Exhibition visit – Vermeer

Vermeer And The Masters Of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry – National Gallery of Ireland.

Exhibition of works by Johannes Vermeer as well as some contemporaries – ter Borch, van Mieris and Metsu. The main crux of the exhibition is the sharing, pinching, inspiring and general inter-linking of works by flemish painters of the time. Poses, themes etc were worked on by the painters within a very short space of time from each other. Paintings depict family scenes, with the glancing of ‘private moments’ of young women.

I went to see the Caravaggio exhibition a few months ago and they had taken the same approach – a few exhibits by the star act, and then a few associated pieces. The Caravaggio exhibition felt padded out – this didn’t. There seemed a real reason for the theme, for the pieces there, for the non-Vermeer works. OK, it was Vermeers name on the side of buses, highlighted to sell the tickets, but the others works were pertinent.

We don’t learn an awful lot about Vermeer in the notes – maybe we were supposed to buy the catalogue – I didn’t. He was born in the city of Delft in the Netherlands – according to Google. Generally he started by painting religious, allegorical works, but as with the other dutch painters, this moved towards depicting domestic scenes. The exhibition shows how each artist painted ‘in reply’ to earlier works by other Dutch painters. It shows Vermeer’s Woman With A Pearl Necklace as being based on van Mieris’ Woman Before A Mirror, which itself was based on ter Borch’s Young Woman At Her Toilet With A Maid – so we see the relationship and intertwining of themes and ideas in 17th Century Dutch art. Like I said, they seem to have had no problem about taking a theme/ structure/ title of a contemporary and making it there own – within months of each other. Would we have a problem with doing that today? I think so. Even in our course notes we make a point of ’emulation’ – we don’t accept it as quite usual, it needs highlighting.

I made some notes as I walked through the exhibition – I looked at the pieces as lessons for my photography. As I have said before, I carry a small notebook around with me all the time and scribble. Here are some of those notes.

  • Scenes from every day life – woman with parrot – how many people had a parrot in everyday life. Its quite a specific view of every day life.
  • Contrasts between light and dark are strong across canvas, and though they appear fairly realistic, I think are overly emphasised for drama.
  • Vermeer’s light is better than the others. Subtle colour schemes. Always geometric shapes. Soft light. High contrast.
  • Notes talk about ‘natural light’ – but it is really the ‘construction’ of natural light. The created drama of apparently natural light. There is a softness to the shadow – but also a dark to light that though possible is not that common. There is usually a ‘dark’ corner.
  • Plain but not flat backgrounds. Laying of tome/ shade gives background variations, but doesn’t distract. Often everything bar figure is geometric – shadows, light, walls, doors, tables – all create a boxy, geometric plain, into which sits the variable of the figure. There is an abstract quality throughout the geometric plain.

I went as part of our new photo study group we have started for OCA in Ireland. Self-motivated, and led by one of the students – go him. We have been to a couple of exhibitions now, and a chat afterwards.

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