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Vermeer’s originality in representing his subjects through the genre painting


Vermeer, opere

di Paola Barbuzzi

Women in their “unguarded moments” in Vermeer’s paintings

The majority of scholars agree with the idea that the originality and diversity of Vermeer’s art derives from his elegant and sophisticated manner of exposing light upon objects, making his representations unique and diverse compared to the general level of his contemporaries. Yet, his impressive style is also the result of the way in which he composes his interior scenes. Vermeer demonstrates an authentic ability to transform common categories of domestic genre paintings into his own personal view.

  The pleasure of discovering young women in «unguarded moments» [1] directs Vermeer to build up inscrutable scenes. His women are never depicted in   family duties. On the contrary, they are portrayed for their intrinsic and elusive femininity. As a result, unconventional women occupy Vermeer’s private and intimate interior scenes. How he realized this new perspective is unknown, but surely his art followed its own logic, which had no local reference. This, however, does not mean that Vermeer has ignored artistic parameters of Dutch genre paintings in vogue at his time. Certainly, his style   stemmed from influences of the local artistic tradition of the Delft school as well as influences of some famous Dutch painters’ styles.  Indeed, «Vermeer depends peculiarly closely on outside resources for the matter and form of his pictures but the essential factors in the formation of his style are internal and subjective»[2].


Vermeer, Girl asleep, 1656

By looking at some Dutch painters of the second half of the seventeenth century Walter Liedkte examines the influences between Vermeer and De Hooch (1629-1683) that must have inspired each other in the late 1650s. Especially, he says that De hooch has influenced Vermeer for the choice of subject and composition in The Glass of Wine (c. 1658-60, Berlin) and one or two other paintings. While Vermeer has encouraged De hooch in a more effective deployment of light[3].

Certainly, De hooch is considered one of the most famous representative painters of domestic genre paintings along with Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667), Nicolaes Maes (1632-1693) and many other artists of the second half of seventeenth century. These artists produced a wide variety of paintings in which young women, wives, mothers and diligent maids were engaged in virtuous activities most of the time carried   at home.

The representation of domestic life in Dutch art increased its popularity in the decades following the Treaty of Münster (1648). The latter determined the end of hostilities between the Netherlands and Spain.  In a climate of peace and economic growth, Dutch painters were involved in the production of new images of   bourgeois private life.

The growth of domestic themes was not only connected with the pleasure of middle-class patrons, who enjoyed purchasing pictures expressing their own values, but it also coincided with social and economic changes in which family relationships were affected.


De Hooch,  A woman preparing bread and butter for a boy, 1660

«The gradual rise of capitalism transformed families from the older, feudal type of self–sufficient units of production and consumption in which husbands and wives worked jointly, to units in which production and consumption became separated»[4]. This separation is ostensibly represented   in painting   by the identification of female and male spaces.  The female space is identified with the domestic sphere, while the male space is associated with the public, civic and commercial domain.

Within this new outlook, paintings became instruments of ideological constructions of ideal images of domestic lives. A woman preparing bread and butter for a boy by De Hooch represents a good example, among many others, of this ideology. According to Franits E. Wayne, this picture represents the theme of the “well- behaved child”, which is considered one of the most important duties of the mother along with the care for the husband and the administration of the house.

In A woman preparing bread and butter for a boy, the light and shadow, which are harmoniously and beautifully distributed in the picture, display a glimpse of private life. The action and pose of the woman, who is situated in a so-called gendered space, creates an aura of grace and delicacy. This painting, as well as many others, expresses the triumph of purity and nobility of the role of wife and housewife, who appear diligently and submissively involved in their tasks.

All this is excluded from Vermeer’s paintings. His women are totally free from ideological painterly constructions. They do not assume any role and responsibility.  Pouring milk, making music, reading letters, making laces and other feminine activities are represented in a way in which Vermeer’s women express independency and recklessness vis-à-vis moral judgments.


P. De Hooch, A woman drinking with two men, 1658

Especially, the aura of pensiveness and psychological introspection printed on their face accentuate a sort of personal subjectivity of being feminine rather than the social objectivity, stereotypy, of their identities. Their confined pose and reserved attitude make impossible to penetrate into their mind. Indeed, «while» Vermeer «brings the spectator into close intimacy […] with what is going on, the painted representation excludes the spectator from it»[5].  In other words, since the women are placed into their   intimate world in which they appear comfortable and delighted with their own interest, they impede to be scrutinised by the external world and the viewer’s eye.

