the background accordingly.

Portrait of a Girl with a Deer and Portrait of a Boy as a Hunter were both painted in 1671 and could be the portraits of two siblings. Their style of dress implies Maes was imagining them as characters from another period. The girl, for example, wears an elegant silk dress with a low neckline, which was not a typical style in the Dutch Republic. With one arm hugging a small deer and the other holding a large shell, Maes was likely portraying her as the fictional Princess Granida.

Granida was a play by the Dutch writer Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581-1647). Known as an example of pastoral literature, the first part of the play is set in a Persian field where a shepherd and shepherdess were tending their flock. Granida, a princess who had become separated from her hunting party, found herself in their field. After offering her a drink from the stream (potentially in a large shell), the shepherd fell in love with the princess. It is this scene Maes captured in paint.

The identity of the character the boy in the other portrait portrays is less certain. His attire, particular the sandals, imply he is a figure from Roman mythology. Slung on his back is a quiver full of arrows, suggesting he is out hunting with his dog. Yet, sitting on his hand is a bird attached to a leash so that it cannot fly away. The meaning of this is ambiguous. Has he caught the bird, thus showing he is a skilled hunter or is the bird a symbol of something else? Both dogs and birds are known for their ability to learn, which may represent the young boy’s upbringing and education. Likely a robin on account of its red breast, the bird could also be a symbol of spring and rebirth. In some Christian traditions, the robin was a childhood friend of Jesus.

Maes moved to Amsterdam in 1673, where he resided until his death. The art market in his hometown had been hit badly after France invaded parts of the Dutch Republic in 1672. Hoping to appeal to Amsterdam’s bourgeoisie population, Maes took his chances by relocating and was not disappointed. Before long, Maes was in great demand, and many people considered it to be an honour to have him paint their portrait. Maes also attracted many young painters who wished to learn from the popular artist.

In 1677, Maes, at the height of his career, received the commission to paint the portraits of the Van Alphen family. This wealthy family came from Leiden in the south of Holland, which reveals Maes’ painting skills were renowned well beyond Amsterdam. Maes painted individual portraits of the siblings Simon (1650-1730), Dirck (1652-1701) and Maria Magdalena (1656-1723), as well as their niece, Beatrix (1672-1728). The siblings are dressed in antique costumes from an indeterminate era, which was a common trick used in portraiture to make the paintings appear timeless. Maes captured the luxurious, lengthy waves of hair worn by the boys and the hairstyles worn by the girls, which were fashionable at the time, thus giving away the era the portraits were painted.

Whilst these portraits exemplify Maes’ skill, it is not the reason the National Gallery decided to include them in their exhibition. All four paintings are still in their original 17th-century frames. Typically, frames at that time were dark and plain but the ones surrounding the Van Alphen portraits are made from lighter walnut wood, decorated with gilded tin floral ornaments. These frames were purpose made for the paintings, either on the instruction of the family or the painter.

Also in their original frames are portraits of Ingena Rotterdam (d.1704) and Jacob Binckes (1640-77). These were painted to commemorate their betrothal, although they never married because Binckes was killed the following year by the French while defending the Dutch colony of Tobago. The paintings are more formal than the Van Alphen portraits, but it is the frames that makes them stand out. Known as trophy frames, they are elaborately carved and gilded, making the sitters appear to be people of importance. Binckes’ frame is decorated with nautical weapons and instruments, alluding to his position in the Dutch Navy. Ingena’s frame, on the other hand, is decorated with floral ornaments. On top of the frames are figures representing a god (Mars, god of war) and goddess (Venus, goddess of love).

Despite his success in Amsterdam, Maes waited until 1688 to register with the Guild of St Luke. Even then he did not consider himself a citizen of Amsterdam, merely a resident. His reasons for this are unknown but it certainly was not due to a lack of money. By his death, Maes owned 11,000 guilders in cash as well as two houses in Dordrecht and three houses in Amsterdam.

In his later years, Maes suffered from a few physical ailments, including gout. His wife, Adriana, predeceased him in 1690 and was buried in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. Maes passed away three years later and was buried next to his wife on Christmas Eve.

Although his name is not so well-known today, Nicolaes Maes was one of the most successful portrait artists of his time, producing over 900 portraits. Combining this with his other artworks, he far surpassed an output of 1000 paintings. Yet, unlike Rembrandt, Maes tended to avoid painting himself. Of all his work, there is only one painting that has been identified as a self-portrait, produced when he was around 50 years old. Reasons for the lack of self-portraits could be because he was a modest man or because he lacked time due to the number of commissions he received.

The exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis, whilst no longer open, brought Nicolaes Maes to the attention of a new generation of people. Once popular in the 17th-century, Maes had almost fallen into obscurity until his paintings were resurrected in the 21st century. It is time Nicolaes Maes reclaimed his position as one of the most versatile Dutch artists and no longer merely Rembrandt’s student.

Genre Master: The Sphinx of Delft

Genre paintings, also known as petit genre, depict scenes of everyday life. These artworks show ordinary people performing ordinary tasks. Unlike portraits, which were usually commissioned, and history paintings, which depicted well-known scenes, genre artists painted life as it truly was. This type of art gained popularity in the Low Countries, i.e. the Netherlands and Belgium, during the 17th and 18th century but many of the artists’ fame and reputations have dimmed over the years. That is, all except Johannes Vermeer, the man who gave us Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665).

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A Lady Writing (1665)

Admittedly, Vermeer did go off the radar for a hundred years or so but was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, more than 250 exhibitions about his paintings have taken place all over the world. It is estimated that one of his paintings, A Lady Writing (1659), has travelled a total of 250,000 kilometres. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to travelling around the circumference of the earth five times or halfway to the moon. Today, Vermeer can be found in several galleries, including the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), Mauritshuis (The Hague), the Scottish National Gallery (Edinburgh), the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Vienna), Gemäldegalerie (Berlin), the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Dresden), and The Frick Collection (New York City).

Relatively little was known about Vermeer’s personal life other than where he had lived, which earned him the nickname “The Sphinx of Delft” from French art critic Théophile Thoré-Bürger (1807-69). In more recent years, art historians have been able to piece together some semblance of a biography using documents in the city archives of Delft. Records reveal Johannes Vermeer, or Jan Vermeer van Delft, was born in October 1632 and baptised within the Reformed Church on All Hallow’s Eve.

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View of Delft (1660)

Vermeer’s father has been identified as Reijnier Janszoon (1591-1652) and was a middle-class silk worker. Vermeer’s mother was likely Digna Baltus (1594-1670), who Janszoon married in 1615. By 1620, the couple were living in Delft with their daughter Gertruy (1620-70). It is not known whether there were any other children within the 12 years between Gertruy and Johannes. By the time Johannes was born, Janszoon was an art dealer and proprietor of the inn The Flying Fox. Ten years later, Janszoon bought a larger Inn called Mechelen, from which he conducted his art sales. When he died in 1652, his son took over the family business.

It is unknown where and when Vermeer learnt to paint. Art critics have suggested several names of artists who may have trained the young painter but there is no written evidence. Another suggestion is he taught himself using the paintings his father sold, however, this is unlikely. If it were not for Vermeer’s baptismal records, it would seem as though he suddenly appeared, fully formed, in 1653 when he joined the Guild of Saint Luke and married his wife, Catharina Bolnes (1631-88).

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The Allegory of Faith (1670-72)

Catharina Bolnes was a Catholic and Vermeer likely had to convert from Protestantism before the wedding. Whilst there is no written record to prove this, a later painting suggests he had fully immersed himself in the religion. The Allegory of Faith, painted in the early 1670s, contains several examples of Catholic iconographies, such as a crucifix, crown of thorns, a chalice and a painting of Christ’s crucifixion.

At some point after marriage, Vermeer and his wife moved in with Catharina’s mother, Maria Thins (1593-1680), where he lived for the rest of his life. Catharina gave birth to 15 children, four of whom died before they could be baptised. Ten of the remaining children have been named Maertge, Elisabeth, Cornelia, Aleydis, Beatrix, Johannes, Gertruyd, Franciscus, Catharina, and Ignatius in wills written by relatives, therefore, it can be assumed they survived infancy.

Life was hard in the Netherlands during the mid-17th century. Delft, in particular, suffered from an outbreak of bubonic plague, which coincided with the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), leading to an economic crisis. Evidence reveals Vermeer was unable to pay the usual admission fee for the Guild of Saint Luke but neither were several other artists. To add to the city’s hardship, half the city was destroyed in 1654 by the “Delft Thunderclap”, an explosion at a gunpowder store that killed 1200 people.

