Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence

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One of the main reasons for our recent trip to Cambridge was to visit the exhibition of paintings from the “golden age” of Dutch art  – “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence” at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The exhibition only runs until 15 January so we had to arrange our visit early in the New Year.

The title of the exhibition is a little misleading. It implies that it’s an exhibition of Vermeer paintings. However, only 4 out of the 31 works on display were by him. The others were by other Dutch artists from the same period. All the paintings featured women in more or less intimate, everyday situations in a domestic setting. They are pictured carrying out domestic tasks, such as peeling parsnips or sweeping the floor, at their toilette and at leisure, playing the virginal, reading or writing letters.

Some visitors may have been disappointed that there were so few works by Vermeer, but given that there are only 34 paintings that have been attributed to him, the 4 on display are a relatively high proportion of his works.

The exhibition came about after the Fitzwilliam lent a Titian painting they own to the Louvre in Paris. In return, they asked to borrow Vermeer’s Lacemaker. The exhibition takes this as its starting point.

The other Vermeer works in the exhibition are A lady at the virginals with a gentleman ‘The Music Lesson’ (c.1662-5) on loan from The Royal Collection; A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c.1670) from the National Gallery, London; and Young Woman Seated at a Virginal loaned by a private collection in New York.

As we were staying at a hotel almost facing the museum we arrived shortly after it opened and were able to go straight upstairs to the gallery where the exhibition was taking place. It seemed reasonably quiet but when we went through the door into the gallery it was already fairly crowded with visitors. It got more and more busy during the next hour although by being patient we were able to get a decent view at all the paintings. But when we’d seen them all there was little point trying to go back to have a second look at any of the pictures, The gallery was packed and it was almost impossible to go against the flow.  We had a look around some of the other rooms in the Museum, taking in another, less busy exhibition of drawings Graphite, which was very good. By the time we were leaving around midday, there was a considerable queue of people of the ground floor waiting to be let upstairs.

When I visit an exhibition I usually like to work my way through it then go back and have another look at those works that had particularly captured my interest. Although the number of people crowded in the gallery meant that this wasn’t possible we discovered that due to the exhibition’s popularity the opening hours had been extended until 7 p.m. Monday to Friday (and 6 p.m. at the weekend) so we decided to go back again  around 5 p.m. before we returned to our hotel.  By that time the queue had gone and the gallery was much less busy than during the morning, so we were able to revisit the exhibition and wander between those pictures that we wanted to take a more detailed look at. So that worked out well for us.

I thought that the exhibition was excellent. All the works were high quality and the curator has done a good job in pulling them together from a wide range of sources. I liked their intimate, everyday nature. I’m much less keen on bombastic pictures of religious and mythological subjects and portraits of aristocratic individuals and families. Here the subjects were from relatively modest backgrounds – some even of working class women. And they were going about their normal day to day activities.

The Lacemaker was the centrepiece of the exhibition, placed towards the end of the gallery. I was surprised how small it was and it was hung in an extremely large frame, which I though distracted from the painting itself. I can understand why it is considered to be one of Vermeer’s finest works. The composition is interesting and he brings out the concentration on the face of the young women working closely at the fine work she’s creating. He brings out the fine details including the coloured threads being used.

Personally I wasn’t at all disappointed that only four of the paintings were by Vermeer. We knew this before we went. To me it was a good opportunity both to look at those 4 paintings, at least one of which, having come from a private collection, I won’t have chance to see again (fancy owning a painting by Vermeer!). But it was also a chance to discover some new artists.

The paintings by Jacobus Vrel, which are rather quirky, have attracted some attention. Two of them in particular, which are rear views of what looks like an older woman peering through a window. I’m not sure whether he used the same model, but the settings are different. In one (A woman at a window) she is looking through an open window, possibly gossiping with an unseen person outside or watching someone or something. The other picture (Woman at a window waving at a girl) is more intriguing. Here the women looks at a ghostly figure of a child through a closed window. It appears to be dark outside and the girl is only just visible.  The woman is perched on a chair which is leaning forward and almost toppling over. She wouldn’t be able to hold her pose in that position for long. However he hasn’t got the chair right at all. In both of these pictures the window is a very dominant feature.

Jacobus Vrel - Woman at a window, waving at a girl

Jacobus Vrel, Woman at a window, waving at a girl c. 1650 (source: www.pubhist.com)

In these paintings I think that he gets across the way windows would have looked around this period – not completely transparent due to the poor quality of the glass. In the first painting it is daytime and light is coming through the window from outside. I think he represents the effect of the daylight very well, with a stronger light coming through the upper panes and shadows in the right places. In the second painting I think he really captures how a window looks when it’s pitch black outside and I like the way the light from the room is reflected in the window.

Apparently little is known about Vrel. According to the exhibition catalogue

Nothing is known of his identity or even where he worked (we are not even certain that he was Dutch): his oeuvre is small (fewer than forty paintings) and the works themselves are enigmatic.

Some of my favourite paintings in the exhibition, besides the Vermeers, were by Gerard ter Borch. There were five in all, three of them featuring his sister Gesina.  In two of the paintings she is “at her toilet” and in the third she is sitting drinking a glass of wine as she pauses from reading a letter In all three she is wearing silk or satin dresses which were beautifully painted. He really brings out the sheen but also shows all the creases and rucks very effectively.

Gerard Ter Borch (1617-81), Lady seated holding a wineglass, ca. 1665 (Source: www.codart.nl)

The other two show a woman sitting on a chair concentrating intently at the task in hand. In one she is sewing and in the other she is peeling an apple while a young child looks on. I think that portrayal of the woman, her figure and features, is very strong as is the representation of her clothing.

There were many other good paintings on display and I learned a lot about Dutch painting as well as being introduced to some artists that I’ll now have to research some more!. The exhibition catalogue, a hard back book that includes plates of all the works on show together with essays from a number of experts, is excellent value at only £14-95. There’s also a podcast featuring the curator Betsy Wieseman, available here.

On returning home from Cambridge, reading the Observer on Sunday I spotted an article about the exhibition. No doubt the final week will be even more packed.

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2 thoughts on “Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence

  1. Pingback: Gabriel Metsu | Down by the Dougie

  2. Pingback: The Dutch Golden Age at the Rijksmuseum | Down by the Dougie

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