Vermeer creates «his own vein of genre» in which his female representations acquire a new visual signification within a transformed function of interior decorations such as pictures- within pictures. The latter, as Arasse sustains, is generally used in Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century to produce moral meanings.  All this is suspended in Vermeer’s paintings. Instead of producing explicit meanings for the viewer that would be easier for him to understand what kind of messages or moral lessons the picture is conveying, Vermeer turns them towards the picture itself. The result is the representation of a world that continually escapes clear interpretations. This world is implicit, ‘reflexive’; it is a mental construction in which meanings are enclosed he visibility of common pictorial compositions. And it is exactly in this world that Vermeer’s women lose their social functions in favour of a more private and indefinite idea of being   feminine, as it can be seen in one of his paintings, the Lacemaker (c. 1669-70, Paris).

Certainly, Vermeer’s Lacemaker appears different compared to other Lacemakers depicted by his colleagues such as the Lacemaker, 1662, by Caspar Netscher. The difference is clearly determined by the disposition of the pictorial composition, but also by the particular way the needlework is represented.


Caspar Netscher, The Lace maker, 1662

In Vermeer’s painting this task is actively executed by an absorbed young woman, who shows physical movements of her fingers between needles and threads thanks to the effect of light upon the hands, which give a glimpse of vitality. The use of yellow through dynamic layers of tonalities accentuates her intimacy and profound involvement in what is doing. The needlework is more seen as an expression of intense creativity rather than as an expression of female virtues. Vermeer’s Lace-maker escapes from ideological constructions. She does not convey moral meanings like that of Netscher. She simply presents herself in a particular moment in which femininity appears expressed though her discretion and impenetrability of thought.

On the contrary, in the Lacemaker by Caspar Netscher the pictorial composition of the painting offers a conventional ideological construction of femininity. The activity of making lace indicates virtue and diligence. The broom, the two shoes and mussels, which are disposed around the young woman, function as signifiers of appropriate feminine virtues[6]. The broom alludes to the housewife’s duties, while the pair of shoes   signifies   home as the place where women belong. Furthermore, the mussels, like the shoes and broom, remind us again of the idea of domesticity and the strong identification of woman with domestic space. Certainly, the deployment of precise objects, as seen above, emphasizes “the impulse towards meaning”, as Arasse sustains. As a result, the needlework, in Netscher’s picture, is simply used as an instrument of inviting young unmarried women to acquire positive virtues for their future destiny as housewives and wives.

Disengaged from all these conventions, Vermeer represents his own view of looking at women. He is not interested in depicting them for their social roles, but for their mysterious human mind by which he seems to   be fascinated. And within this mental involvement that «Vermeer has discovered the virtue of female existence, its separateness»[7] in order to place it into a world which escapes clear definitions and restricted visual perceptions.


Vermeer, The georgapher, 1668-69

The geographer and the astronomer

The Geographer (1668-69) and The Astronomer (1668) belong to the last phase of Vermeer’s work. The two paintings represent a scholar absorbed in his own work and thoughts, placed beside a big window, from which the light   irradiates his face. Some scholars have conjectured that the two men might be the same person because of their striking similarity. They have the same style of hair, long and tucked behind their ears, and they both wear a robe, though of different colour, that reaches the floor.

As in other Vermeer’s paintings, these two do not show any particular diversity in terms of style. They both continue to reveal the great ability of the painter to distribute harmoniously light and its effects. Furthermore, the compositions of interiors, in which the objects and the pictures-within pictures present again mysterious meanings, continue to produce elegance and a refined taste. However, one of the obvious aspects emerging from the observation of the geographer and the astronomer is that the main figures are represented by men and not by women, who are Vermeer’s favourite subjects in most of his interior scenes. Indeed, the dominant   preference for women has been explained by Gowing as a continual purpose of Vermeer to discover “in the definition of female shape the character of a monument in his art” [8]. Despite of that, probably, Vermeer’s choice of male pictures is connected with common stereotypes   in vogue at his time in which the man is considered the only one who is engaged in scientific enquiries about the understanding of the world and its mysteries. And it may be the interest in the scientific discoveries, prevalent in the seventeenth century, which has inspired Vermeer to represent through his paintings the sciences, as he   interpreted it.

