Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, on now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is a gorgeous exhibit showcasing over 70 paintings by Dutch masters of the Golden Age, including 10 by Johannes Vermeer (There are only 34 paintings universally attributed to Vermeer; it’s rare to see so many in one spot).
The exhibit explores the exchange that often occurs between rival artists as they try to out-do each other. Gerard Ter Borch starts painting young women engaging in domestic activities. Gabriel Metsu adds more story. Vermeer brings the viewer in closer and makes the moments more intimate. Each painting in this exhibit is like a line of dialogue furthering the same conversation.
If you’re interested in the way rival artists often play off of each other and drive each other toward greatness, this is a must-see exhibit.
But even though this EXACT topic is a serious obsession of mine (after all, I wrote a novel about the artistic rivalry between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo), I walked away from this exhibit consumed by a different thought.
Why was it so easy for me to identify which paintings were by Vermeer — and which ones were NOT — even from across the room?
These paintings are all very similar, almost all domestic scenes of women engaging in mundane duties (there’s a room dedicated to paintings of men, too). Yet, when I saw one, I KNEW in an instant which ones were by Vermeer and which ones weren’t.
Since there are only 34 Vermeers in the world, you might assume that I recognized them all. But I’m not an obsessed Vermeer fan (YET). I don’t pretend to have every one of his paintings memorized (YET).
So what makes them stand out?
What makes me — and countless other people around the world — so drawn to his work?
What makes a Vermeer a Vermeer?
I can give you the art historical answer: Vermeer uses specific light sources (usually sun streaming in through a single window) and creates carefully constructed straight lines and angles to crisply divide up the picture plane; his scenes are intimate, his brushstrokes fluid, yet capture precise details… I could go on with a list that would serve you quite well if you were taking an art history exam and would — indeed — help you accurately identify a Vermeer.
But I’m not really talking about that.
I’m talking about this: what is it about a Vermeer that makes us love him? What is it about his work that makes us latch onto him? Jan Steen is wonderful artist, but he’s not exactly a household name, is he? Why? And can part of the answer be found in this strange, strong reaction I had: That’s a Vermeer. That’s NOT a Vermeer?
I’m sure our global Vermeer attraction does have something to do with some specific mix of light and composition and brushstroke and design and color and expression… but, honestly, my reaction seemed more visceral — less logical — than that.
Is it because his work is familiar? That’s a common argument for the Mona Lisa: she’s famous because she’s famous; we’re comforted by her because we recognize her. I don’t agree with that argument, by the way, and I don’t think it’s what’s going on with Vermeer. Like I said, I don’t know every Vermeer. They weren’t all famous or familiar to me. And yet — every single Vermeer moved me.
I can also spot a Van Gogh from across a room. A Rembrandt, an O’Keeffe, a Picasso, a Monet, a Michelangelo (okay, I do have all of those memorized, but BEFORE I knew them all — when I was just 19 — I could still spot Michelangelo anywhere, anytime). And I bet you can spot most of these artists, too, even if you don’t have any art historical training, just like you recognize Michael Jackson or Adele or Bruno Mars or Beyoncé whenever they come on the radio.
What makes an artist an artist?
I tried to come up with some pithy answer for the sake of this blog post. But I can’t. And I’m tired of trying to push my heart into some rational thought.
But I hope you go to this exhibit and explore the feeling for yourself. It’s a perfect place to ask: what makes every artist unique? How does one differentiate from others? What gives us our VOICE?
If you do figure it out, please let me know. Because maybe if I knew what made a Vermeer a Vermeer, I could apply it to myself and maybe help others find their Vermeerness, too.
But maybe that’s the beauty of great art: none of us know why we love it.
We just know.
Yes, that’s definitely a Vermeer.
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry
On now through January 21, 2018
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
West Building, Main Floor
As always, the National Gallery and its exhibits are free