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Vermeer and the secret lives of women in the ‘golden age’

— November 2011

Associated media

Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) The Lacemaker c.1669–70 Oil on canvas, 24 x 21 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris

Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence

Rosalind Ormiston admires a major show at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

On display for the first time in the UK, the artist Johannes Vermeer’s beautifully observed painting, The Lacemaker, c.1669–70 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France), is the highlight of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s new exhibition ‘Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence’. A reciprocal lending agreement with the Louvre led the French gallery to lend the painting, one of the most treasured artworks in its collection and second only to Leonardo da Vinci’s  Mona Lisa,  for this exhibition.

Using The Lacemaker as the starting point, Marjorie Wieseman, Curator of Dutch Paintings at the National Gallery London, and guest curator of this exhibition, has chosen 32 stunning paintings, which include three further works by Vermeer, to focus for the first time in a British exhibition on the intimate, private world of women in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, where family was at the heart of every household and home became the metaphor for the fledgling nation.

The most popular images during the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch Art depicted domestic scenes. We see the mistress and daughters of the house and the female servants in a variety of everyday activities. Depicted within the environs of the family home, they sweep the floors, spin, sew, peel apples, pour milk, nurse babies, play music, fall asleep, read letters. In the privacy of their inner rooms they dress, undress and wash; in groups they are depicted enjoying a confidential chat, so beautifully captured in  Confidential Conversation,  1661 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) by Quiningh van Brekelenkam (1622–c.69), on display here.

Complementing the selection of four paintings by Vermeer – rare for one exhibition (only 37 works by Vermeer are thought to survive) – are 28 artworks by masters of genre painting, Gerrit Dou (1613–75), Pieter de Hooch (1629–84), and Gerard ter Borch (1617–81), Jan Steen (1626–79), and Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78), to name just a few.

The visual impact of the works in this exhibition is such that in each painting we are at the painter’s side, as onlookers, or bystanders invited in to watch a daily routine that was caught in a moment by the painter’s intervention. These subtle depictions of women, some simply standing in silence at the window looking out, capture moments of their lives in exquisite portrayals. In the catalogue, Wieseman refers to some routines as secret only to women, the daily occupations of their private domestic life unknown to their husbands.

As introduction, we are launched into the world of a prosperous Dutch household. The young woman in Vermeer’s stunning portrait A Young Woman seated at a Virginal, c.1670–2 (National Gallery, London), invites us to step into her charmed life, where music is a metaphor for love. The rich colours dazzle. One can almost hear the music playing.

Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, c. 1662-3 (lent by HM The Queen), takes us into the cool interior of a spacious room in a Dutch house to observe a music master and his female pupil. Her back is turned to us as we gaze in at this private moment, but her beauty is highly visible in the slender figure and neatly coiffured head. In meticulous attention to detail, Gerrit Dou’s Woman at her Toilet,  1667 (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam), and Gerard ter Borch (1617-81), in  Woman Washing her Hands, c. 1655, (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen), capture this essence of beauty too. Borch draws our attention to the sumptuous fabric of the lady’s gleaming satin gown and the symbolic intent of her washing her hands whilst turning her back on a dressing table and mirror, as if, Wieseman suggests, ‘to cleanse herself of its vanities’, a portrayal that would not be lost on the contemporary Dutch audience.

By contrast Jan Steen’s seductive  A Woman at her Toilet,  1661–5 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), reveals a lot of leg. Here, a young woman sits on the edge of her bed, slowly removing her stockings, the garter marks still visible on her legs. She is alone but Steen makes us aware of our presence in this private space.

By focusing on women in the domestic interior in Dutch paintings of the 17th century, the paintings on display allow the visitor to look at how interior and exterior space is explored. In a fabulous painting by Jacobus Vrel,  A Woman at a Window,  1654 (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna), this interior-exterior divide is evident. From a darkened interior space, a large window in the room opens. A woman leans out across the threshold, her elbow resting on the windowsill. She is engrossed in something unseen, perhaps a conversation with someone outside. Behind her in the room her sewing rests on a table, a man’s coat and hat hang in a cupboard space. And we, like Vrel, silently observe her in a private setting at a specific moment in her day. Dramatic  light from a beautiful window in  Woman at a Spinning Wheel (1661), (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) by Esaias Boursse (1631-72) draws attention to a lone female figure seated in the silence of the dark interior, intent on spinning. The light catches the top of her crisp white headwear.

Not all domestic work was carried out indoors. Pieter de Hooch’s  Courtyard in Delft: A Woman Spinning,  c. 1657 (lent by HM The Queen), takes us through to an open courtyard, an extension of the domestic space.

Turning now to Vermeer’s  The Lacemaker (c. 1670), which started this venture for the Fitzwilliam Museum, the eye is immediately drawn to the jewel colours of this very small painting. Vermeer portrays a young woman sewing intently. The picture space is closely cropped so that one focuses on the actions of the woman. In the silence of her work, we notice her delicate face, her braided hair, the movement of her hands, the colour of her dress, the colour of the threads that she is using, and the desk or table at which she sits. She is absorbed in her work and one can almost hear her breathing.  The Lacemaker  is the highlight of the exhibition.

The brilliance choice of 32 paintings – not too many, not too few to view in a morning or afternoon, or an hour or two – allows the visitor to spend time with each one. The display space remains focused on the paintings, each one carefully lit to draw us into the picture. The whole exhibition is a true delight.

To coincide with this exhibition a superb catalogue,  Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence  (Yale University Press, £20), with essays by Marjorie Wieseman, Wayne E. Franits and H. Perry Chapman, all renowned experts of Dutch art, adds further insight into this ‘golden’ period in Dutch art. Wieseman discusses how these images of women were received by 17th-century audiences, beginning with the ‘exquisite craft’ and ‘physical beauty’ of the paintings. One need only study Vermeer’s  A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,  c.1670 (National Gallery, London) to agree with her evaluation. And the exhibition is rich in examples, including Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, c.1660, by Jacobus Vrel (active c.1650–62), an elusive painter about whom very little is known; and The Eavesdropper, c.1655–6 by Nicolaes Maes (1634-93), a pioneer of narrative painting.

For those who cannot travel to Cambridge, the catalogue is a worthy substitute. Alongside the essays previously mentioned, every work in the exhibition is given a double-page spread, illustrating the painting with an informative text.

The catalogue  Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence by Marjorie E. Wieseman, Wayne E. Frantis and H. Perry Chapman is published by Yale University Press, 2011. 244 pp., fully illustrated. ISBN 978-0300178999



Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Media credit: © Réunion des Musées Nationaux/ Gérard Blot

Editor's notes

Vermeer’s Women: Secrets and Silence which finished its three-month run on 15 January 2012, was the most successful show ever held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, attracting over 150,000 visitors.
The Museum recorded over 200,000 visitors during the exhibition period and opening hours were extended to accommodate the high demand, which peaked at 6,000 on the last Saturday.  It was the first show at the Fitzwilliam to achieve over 100,000 visitors.

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