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Of all the Dutch masters, why is Vermeer still so relevant for so many people?

For many, the art world can be seen as a daunting, overtly intellectual space. What is it then that allows lay-persons to cross that divide from ignorance to aficionado? A trip to a gallery as a child? A TV documentary? For many it seems to be a certain artist, whose work, to use the overly-used phrase, ‘speaks’ to them and acts as a bridge into art.

After asking around, among fellow art-historians and general admirers, one such artist who seems to have a particular appeal is Johannes Vermeer. Visiting the National Gallery’s recent exhibition on the theme of ‘Vermeer and Music’ I began to wonder why this relatively non-prolific painter has had such a great impact -Scarlett Johansson movies aside- on so many.

The exhibition itself offered a fantastic insight into the history of Dutch genre paintings, exploring the themes which unite the style. Love, sex, music, and the everyday are merged into one great movement of 17th century art. The Dutch painters of the time manage, in their various works, to capture the essence of real life in their painting. When we consider the rest of the world’s response to the Baroque, the mythic images of Caravaggio or the Arcadian works of Poussin, it comes as no surprise that Vermeer’s timeless paintings can be related to a lot more by the viewer. Today we can look at these fairly muted images of kitchens, dinner parties and backstreets and truly appreciate each figure for what they may be thinking or feeling. Although awe-inspiring or beautiful, frolicking satyrs and ancient gods do not have the same allure to the viewer as the lowly, simple and real images that the Dutch have provided us with.

The crowning glory of the exhibition is The Guitar Player, on loan currently from the collection at Kenwood House, presented with A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Woman Seated at a Virginal, shown as a three-piece for the first, and possibly last, time. The Guitar Player shows an almost frivolous young woman, looking out of the painting, happily strumming to herself.

In a very interesting segment on the history of the guitar a parallel is brought between the guitar’s sound and that of Satan; new music corrupting the youth of the 17th century. This, for many in, say, the 1950s and 60s may strike a certain chord, transcending Vermeer’s time by addressing that all too familiar theme of youthful rebellion. Even the casual flirtatious glance to just out of our view seems to tell us that we are voyeurs looking into a private boudoir. There are the more referenced analogies between music and the sexual and bawdy side of 17th century life, and this could well be the core of the allure of the art of Vermeer. There is something about the everyday lives and passions of the sitters in Vermeer’s art which has a certain draw; the parties, the sex, the music; these are the things which we can all feel part of. There is talent and mastery in many of the old masters, but when it comes to art for the people, it is very rare to find a master such as Vermeer when truly winning over the likes of you and me.

The tagline of the exhibition in London was ‘The Art of Love and Leisure’, and for me this is something which sums up perfectly the draw of this great artist. Vermeer is one who managed to take perfectly normal, everyday life and make any milkmaid as beautiful as any Classical goddess. This stripping bare of his subjects means that not only can we see something of our own lives in the art, but we can access 17th century art in a way that doesn’t seem intellectual or ‘arty’, but familiar and, arguably most importantly, easy.


Patrick Campbell


Image Credit: National Gallery Online Archive