Tuesday 15 July 2014

Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum

Johannes Vermeer, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Such a pleasure, seeing the Vermeers! No grandeur here, like in Rembrandt's paintings - simplicity instead: quiet rooms, morning light, everyday domestic tasks. In this simplicity, Vermeer reveals the power of the inner life. But, for all their stillness, his paintings breathe motion. They are dramas. He used light to create drama. His domestic pieces have a characteristic pearly light. Similar effects had been achieved in Delft by Carel Fabritius.
The eye is drawn into the picture by the careful placing of objects and a clearly defined architectural space. The figures pursue tranquil occupations and the symbolic meaning of a scene is sometimes revealed through a painting within a painting. The colours are bright, sometimes expensive pigments were used, with a preference for lapis lazuli and Indian yellow.

Woman Reading a Letter, 1663 (oil on canvas)

Enjoying a quiet, private moment, this young woman is absorbed reading a letter in the morning light. She is still wearing her blue night jacket. All of the colours in the composition are secondary to its radiant lapis lazuli blue. Vermeer recorded the effects of light with extraordinary precision. Particularly innovative is his rendering of the woman's skin with pale grey and the shadows on the wall using light blue.

This painting stops time. Looking at it we are drawn into the reader's moment, sharing this silent, absorbed moment of reading. So, it's the act of reading itself that hold us, only the words on that sheet of paper exist - she is in her own place, a place of the mind, and by looking at the painting, we share this absorbed moment of reading.

The Milkmaid, 1660 (oil on canvas)

A maidservant pours milk, entirely absorbed in her task. Except for the stream of milk everything else is still. Vermeer took this simple everyday activity and made it the subject of an impressive painting - the woman stands like a statue in the brightly lit room. Vermeer had an eye on how light by means of hundreds of colourful dots plays over the surface of objects.

The Love Letter, 1669-70, (oil on canvas)

Vermeer chose an unusual vantage point for this painting. From a dim space in the foreground, a glimpse is afforded to another room with a domestic scene. An elegantly dressed woman looks up expectantly at a maidservant who has just handed her a letter. The seascape behind them on the wall may well allude to the letter's subject: in the 17th century the sea was often compared to love and the lover to a ship.

View of Houses in Delft, Known as the Little Street, 1658 (oil on canvas)
This painting of a quiet street with a few figures occupies an exceptional place in Vermeer's oeuvre. Straight angles give the composition balance while the triangle of the sky introduces a sense of dynamism. The old walls, coarse bricks and white plasterwork are almost palpable. Vermeer nonetheless took some liberties with reality, like the oversized green shutters.


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