For Arasse, «the real world of Vermeer’s pictures is the world the pictures themselves inhabit, a world of painting; and painting was, for him, an exact and specific activity»[9]. Then, within this activity Vermeer not only looks for his own pictorial structure, but he also attempts to deliver common topics with new perspectives as it happened with his women’s portraits. In fact, Vermeer’s women express an idea of femininity, especially emphasized by their introspective facial expression, which denies   ideological constructions of the female in vogue in Dutch domestic paintings. On the same line of thought, it can be conjectured that the pensive or absorbed face impressed on the two learned men render their reading difficult to be interpreted; one reason might be  the   way the elusiveness of their human expression is viewed that constitutes a complex aspect of understanding Vermeer’s thinking, even though the surface of his iconographic images is filled by typical motifs. Therefore, the aura of mystery, which falls upon the two academics, draws the viewers towards polysemic interpretations of what Vermeer may express through these two paintings. In other words, it is impossible to understand whether the two scholars mentally elaborate   scientific data taken from the external world or whether they are just momentary lost in thoughts and who simply contemplate the world from their room. Hence, their facial expressions are ambiguous.


Vermeer, The astronomer, 1668

Certainly, the perception of the world and the way this is elaborated seems to be seen by the majority of scholars as the main topic emerging from the   activity of the two   men.  The astronomer appears concentrated on observing the celestial globe, situated in front of him, while the geographer is holding a compass in order to measure the distances on cartographic maps. All this is executed with a deep mental engagement.  The absence of a physical interaction with the external world, even though the presence of globes, books, instruments and others would support the opposite view, gives the impression that the world outside is known by a mental survey, as Jonathan Crary sustains [10]. The two paintings seem to represent the Cartesian paradigm concerning the acquisition of the knowledge of the world. The latter is discovered, according to Descartes, by the perception of the mind: « ‘perception, or the action by which we perceive, is not a vision… but is solely an inspection by the mind’. […]  For Descartes, one knows the world ‘uniquely by perception of the mind’» [11].

The way the rooms are depicted through a particular atmosphere of isolation and intimacy and the rapt stillness of the two learned men suggest that the studies of geography and astronomy are dealt through «the autonomous individual ego that has appropriated to itself the capacity for intellectually mastering the infinite existence of bodies in space»[12]. In other words, the two learned men and their intimate rooms represent the idea of an inner eye in which a priori thoughts pass in review before they are brought up to the light.

libroThe intention of reporting this interpretation, which recognizes affinities between Vermeer and Descartes, is to reaffirm the fact that every detail of Vermeer’s paintings is open to wide layers of discourses. This “phenomenon” depends on many factors, as already said, such as the lack of narration, the complexity of reading interior scenes and the aura of mystery impressed on the subjects’ face. Given that, however, it seems that   the role of the intellect has a big part in all this.

The intellect, seen as lens, as a bridge between the objective and subjective[13] descriptions of the everyday reality and the external world, represented through objects, is the cause of viewing them differently. It is exactly the nature of perception, its way of being used (by the intellect) that leads Vermeer to establish his own way of visualizing things. Indeed, Robert D. Huerta believes that the particularity of Vermeer as a painter is that he is a “paradigm observer” [14]. In other words, Vermeer is seen as   a talented artist specialized in the field of observation and knowledge of optical views. For this reason, his canvases are used as painterly experiments in order to understand how the nature of the physical world is comprehended and described. «Paintings, like any other map, model, or scientific theory, were the creative product of man’s sight and imagination, of varied visual and mental constructs that allowed the exploration and description of new areas of reality»[15]. So, even for Huerta, as Arasse had argued, the originality of Vermeer is rooted in the way his pictorial compositions are visually   displayed.

Back to The Geographer and The Astronomer, the issue of their understanding concerns the same story: What is Vermeer trying to convey through these learned men? Once again, Vermeer leaves the viewers with questions as well as answers, since his personal view is beautifully hidden under his ability of eliminating the meanings of objects, subjects and picture within picture into a permanent state of   indeterminacy.