Vermeer may have been kept financially afloat by a patron, perhaps art collector Pieter van Ruijven (1624-74) who purchased twenty of his paintings. This money allowed Vermeer to remain a member of the Guild of Saint Luke. He was elected head of the guild in 1662 and reelected in 1670. From this honour, it can be ascertained that Vermeer was a respected artist amongst his peers and some art critics say his method of showing light in his paintings was an inspiration to other artists. Nevertheless, Vermeer was a slow painter, producing an average of three paintings a year.

Despite never earning much money, the 1660s were the highlight of Vermeer’s career. Unfortunately, life was about to get much harder. In 1672, King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France invaded the Dutch Republic, sparking the Franco-Dutch War. This worsened the economic conditions in Delft, especially as the Third Anglo-Dutch War was taking place at the same time. Theatres, shops and schools were closed in the ensuing panic, making it even harder for artists to earn money.

In 1674, Vermeer was enlisted as a member of the (voluntary) civic guard who was responsible for guarding the city against attack. As a result, his painting career suffered and Vermeer ended up borrowing money (1,000 guilders) from Jacob Romboutsz, a silk trader from Amsterdam. To do this, Vermeer had to use his mother-in-law’s house as a surety. Unfortunately, Vermeer was never able to pay back the loan. In December 1675, 43-year-old Vermeer fell ill and passed away. Despite having converted to Catholicism, he was buried in the Protestant Oude Kirk (Old Church) on 15th December.

…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a result and owing to the great burden of his children having no means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence, which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy to being dead.
– Catharina Vermeer (Bolnes)

Vermeer left his family with severe debts and Catharina had to ask the High Court for help to raise her eleven living children. In Vermeer’s will, 19 paintings had been bequeathed to Catharina and her mother, which they sold out of desperation. Two of the paintings were purchased by the baker Hendrik van Buyten (1632-1701) for 617 guilders, which was the same amount of money Catharina owed him for bread. He struck a deal that if she could pay back the money, he would return the paintings.

Despite the sale of his paintings, Vermeer remained unknown outside of Delft. He had only ever left the city to visit Amsterdam, therefore, never had an opportunity to make artistic connections. Over time, many of his paintings were misattributed to other artists, which almost erased Vermeer from history.

Vermeer had been a relatively slow painter and only produced between 50 and 60 oil paintings. Only 36 of the paintings survive today and are comparatively small to the majority of paintings in galleries. The frame that holds Rembrandt’s Night Watch (3.6 x 4.4 metres) could contain nearly all Vermeer’s paintings grouped together. In fact, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam displays a few of Vermeer’s paintings in the vicinity of Rembrandt’s masterpiece.

It has been difficult for historians to make a chronological list all of Vermeer’s paintings because he only included his signature and date on three. These were The Procuress (1656), The Astronomer (1668) and The Geographer (1669). Vermeer has become known for his use of colours, particularly lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, both of which can be seen in The Procuress. His use of ultramarine is rather surprising given his low financial status. The colour was one of the most expensive to buy and was made by grinding the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli into a powder.

The Procuress, which now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, features four figures, one of whom is looking out of the canvas at the viewer. It is believed by many that this is a self-portrait of Vermeer. Rather than depicting himself as an artist, Vermeer portrayed himself as a musician. It has been suggested the procuress was modelled on his wife, which may explain why the painting once hung in Vermeer’s mother-in-law’s home. The same woman has been identified in four of Vermeer’s paintings, however, he had many models, painting a total of 42 women and 13 men throughout his career.

The Astronomer and The Geographer feature the same male model who has been identified as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), “the Father of Microbiology”. Science was a popular topic for painters during the Dutch Golden Age. People were beginning to learn about the world and universe they lived in, although religion was still of great importance, hence the painting of the Finding of Moses in the background of The Astronomer.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)

Of all Vermeer’s paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring (Meisje met de parel, 1665) is the most recognised. Now hanging in the Mauritshuis, the 44.5 cm × 39 cm canvas has had many names and only received its current title in the 20th century. More recently, however, the “pearl” earring has been contested by those who think it looks more like polished tin.

Girl with a Pearl Earring is a “tronie”, which is Dutch slang for a painting of a head that is not meant to be a portrait. The unknown model, whose colouring suggests she is European, wears an oriental dress and turban. The story behind the painting, however, is unknown.

The painting’s fame is largely a result of Tracy Chevalier’s (b.1962) novel Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999), which was adapted into a film starring Scarlett Johansson (b.1984) in the title role. Chevalier imagined the girl was a maid in the Vermeer household who had an eye for art. The author also expertly described the situation in Delft where people were suffering from an epidemic.

