Artibus et Historiae no. 84 (XLII)

2021, ISSN 0391-9064

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ARTHUR K. WHEELOCK JR - Vermeer becoming Vermeer (pp. 307–331)

The exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, held in Paris, Dublin, and Washington in 2017–2018, demonstrated multiple thematic and compositional connections in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and his contemporaries. Telling groupings of comparable works showed that Dutch high-end genre painters from the latter part of the seventeenth century knew each other’s works, which they often emulated and sought to surpass. Inadvertently, however, despite the exhibition’s underlying premise that thematic and stylistic similarities connected these works, the overwhelming response to the presentation was that Vermeer’s paintings are different. They are more compelling and have a gravitas not found in the paintings of others. The exhibition demonstrated that Vermeer created his genre paintings with a different mindset than his contemporaries.

Unfortunately, a full understanding Vermeer’s goals and aspirations will probably never be found. In this essay, I have taken two different approaches to broaden the discussion. The first is to postulate about the nature of Vermeer’s instruction. The second approach is to introduce a wider network of individuals that Vermeer might have known during his formative years than those traditionally mentioned, which are primarily family members, artists, and collectors. This expanded network includes members of Delft’s community of scientists, astronomers, and surveyors who were vitally interested in examining and discovering the nature of the world about them. The questions these individuals investigated likely informed Vermeer’s quest to create carefully proportioned, mathematically structured, and light-filled images.

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