On the one hand, Crary finds in them similarities with the Cartesian theory of the pre-given acquisition of the knowledge of the world, on the other hand, Huerta sees in their gaze and the presence of maps, books and instruments, which surround them, an intense moment of elaborating the knowledge of the world through their mental process of seeing things differently. However, if these two paintings give the impression that Vermeer is deeply involved in new scientific and philosophical knowledge of the world at his time, for Klaas van Berkel the representation of science in Vermeer’s paintings, especially in The Astronomer, does not exactly represent the modern science: the representation of scientific revolution.

By 1668, when Vermeer painted The Astronomer, new scientific instruments were modelled. None of these are shown in his painting. Indeed, the Vermeer’s Astronomer does not represent «a real life astronomer – someone like Christiaan Huygens, who in 1656 had discovered the ring of Saturn with the aid of a telescope»[16] because his instruments are old. For example, the celestial globe has been identified as the globe by Jodocus Hondius, published in 1600; and it is also old the book on table, placed in front of the astronomer’s face, which is recognised as Adriaan Metius’s book edited in 1621. Moreover, the picture of Moses, hung on the right side of the room in the background, refers to a kind of knowledge of the world connected with Wisdom, the teaching of ancient Egypt or any other old civilization.  This type of world conveys hidden and cryptic meanings, governed by a high moral order, through which people should focus[17].  Therefore, all these factors lead Berkel to explain his main point. He thinks that Vermeer is trying to show two different aspects of science perceived in the seventeenth century: the science of facts, identified as Calculation, and the science of Wisdom, identified as Contemplation. As a result, he puts together these visions, without antithesis, since they are two elements of one world, in order to express his own idea of science as a painter, an outsider of the scientific knowledge.

libro2In the Geographer, the presence of cartographic materials all over the room indicates that the understanding of the external world captures the man.  The painting is full of technical objects. For example, on the right side of the room, a black framed map, a sea chart of Europe, is hung on the wall. As James A. Welu says, many numerous sea charts like that in Vermeer’s painting were used as guides as well as ornaments throughout the seventeenth century. Indeed, Vermeer utilized maps as interior decoration in four of his paintings. Furthermore, even in this painting there is a globe, identical to the terrestrial globe of Hondius (1600), placed on the top of a cabinet to the left side of the room. Interesting is also the depiction of an instrument held by the geographer, the cross-staff. «The cross- staffs were especially useful at sea where, in the seventeenth century, the celestial bodies were the sole means for determining latitude»[18]. For Welu, the Geographer and also the Astronomer represent the spirit of investigation that flourished in the Netherlands at Vermeer’s time. Vermeer not only shows his personal knowledge on scientific material, but he also demonstrates that the two paintings convey the   wonder and the excitement connected with the use of maps and globes during his period [19].

In conclusion, what makes all these interpretations interesting is that if, on the one hand, they all try to explain what kind of reality Vermeer   tries to express through his two paintings, on the other hand, the issue, emerging from this process of understanding Vermeer’s view of the world, is that any single interpretation reflects the viewer’s mental construction of the analysed images rather than Vermeer’s view. Therefore, if, as Huerta supports, the art for Vermeer is an instrument of knowing the reality in different perspectives, the “magic force” of Vermeer is determined by the fact   that the viewer is directed to see the reality through multiple views: and it is exactly at the act of observing that Vermeer’s reality dissolves in the reality of the viewer’s eye.

If the representation of the Astronomer does not correspond to the idea of scientific revolution because of the depiction of old technical tools, as Berkley sustains, in his real life Vermeer must have been strongly influenced and fascinated by the studies of the human vision.  This is what Huerta argument in his book Giants of the Delft. Indeed, he defines Vermeer as a fabricator or   philosopher of the vision.

