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Fig. 1: Niobe’s Pride, 1610. Part of a Diana series of tapestries designed by Karel van Mander the Elder for François Spiering’s firm in Delft. Wool and silk, 11 feet 9 3/4 inches x 17 feet 4 5/8 inches. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Vermeer and the Delft School, the exhibition at The National Gallery, London, from June 20 to September 16, presents a rather different image of Delft’s most famous master than the monographic show seen in Washington and The Hague six years ago.1 In that hagiographic exhibition, twenty-three works said to be by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) were brought together, a remarkable achievement considering that there are only about thirty-four paintings by Vermeer in the world, several of which (like the three in The Frick Collection, New York) can never be lent. In contrast, the current exhibition features fifteen works by Vermeer and about seventy paintings by other artists, as well as tapestries, sculpture, drawings, and ceramics that represent the patrician culture of seventeenth-century Delft and place Vermeer’s work in the cultural milieu of his surroundings.

The foreword and main essay of the Washington catalogue emphasize how mysterious Vermeer, dubbed the “Sphinx of Delft,” remains. In so characterizing the artist, the French critic Théophile Thoré (“Thoré-Bürger,” 1807–1869) subscribed to the Romantic doctrine that genius often comes out of nowhere: for example, the towns of Vinci, Caravaggio, Ornans (Courbet’s birthplace), and the small, peaceful, provincial (to Parisian eyes) city of Delft. Writers from Proust to Malraux adopted this approach to the Dutch artist, and the characterization still echoes in the words of scholars today, who stress that we know nothing of Vermeer’s master (which doesn’t matter) and very little about his patrons (which is simply untrue). In fact, we know more about Vermeer’s life than that of almost any other seventeenth-century Dutch artist except Rembrandt, thanks in part to articles by John Michael Montias, and his book Vermeer and his Milieu (Princeton, 1989).

In Vermeer’s lifetime the city of Delft was four centuries old, and many of its leading citizens, like his patron Pieter van Ruijven (1624–1674), lived on old money dating to the golden years of beer brewing and linen manufacturing. By the early 1600s the production of luxury goods such as tapestries and silver-gilt objects helped to sustain the city’s economy, the decline of which was slowed after 1650 by factories making delftware faience. The fact that Delft is only three miles from the court city of The Hague, where the Princes of Orange and about 1,200 diplomats helped to cultivate artistic taste, was extremely important for the careers of local artists, many of whom are represented in this exhibition, including the tapestry manufacturer François Spiering (1549/51–1631) (Fig. 1), the court portraitist Michiel van Miereveld (1567–1641), the palace decorators Leonaert Bramer (1596–1674) and Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1604–1667), the exquisite flower painter Balthasar van der Ast (1593/94–1657), and the highly refined painter of modern manners, Vermeer.

Diana and Her Companions, circa 1653–1654, is probably Vermeer’s earliest surviving work. The painting has often been seen as rather un-Dutch and created by an artist who had not yet found himself, but in style and subject matter the mythological scene could hardly be more expected of an ambitious young painter working in the area of Delft and The Hague. In its coloring and classical structure (the latter is more obvious now that a nineteenth-century sky has been suppressed) the composition reminds one of slightly earlier works by the court favorite Gerard van Honthorst (1590–1656) and by his Delft follower van Couwenbergh. As the goddess of hunting—a princely pastime—Diana was a popular subject with the Dutch and other courts and with Delft artists from Spiering onward. However, Vermeer gave the theme a personal twist (at about the time of his marriage) by sensitively describing the pregnant Callisto’s distress—she is the modest, moody figure in the right background—and by treating mythology in terms of his usual preoccupations: women in private moments and the complications of desire.

Fig. 2: Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, ca. 1657–1658. Oil on canvas, 18 x 16 1/8 inches. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Milkmaid (Fig. 2) was one of several paintings of young women by Vermeer that were acquired by the Delft collector van Ruijven (who purchased some twenty pictures by Vermeer circa 1657 to 1670). The subject has been misconstrued as a madonna of the cow pastures, although Vermeer’s sources point almost uniformly in another direction: the one taken by skirt and apron chasers like Samuel Pepys.2 In this surprisingly small picture, made for the connoisseur, not the general public, Vermeer combined the sturdy type of kitchen maid, painted in Antwerp and Utrecht, with the crystalline light, minute attention to “still life” motifs, and a scenario that are familiar from Leiden “fine paintings” by Gerard Dou (1613–1675) and Frans van Mieris (1635–1681).

Vermeer’s work, as shown alongside the work of his contemporaries in Vermeer and the Delft School, presents the view that there was a tradition in Delft of exceptional craftsmanship, of refined and often conservative styles, and of sophisticated subject matter and expression. Most of Vermeer’s known paintings, including the examples mentioned here and on view in the current exhibition, could be said to represent a felicitous coincidence between the artist’s temperament and the character of Delft society. His works are highly refined in both style and meaning, and intended for sophisticated patrons like van Ruijven. The understated, discreet, allusive, and worldly but reserved nature of his work very much reflects Vermeer’s own personality, but he would not have been the same artist had he lived in any other place.

Vermeer and the Delft School is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until May 27, then it continues at the National Gallery London, June 20 to September 16, 2001. The exhibition catalogue, Vermeer and the Delft School, is 640 pages with 526 illustrations (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001).

Walter Liedtke is Curator of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where he is responsible for the collection of Dutch and Flemish pictures. In addition to Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and other Northern European artists, he has worked on Delft topics for thirty years.

  1. Johannes Vermeer, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Mauritshuis, The Hague, in 1995–1996. Dr. Walter Liedtke organized Vermeer and the Delft School, which opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on March 8, 2001.
  2. At an inn in Delft in 1660 Pepys considered the waitress "an exceedingly pretty lass and right for the sport." For the source in his diary and for interpretations of The Milkmaid, see the entry in Liedtke et al., Vermeer and the Delft School, (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), no. 68.

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