Yes, Vermeers Are Here, In a Dense Delft Show

A mere five years after the great Vermeer exhibition at the

National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and only a couple of years after

the enchanting show devoted to Pieter de Hooch at the Wadsworth Atheneum in

Hartford, we are now treated to an even more expansive account of these

17th-century Dutch masters and their contemporaries in the survey of Vermeer and the Delft School at the

Metropolitan Museum of Art. With a total of 85 paintings, some drawings and

sculpture and many fine examples of the decorative arts-including huge

tapestries-this is a big exhibition that purports to place Vermeer, de Hooch

and a roster of less illustrious Delft painters “within their proper historical

context.”

Now it is not to be doubted that it’s important to acquire

an intelligent understanding of the historical context about the artists in

whose work we take a serious aesthetic interest. Whether a very large

exhibition that is bound to attract huge crowds offers the best circumstance in

which to acquire an intelligent understanding of historical context is another

question. It is certainly instructive, and at times even delightful, to see so

many paintings by Vermeer’s and de Hooch’s contemporaries, but this is more a

matter of aesthetic context than it is a history lesson. Within the crowded

confines of the exhibition itself, however, “historical context” often means

little more than a quick reading of a summary wall text or listening to an audiotape

while attempting a glimpse at a painting, and that often results in

substituting the historical context for the aesthetic experience.

Contrary to this widely observed museological practice, my

own view is that a comprehension of historical context is more effectively

acquired privately-which is to say, by reading (or re-reading) the appropriate

writings on the subject-than by attempting in public to scrutinize exhibition

wall texts over the heads and shoulders of others to the steady drone of the audio

tapes as background music.

Be that as it may, for anyone with a serious interest in the

art of painting, the principal reason to hazard the crowds in attendance at Vermeer and the Delft School is the work

of Vermeer himself, here represented by 15 paintings (including six that were

not in the Washington show), and that of de Hooch, here represented by 10

paintings. There are other paintings of significant quality, of course-Carol

Fabritius’ magical Goldfinch (1654)

is surely one of them-as well as many that are, well, fairly boring. Among the

latter are the many architectural paintings of church interiors, for example,

paintings which are technically remarkable, to be sure, but otherwise

unrewarding. As for the many finely made decorative works in the exhibition,

these inevitably tend to be of secondary interest, too, at least for those of

us who are primarily concerned with painting. The decorative work does have the

virtue, however, of diverting the attention of at least part of the crowd part

of the time away from the Vermeers and the de Hooches.

With both of these master painters, historical context

always turns out to matter a lot less than the sheer pictorial impact of the

artist’s extraordinary powers of invention. You may think “invention” an odd term

to apply to pictures so apparently entrenched in the most rigorous conventions

of realistic depiction, especially in the celebrated paintings of domestic

interiors. Yet the more we study these paintings, the more we come to

understand that, like many other varieties of extreme painterly realism, they

owe a lot more to the artist’s gift for pictorial artifice than to a reliance

on the circumstantial details of direct observation.

Thus, in Vermeer’s The

Art of Painting (circa 1666-68), one of his most ambitious creations, the

sheer scale and sumptuousness of the room occupied by both the artist and his

model are themselves a considerable feat of pictorial invention. They certainly

bear little resemblance to the smaller scale and humbler appointments of Vermeer’s

modest top-floor studio room in Delft, as Walter Liedtke is at pains to remind

us in an entry in the catalogue of the exhibition. The same is true of a

slightly smaller later masterwork, Allegory

of the Faith (circa 1670-72), the locus of which is the same imaginary

space, here supplied with props and symbols more appropriate to its religious

subject.

But then, whatever its apparent verisimilitude may be, all

of the pictorial space in the interiors painted by Vermeer and de Hooch is an

imaginative invention which they appear to have influenced each other in

creating. The differences that divide these two masters are differences in

sensibility, with Vermeer intent in his classic

interiors upon achieving an atmosphere of poetic reverie, while de Hooch

characteristically inclines to a less dreamy, less mysterious, more abstract

pictorial structure. Seeing some of these interiors brought together in the

current exhibition, I am reminded at times of Braque’s collaboration with

Picasso in the creation of Cubism. There, too, significant differences in

sensibility were joined in a common pictorial enterprise.

As to the question of who may have influenced whom in this

enterprise, we are offered an interesting observation in Anthony Bailey’s

delightful new book, Vermeer: A View of

Delft (Henry Holt, $27.50). About de Hooch, Mr. Bailey writes, “He and

Vermeer were to share subjects, perhaps trading them, and to influence each

other greatly. It is often hard to say when looking at their paintings who had

the common idea first, but it seems to be de Hooch who leads Vermeer from his

early gloom into the daylight. It may be de Hooch who brought Vermeer to see

the possibilities of a smaller scale.”

Well, we can’t be sure of any of this, but something

certainly sparked a crucial change in Vermeer, as we can see in the fine

examples of his paintings in this exhibition-the change that led to the Vermeer

we admire today-and it may very well have been the work of de Hooch.

Vermeer and the Delft

School is an exhibition that many of us will want to revisit many times.

And if it’s historical context you feel you need, I recommend Mr. Bailey’s

beautifully written and short guide to the subject. The huge catalog of the

exhibition, which runs to more than 600 pages ($75 hardcover, $50 paperback)

and weighs a ton, is a treasure-house of scholarly information and thus an

essential work of reference, but for many museumgoers it may offer more in the

way of historical context than they are prepared to undertake. Meanwhile, the

exhibition remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum through May 27, and will

then travel to the National Gallery in London (June 20 to Sept. 16). Yes, Vermeers Are Here, In a Dense Delft Show