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The Milkmaid (1657-58)

Although Vermeer was growing in popularity before the publication of Chevalier’s book, the media attention increased his fame and drew attention to his other works, for instance, The Milkmaid (1657-58). Curators of the Rijksmuseum, where the painting is displayed, claim The Milkmaid is “unquestionably one of the museum’s finest attractions”.

Despite its title, the lady in the painting is a kitchen maid who is pouring milk into an earthenware bowl. She wears Vermeer’s favourite colours: lead tin-yellow and ultramarine, and goes about her work as though unaware she is being painted.

According to Walter Liedtke (1945-2015), a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this genre painting has a “Mona Lisa” effect. “There’s a bit of mystery about her for modern audiences. She is going about her daily task, faintly smiling. And our reaction is ‘What is she thinking?'” (Liedtke, 2009)

Whilst not as famous, Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (1657-59) and Woman Reading a Letter (1663) evoke a similar reaction. What are they reading? Is it good or bad news? Who is it from? It is generally assumed the younger girl has received a letter from a lover, perhaps an illicit one. The open window may be symbolic of the girl’s desire to experience the world outside, away from the constraints of her family’s expectations.

Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window was initially mistaken as a Rembrandt and it was not until 1880 that it was identified as a Vermeer. Recent x-rays of the painting reveal Vermeer had originally included an image of a putto – perhaps Cupid – which is another indication the girl’s letter is from a lover.

Woman Reading a Letter is very similar in composition, however, it is almost unique among Vermeer’s paintings of interiors. Unlike the others, there is no fragment of either corner, ceiling or floor. There are, however, other features common to Vermeer’s art: a table, a pearl necklace (on the table) and a wall hanging. The map is of Holland, which suggests the letter could be from her husband or a male relative who is either travelling or taking part in the various Dutch wars.

Today, people think the woman is pregnant due to the shape of her figure, however, it was very rare for a pregnant woman to be depicted in art. Some suggest the loose clothing, which was popular in the Netherlands at the time, makes the woman appear larger than she really is.

The Wine Glass (1660) is considered to be one of Vermeer’s first mature works. The brushwork is much smoother and the colours brighter. These qualities are obvious when comparing the painting to an earlier work set in the same room, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-60).

Since genre paintings depict scenes of everyday life, it is not always possible to decipher exactly what is going on. In The Wine Glass, the woman is finishing a glass of wine while a man waits to refill her glass. There is no way of knowing the relationship between the two figures but many assume some form of courtship is being played out. The man almost seems impatient for the woman to finish her drink so that he can pour more, suggesting he is trying to make her drunk.

There are many similarities between The Wine Glass and The Girl with the Wine Glass, most notably the colours of the dresses. The woman and the girl wear a similar style of dress and are both holding wine glasses. The girl, however, looks out of the painting as though aware of the artist’s presence. The floor, walls and window reveal the scenes were painted in the same room, however, there are small differences, such as the position of the table and the picture on the wall.

The Girl with the Wine Glass is just as hard to decipher as The Wine Glass. One of the men, who are similarly dressed, looks interested in the girl, suggesting there is a courtship or illicit romance between them. The other man, however, looks bored in comparison, which begs the question of his identity and purpose in the scene. Without Vermeer around to reveal what is going on, it is up to the viewer to use their imagination.

Many of Vermeer’s paintings only contain one figure, however, when there is more than one person, they are always interacting. Officer and a Girl Laughing (1657) show a couple conversing at a table. The girl, possibly modelled by Vermeer’s wife, is holding a glass of white wine, which was an expensive drink at the time. If the officer has a drink, it is hidden by his body, which has its back to the viewer.

The officer, a military man, is wearing a red coat and expensive hat, suggesting both power and passion. Many have interpreted the painting as an innocent courtship between two respectable people, however, others have read ulterior motives in the girl’s smile. Once again, it is impossible to understand the true nature of the painting.

To paint the room, Vermeer used a camera obscura, as he did in the majority of his work. The camera obscura, whose technology inspired the photographic camera, was a drawing device that became popular in the mid-16th century. The device consisted of a box with a small hole in one side through which light could travel. Inside the box, the light would transfer an upside-down version of the outside scene onto a surface. If the surface was a mirror, the image would then be reflected onto another surface, such as an artist’s canvas, this time the right way up. This technology was based upon the human eye: pupil, lens and retina. Vermeer used the reflected image to trace a geometrically correct perspective.

