Vermeer, Master of the Light
I hail from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., which is why BRP has a bit of a southern twang to it. Growing up within a stone’s throw from DC was great if you, like me, love the visual arts. DC offers a smorgasbord of great art museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the NGA’s East Wing, the Phillips collection, the Hirshorn, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Women in the Arts, and the specialty Asian collections of the Freer and the Sackler. Oh yeah, and the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art, the Kreeger, and Hillwood’s remarkable Russian collection. And you know what’s best about these museums? If you think I’m going to say their world-class collections, well, you are correct.
But in a close second is that most of them are FREE. Regular readers know that BRP loves FREE. I think it’s really nice of the American taxpayer to fund these institutions even though most of them will never trek through these spaces. I hit them over and over again when I lived there, and still go frequently when I am in town. What a nice taxpayer-funded gift to the residents of the 5 richest counties in America that surround the District of Columbia.
Anyway, even the special exhibitions are free at most of these institutions. And there is a very special exhibition that is on right now at the National Gallery of Art: Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry. I love the Dutch Masters, and not just their cheap-ass cigars. Vermeer is at the top of DM heap, an innovator and master of lighting in his paintings. He's the third from the left in the picture below:
While not solely focused on Vermeer, the exhibit features 10 of his paintings. That’s amazing as there are only about 35 confirmed Vermeers that exist in the world. If you like Vermeer, you better get in your car and point it down I-95 because this is money in the bank. The show focuses on paintings from the mid-1650s to around 1680, when there was some serious competition ongoing in the DM circles, particularly around genre painting (genre = art curator smug talk for depictions of daily life). I like that these painting don’t focus on religious themes, but instead show scenes in household spaces of rich ladies and gentlemen. It’s very cool and was among the most striking innovations of Dutch painting of the Golden Age when the tiny Netherlands briefly was a world superpower.
In all, there are almost 70 works by Vermeer and his fellow painters, including Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Frans van Mieris, Caspar Netscher, and Jan Steen, who lived in various towns throughout Holland. The show does a great job of comparing and contrasting paintings whether they are related by theme or motif or composition. It highlights how the artists were aware of each other’s work, and how they used this knowledge to further inspire and push their own artistic output. The result is nothing short of fantastic.
I must tell you that I have struggled with Vermeer at times. Sometimes I thought that he simply used an artistic technique of luminosity perfected by modern hacks like Thomas Kincaid, but after seeing this show, it’s clear that Vermeer was in a league of his own. His paintings are placed directly next to those of the other artists and show similar subjects or compositions. Yet the Vermeer’s demonstrate a mastery of light and technique that elevate his paintings to another level. And believe me, the other artists’ on display here were amazingly good in their own right.
The exhibition is crowded as you would expect. On a recent Sunday, we hit it about 15 minutes after the museum opened, and still stood in a decent-sized line to enter. The paintings are small, and some of our fellow art lovers took that as an invitation to stand mere inches away from the paintings so that they could scrutinize each work. Maybe that is cool in your private spaces, but when your head is blocking the view of all the other people who are accompanying you in your tour of the show, that’s called being rude and uncool. It was most satisfying for me to take one selfish patron’s head and simply smash it right into one the Vermeers, breaking the viewer’s nose and setting off a terrific alarm and scene. OK, that didn’t really happen, but man, it would have been pleasing if it had.
Other than the scourge of the fatheads, everything else was a solid achievement. The exhibition is well laid out, has a very informative and detailed FREE booklet describing the various paintings, and it is housed in the beautiful space of the NGA West Wing, which was decorated for the holidays. It doesn’t get much better than that. If you are thinking “maybe I should go and see this show,” stop thinking and start acting. It’s only on until January 21, and the opportunity to see this many Vermeers in one place in the US - and did I mention it’s FREE? - is simply too good to pass up. It’s like the show of Greek bronzes that the NGA put on about a year ago: world class, comprehensive, and FREE.
I’ll be back to the music soon enough. Or maybe not. I have a couple of picture-heavy things to show you soon (but I’ll sprinkle in appropriate accompanying music) that I have been saving for the cold months of winter. I hope you are staying warm wherever you are, and remember that the days are already getting longer and the sweet sounds and smells of spring will return soon enough. Hey, pitchers and catchers report in about 6 more weeks. Hang in there. In the meantime, BRP will keep you warm. Pull up here next to the fire and cuddle in with me. Mmmm, that’s better.
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My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.