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The Magic of Vermeer
1632 – 1675

Review of the talk by Eveline Eaton
on April 24th 2019
Eveline Eaton

This was a welcome repeat visit by Eveline and it quickly became apparent that we were about to experience a fascinating insight into “The Magic of Vermeer”.

Initially she reminded us that, during this period, although more paintings were being produced in Holland than in any other country, Vermeer’s work is very rare as in his short life he only painted about 35 or 36.  He worked very slowly and he often received letters saying “I am still waiting for my painting”.  So exquisite was his work recipients must have felt that the final result was worth waiting for.

Eveline showed us some examples of the work of other Dutch artists of the time.  Some of these probably had an influence on Vermeer.  Many, however, tended to give an allegorical or moral meaning as in Jan Steen’s “Merrymaking in a Tavern” which appears to issue a warning of where dancing may lead.  Vermeer’s work merely depicted observations of life.  He was a master at intimate genre paintings in which the principal figures, mainly female, are invariably engaged in some everyday activity.  Cityscapes were not common at the time but Vermeer also painted “The Little Street” and a “View of Delft” which has a photographic quality.

Painting View of Delft
Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660 - 1661, Mauritshuis

Vermeer lived out his life in the city of Delft.  His father was a silk worker who also dealt in paintings.  In 1653 he married a Catholic girl and converted to Catholicism.  They had at least 7 girls and 3 boys so providing for a large family was not easy.  It was fortunate that his mother in law was very wealthy.

Painting The Milkmaid
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, circa 1660, Rijksmuseum

Originally, he painted biblical and mythological scenes but his first genre painting, “The Procuress” shows the use of his usual pigments such as ultramarine in the blue jug and lead-tin-yellow in the jacket of the woman.  Ultramarine is extracted from lapis lazuli and was very expensive.  He frequently used bright splashes of red as in “Girl with a Red Hat” and in the bright dress of the young girl in “The Lady with the Wine Glass”.  Lemons, which were new at this time, also feature in this picture.

Most of his paintings show a restricted range of interiors, often with the light coming in from an open window.  He was a master at depicting the way in which light illuminates objects.  In several of his paintings including “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” we also see drapery used.  Letters, musical instruments and everyday objects were common elements in his paintings.  Maps often appear as decorations on the walls.

As the image of “The Concert” appeared Eveline asked a casual question. “Has any one seen this picture recently?”  Fortunately, no hands were raised as it was the one stolen from Boston in 1990.  Most of his paintings are, of course, in museums and art galleries but someone, somewhere has a missing Vermeer in their possession!

His paintings have a calm serenity and a timeless appeal and if I could have just one on my wall it would be “The Milkmaid”.  Through the plain leaded window intense light is cast upon the scene.  Contrasting textures and glazes vie for attention and everyday objects are there in abundance.  The bread looks as though you could pick it up and eat it and one is tempted to dip one’s finger into the milk.  In the clothing of the female figure he uses his familiar colour range executed with his usual free flowing brush work.  This painting contains so many of the features which epitomise his work.

Thank you, Eveline, for sharing the “magic” of such a great artist.

Marian Heathcote

Related links

Eveline Eaton's website
Johannes Vermeer catalog raisonné, 1908, which holds a comprehensive collection of high quality images of Vermeer's works.