The camera obscura may not have been needed for Mistress and Maid (1667), which shows the interaction of the titular roles. Although the direction of light suggests the mistress is sat in front of a window, the painting is too dark to see any physical features of the room. The scene depicts two classes of Dutch society: the mistress, who is brightly lit and dressed in yellow, and the maid, whose brown dress blends into the dark background. The mistress’s wealth is emphasised by her fur-lined clothing, silk table cloth and a pearl earring.

Despite their difference in class, the two women are both interested in a letter the mistress has received. It has been assumed the message is a love letter and the maid is advising her mistress on the appropriate response. Although she would have been considered no more than household staff, the maid may have known many of her mistresses secrets and was thus treated as a trusted confidant.

Vermeer would have made good use of the camera obscura in The Music Lesson (1662-65) and The Art of Painting (1666-68), which shows two different artistic professions. The former, also known as A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman, shows a young girl receiving a music lesson by a male tutor. The tutor, whose mouth is parted, is either singing along to the music or giving instruction to his pupil.

Vermeer’s geometric perspective aided by the camera obscura emphasises the depth and height of the room. Part of the room is obscured by a rug-covered table upon which a familiar jug sits. Vermeer often reused props in his paintings. Although the floor pattern is different, the room has a similar appearance to the setting of The Art of Painting.

The Art of Painting is the second largest of all Vermeer’s works and is the one that most closely resembles a scene in his own life. In fact, many assume the artist figure is a self-portrait, albeit from the back, and the girl, one of his daughters. This, of course, cannot be proven.

Thoré-Bürger, who gave Vermeer the “Sphinx of Delft” nickname, regarded The Art of Painting as the artist’s most interesting painting. Also known as The Allegory of Painting, art critics believe there to be far more to it than a typical genre painting. The model is presumed to represent Clio, the Greek Muse of History. She wears a laurel leaf and holds a trumpet and a book, which matches the description of Clio in the book Iconologia (1593) by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1560-1622).

There is thought to be political symbols hidden within The Art of Painting, such as a double-headed eagle within the design of the chandelier, which was the symbol of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the former ruler of the Low Countries. The map on the wall also refers to earlier political divisions.

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Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655)

Vermeer’s largest painting, which is housed in the Scottish National Gallery, is Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1655). Religion was not a common theme in Vermeer’s work, however, he did occasionally incorporate religious icons into his work, for instance in The Allegory of Faith. This large painting, however, fully embraces Christianity and depicts a scene from the Bible.

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” (Luke 10:38-39, NIV)

Although Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is a religious painting, it does not leave the concept of genre painting far behind. Despite the halo and choice of clothing, the three characters could be anyone going about their daily life. The man (Jesus) is talking while one woman (Mary) listens. The other woman (Martha) is making preparations for a meal.

Given the size of the painting, it is likely it was a commission, which may explain Vermeer’s deviation from his usual style. On the other hand, when Vermeer first appeared on the artist scene, his paintings were larger and, on two other occasions, featured mythical scenes.

Diana and her Companions (1653-56) is believed by some to be Vermeer’s earliest known painting, although others think it was painted after Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. The painting shows the Roman goddess Diana having her feet washed by her attendants. Critics have commented on the serious mood of the scene and the contemporary style of clothing, which is unusual for a mythological painting.

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Saint Praxedis by Felice Ficherelli

Saint Praxedis (1655) is similar in style to Diana and her Companions, however, it is obviously a copy of a painting by Felice Ficherelli (1605-60). Saint Praxedis or Práxedes was a second-century Christian saint, about which very little is known. It is possible Vermeer came across this painting on the walls of his father’s inn and copied it for practice. He did, however, change a few details, such as the colour of the saint’s dress and added a crucifix in her hand.

With this copy of a painting in mind, Diana and her Companions may have also been inspired by an existing artwork. If this is the case, the style of clothing is likely Vermeer’s addition.

It is a shame so little is known about Vermeer’s life and that he never experienced the fame his paintings have earned. He had no apprentices, therefore his style of painting died with him. We are lucky that many of his paintings have been discovered, especially as some were signed by other artists to try and sell them for more money. Today, Vermeer’s paintings are some of the most popular attractions in art galleries and there are several online exhibitions about his works. The Sphinx of Delft is definitely the most loved, if not the greatest genre master the world has seen.

Online Exhibitions about Vermeer:
12 Things You Didn’t know about Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Life and Work
Rediscovering Vermeer
Basics of Technical Research
The Painting’s Journey to its Present Appearance
Vermeer’s Contemporaries in Delft
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

All images used are in the Public Domain.