What makes this book compelling is the attention of the author to the   affinities of scientific methods between Vermeer and the most illustrious scientists of his time. For example, the Leeuwenhoek’s concentric method of returning again and again to the same specimen by using the same procedure of analysis or the Huygens ’s technique of repetitive observations of the objects from different points of view suggest analogous attitudes by Vermeer in his work [20]. Whether he has or has not used the camera obscura, Vermeer seems to be very familiar with it. The ways his pictorial compositions are organized show the effects of viewing things through optical devices. The indeterminacy of the view and the elusiveness of the depicted world derive from his minutia research of transforming and finding new representations. If Vermeer’s interior scenes give the impression of stillness and monotony, his representations are, however, subjected to continuous changes and experiments of viewing the same expression of inner concentration, for example, as seen in the Geographer or in Woman Playing a Lute near a Window (1664) from a different perspective and tonality of light. Probably, the indeterminacy of Vermeer’s observation, which seems to be a significant aspect of his pictorial construction and conception of reality, directs viewers not to see reality as exactitude but as one of multiple expressions.

Dialoghi Mediterranei, n. 41, gennaio 2020
[*] Abstract
Vermeer possiede una notevole capacità nel rielaborare immagini di vita quotidiana in autentiche visioni originali ed uniche. E la sua caratteristica pittorica è quella di esaltare la quotidianità come poesia esistenziale. Nella prima parte, l’attenzione è diretta ai ritratti femminili, soprattutto al ritrovamento della loro bellezza in momenti incustoditi quasi un percorso di scene imperscrutabili. Le sue donne non sono stereotipate, riprodotte in gesti usuali come da consuetudine sociale e culturale. Al contrario, sono rappresentate per la loro femminilità intrinseca ed elusiva, di donne non convenzionali. Questa nuova prospettiva e percezione è unica, la sua arte ha seguito una sua logica, che non aveva riferimenti locali, sebbene il suo stile derivasse dalle influenze della tradizione artistica della scuola di Delft e di alcuni famosi pittori olandesi. Nella seconda parte, l’attenzione è invece focalizzata sui due dipinti: il geografo e l’astronomo. Il primo rappresenta uno studioso assorbito dal suo lavoro e dai suoi pensieri, posto accanto a una grande finestra, con il volto irradiato da un fascio di luce. L’altro dipinto ha per soggetto uno scienziato assorto in ricerche scientifico-speculative sulla comprensione del mondo e i suoi innumerevoli misteri irrisolti. Le rappresentazioni maschili di Vermeer non sono originali, rispecchiano gli stereotipi in voga al suo tempo in cui si attribuivano all’immagine maschile l’autorità e le facoltà intellettuali di esplorare il mondo esterno. Come sostiene Jonath Crary, i due dipinti sembrano rappresentare il paradigma cartesiano relativo all’acquisizione di elementi per la comprensione dell’universo.
[1] Liedtke Walter, Vermeer and the Delft School, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001: 161.
[2] Gowing Lawrence, Vermeer, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles, 1952: 28.
[3] Liedtke: 144.
[4] Wayne, E. Franits, Paragons of virtue: women and domesticity in seventeenth- century Dutch art, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, New York, 1995: 64.
[5] Arasse Daniel, Vermeer: faith in the painting, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1994: 36
[6] W. E Franits, Dutch Seventeenth-Century genre painting, Yale University press, New Haven and London 2004:  109
[7] Gowing, Vermeer: 54.
[8]  ibidem: .59.
[9] Arasse: 16.
[10] Crary Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1990: 43.
[11] Crary: 43.
[12] Ibidem: 47.
[13] Robert D. Huerta, Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the natural philosophers: the parallel search for knowledge during the age of discovery, Lewisburg: Bucknell ,University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 2003: 16.
[14] Ibidem: 71.
[15] Ibidem: 121.
[16] Berkel van Klaas, The scholarly world of Vermeer, Waanders, Zwolle. Museum van het boek/ Museum Meermanno- Westreenianum, The Hague, 1996): 23.
[17] Ibidem: 20.
[18] Welu James A., Vermeer: His Cartographic Sources, in “The Art Bulletin, Vol. 57, No. 4, Dec., 1975): 529-547, 544.
[19] Ibidem: 547.
[20] Huerta, Giant of Delft: 17, and an interview with Robert D. Huerta found at interviewers.


Paola Barbuzzi, laureatasi in filosofia all’Università di Bologna, dopo qualche anno di insegnamento di L2 a donne migranti, si è trasferita a Londra per frequentare dei master sui diritti umani e la medicalizzazione del corpo femminile. Stabilitasi da oltre un decennio nella capitale britannica, lavora con `NGOs sulla difesa dei diritti umani e la loro violazione, in modo specifico, sulle donne.
























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