Forget the romance: Vermeer was a modern artist

It's high time the artist was rescued from the Hollywood treatment in the film Girl with a Pearl Earring

Apart from the unheard of feat of marshalling more than a third of Jan Vermeer's known paintings, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, which opens at the National Gallery of Ireland on June 17th, does an excellent job of placing the artist in his cultural and historical context.

In the Netherlands of Vermeer’s time it was not solely, or even predominantly, the aristocracy or the church that commissioned and collected art. The emergence of a thriving merchant class encouraged the development of an art market that catered for their tastes. Contemporary visitors noted that paintings hung in shops, taverns and other commercial venues, as well as in private homes, and were traded like other commodities.

The market was competitive and economically challenging, with artists vying for custom. That meant they had to balance novelty with familiarity

It sounds like a template for a contemporary market economy. The market was competitive and economically challenging, with artists vying for custom. That meant they had to balance novelty with familiarity. Novelty to turn heads, familiarity so as not to lose their audience. If history painting still dominated the hierarchy of subject matter, genre, still life and landscape were often more portable and affordable. A painter identified with one genre or the other took a commercial risk by switching, so few did.

The materialistic character of the culture not only influenced an emergent view of paintings as speculative commodities but also affected their value. For example, the number of figures or objects depicted in a work, and the level of detail, influenced how much they were worth.


That was the world Vermeer lived in. Set against this the popular idea of the artist that dominates today. In pop-cultural representations Van Gogh is the perfect stereotype of the artist as tormented, misunderstood genius, outsider and rebel. It’s a notion that gained currency during the Romantic era, when subjectivity and emotional truth were given precedence over the rational values of the Enlightenment. It’s a view of the artist that has flourished in modernity.

Vermeer was given a Romantic makeover in Tracy Chevalier's novel Girl with a Pearl Earring, and the subsequent film adaptation starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth. One can see why Adriaan Waibour, the exhibition's curator, might want to relocate Vermeer and his work in the artist's own time and place.

As Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting demonstrates, however, the more you place Vermeer in his milieu the more he steps out of it. He worked within an evolving set of technical and genre conventions, but in the company of his contemporaries he stands apart in ways that give his work an extraordinarily fresh, modern character and appearance. Modern is not necessarily good, but substitute timeless for modern and you get a sense of Vermeer's achievement.

We are used to seeing images as mediated by the camera lens, and it is generally agreed that Vermeer, who lived at a time of dramatic advances in optical science, used some form of optical apparatus in creating his paintings. Exactly what or how is still a contentious subject, partly because there is a misconception that the use of optical aids in some way diminishes the quality of his achievement, that it is cheating.

Whatever Vermeer's methodology, he managed to create painted images that are subtly but unmistakably unlike anything preceding them

That is simply mistaken. In his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters David Hockney documents a personal exploration of the history of artists' use of optical devices. He argues that "from the early 15th century many Western Artists used optics – by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two) – to create living projections". Whatever Vermeer's methodology and optics, he managed to create painted images that are subtly but unmistakably unlike anything preceding them.

Vermeer conveys a sense of great precision and detail by deftly sidestepping both. The impetus towards finer and finer detail is clear in the painting of his time. It hinges on drawing, because you can keep drawing to an indefinite level of precision. But that is not how we usually see things, just as we do not see outlines. Vermeer expressly avoided the prevalent use of black outlines, to the point that he could leave “ambiguous contours, which he rendered at times with fine gaps exposing underpaint between the forms”, or by deliberately blurring the division by dragging paint from one form into another.

These may seem like minor technical points, but they were radical and inspired, and indicate a painter of consummate ability and independence. In their comparative analysis of materials and techniques E Melanie Gifford and Lisha Deming Glinsman also describe how artists adapted each other's technical tropes and tricks. Several clearly paid attention to Vermeer, whose virtuosic wet-into-wet painting, "broad handling and soft detail" were difficult to emulate, although some did try.

Comparing contemporary versions of a straightforward, popular subject, a lacemaker at work, Blaise Ducos notes the differences between Vermeer and his peers. Whereas Caspar Netscher "ties himself in knots in his search for hyper-realism", Vermeer "chooses to render his forms unstable, even sometimes problematic". Comparatively speaking, he also crops the image drastically, drawing us into the woman's concentrated labour. Several commentators have remarked on the "abstraction" of later Vermeer, where details dissolve into smears and blobs yet miraculously cohere in the overall image.

Beyond technique, the psychological qualities of Vermeer's work transcend his time

Beyond technique, the psychological qualities of Vermeer's work transcend his time. The communal, anecdotal narratives of genre painting, often delivered with heavy, nudge-nudge emphasis, coexisted with individual subjects, but Vermeer advanced this latter motif into new terrain. The Polish essayist Zbigniew Herbert wrote that a French traveller "noted with surprise that 600 guldens were asked for a painting by Vermeer that represented only one person".

One person was Vermeer’s preferred subject. Time and again he is drawn to present to us a person completely absorbed in their task, their discipline, their passion, their world. It is a notion that was gaining currency in his time and remains true and invaluable in ours. Vermeer is, extraordinarily, a painter of our time as he was of his own.