Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting in Dublin

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I’m back in Ireland this week and on Sunday I got up early to drive over to Holyhead and caught the 9 o’clocferry so I could spend an afternoon in Dublin. I was keen to visit the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland and take a look at the exhibition of Dutch Genre paintings that was coming to the end of it’s run.

I’d heard of this exhibition, which is a joint project with the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art in Washington and curated by Dr. Adriaan Waiboer, Head of collections and research, National Gallery of Ireland, when it was showing in Paris and I was hoping I’d have the chance to see it in Dublin. I thought I was going to be disappointed as a week’s work I had planned in Ireland was postponed, but when it was back on again it gave me an opportunity to see it before it closes on 17 September. Luckily I sorted out a ticket on the internet at the same time as I was sorting out my ferry as it sold out a few days before I arrived.

Vermeer’s name dominates the adverts for the exhibition, but the majority of the 63 paintings  on show are by other artists. However, 10 of them are by Vermeer – a fair proportion of his work as only 34 paintings are firmly attributed to him, with question marks over a further three. The other artists represented are his contemporaries, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Frans van Mieris, Caspar Netscher and Jan Steen. I’ve become more familiar with the Dutch Genre style ever since we visited Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2012 and I’d seen, and learned to appreciate, a number of the paintings previously, particularly works by ter Borch and Metsu.

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Woman writing (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

The theme of the exhibition is to

explore the fascinating network of relationships between Vermeer and Dutch genre painters of the period 1650 to 1675, and will give visitors an insight into how Vermeer and his contemporaries admired, inspired and rivalled each other. (NGI website)

The Netherlands is a small country and it would be ridiculous to think that Dutch artists in the same period and living in relatively close proximity wouldn’t know each other, be aware of each other’s work and be influenced by each other.

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Woman with a balance (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Each wall in the gallery takes a different theme – women writing letters, women with their backs to the viewer,musical duets, women with lutes, astronomers, lace makers, and even a woman holding a parrot. For each of these themes there are a small group of paintings by different artists and the audio guide and accompanying booklet outlines connections – who came up with the idea, who was influenced by it, how they changed the composition etc.

There wasn’t a Vermeer in every group, but when there was it tended to stand out. There’s something about his work – the composition, the more natural, relaxed posing of his models, the way he uses light – that appeals to modern taste. However, in some of the groups I preferred the work of a different artist. For example the group of men and women writing letters. This included Dublin’s own Vermeer and two paintings they own by Metsu. I actually prefer the latter. But these were exceptions.

I hadn’t seen six of the ten Vermeers in the exhibition and many of the other paintings were new to me. So a worthwhile visit from that point of view.

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The Geographer (Staedel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main)

As the exhibition was sold out I’d expected to be in the middle of a scrum and straining to see the pictures. But that wasn’t the case. The gallery space was quite airy and the number of people had clearly been restricted, making this a pleasurable experience. When a group were around a particular painting or group of paintings, after a few minutes they had moved on and it was posisble to get a closer look. And it was also possible to move backwards and forwards taking a second, third or fourth look at individual pictures.

So a much anticipated exhibition and I wasn’t disappointed. It was worth getting up early!

4 thoughts on “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting in Dublin

  1. Having seen the exhibition, I enjoyed your review which is a very fair synopsis of it! And I totally agree that despite there being only 10 Vermeer’s out of 63 paintings, they completely overshadowed the others including ( for me) the gallery’s own Vermeer.

    • Thanks Diana. I agree with you about the Dublin Vermeer. For me it’s one of his lesser works. And thanks too for alerting me to this exhibition some months ago. 👍

    • Yes still here, but tiring days training so I’ve not been up to much in the evenings. Probably my last trip over here this year too. But I made the most of Sunday afternoon.

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