Classical Culture, Modern Culture & Reviews

Vermeer and His Contemporaries: The Golden Age of Dutch Painting

Figure 1. Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1671-74

As the Dutch East India Company established its empire around the globe, painters of the Dutch Golden Age examined the interiors—intimate spaces in the home, and of the human heart and mind.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

October 22, 2017 – January 21, 2018

by Bonnie James

Like many of you, and thousands of others, I saw the blockbuster 1995 National Gallery exhibition, simply titled, “Johannes Vermeer,” which brought together, for the first time in the U.S., 21 of the 17th Century Dutch master’s entire oeuvre of 35 works. It was an unforgettable experience for many who perhaps had never before visited an art museum.

Now, “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting,” an exhibition that opened Oct. 22 at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, in some ways recalls that earlier Vermeer extravaganza, but this new exhibit is unique; it may be the most pedagogically effective presentation the Gallery has ever mounted. It takes for its theme the close artistic relationships among a group of leading Netherlandish painters of the 17th Century—the “Golden Age” of the Dutch Republic—and presents them in such a way that those relationships, and the differences among them, are strikingly vivid. Today, we might be more likely to see the “borrowings” among these artists as a form of plagiarism; however, that would be a misreading of the process of creation that informed these works. Indeed, we find the same process all over the world of Classical music.

For Classical composers, as for painters, a new artistic idea is a form of discovery. So, when one composer copies and uses an idea from an earlier composer, what is actually being demonstrated is that the discovery had implications which went beyond its initial expression. At the end of this review, I have appended two such examples—Mozart/Haydn and Beethoven/Mozart (thanks to the contribution of my husband, a serious amateur musician)–which make the case clear for music. Here, we will make the case for the painters under discussion.

The National Gallery presents some 65 masterpieces, among which are 12 by Johannes Vermeer; 15 by Gerard ter Borch, and 9 by Gerrit Dou. It is worth noting that an earlier contemporary, Rembrandt van Rijn cast a long creative shadow over this group, and was the teacher of Dou.

As the news release accompanying the exhibition notes, “[T]ravel across The Netherlands was relatively easy at the time with the country’s efficient infrastructure of roads and canals. Artists would have been able to make short journeys to visit painters’ studios as well as the homes of collectors and art dealers. There are also specific instances of contact between artists such as cosigned documents, as with Vermeer and Ter Borch; a few known teacher-student relationships, including Dou and [Frans] Van Mieris; and anecdotes—for example, that [Jan] Steen and Van Mieris were reputedly drinking buddies.”

What is known as the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age, was the product of two things: the wealth extracted from its colonies, and the large number of immigrants who flocked to the country, as religious minorities fled the oppression of Catholic Europe. The wealth taken from its colonies by the world’s first multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Company, which spanned the globe from Asia, to South Africa, the Americas, and Europe, made The Netherlands rich and powerful.

In addition to the mass migration of people from the Catholic Southern Netherlands, there was also significant migration of refugees into the relatively tolerant Northern Netherlands, including the Sephardic Jews fleeing religious persecution from Portugal and Spain, and later, French Hugenots. The resulting “melting pot” of cultures contributed to the upsurge of creativity in the sciences and arts. Once-small ports like Amsterdam became hubs of trade and culture, where all manner of products, luxury goods and spices, as well as art, were bought and sold. The artists we will be discussing below were both the beneficiaries and instrumentalities of this great cultural transformation.

This exhibition presents paintings in groups of two, three, or four, organized by the subject being depicted, e.g., music, science, letter-writing, intimate interiors, and even questions of mortality.


If we look at Figure 1, we see a young woman seated at a keyboard, known as a Virginal, by Vermeer (1632-75). The heavy drapery is pulled back to reveal an intimate scene, and the young woman, interrupted in her playing, turns to see who has entered. The outsize bass viol in the foreground serves both to partially separate her space from the visitor’s while her glance says that we may gingerly enter; the viol seems to beckon us to pick up the instrument, sit down in the chair just behind it, and accompany the young woman.

Vermeer, who has been dubbed “The Sphinx of Delft,” because so little is known about his life, achieved modest success as a painter in his lifetime, but was largely forgotten for the following 200 years. It was not until the late 19th Century that he was rescued from obscurity, and restored to his rightful place as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Today, there are only 35 paintings that are attributed to him by most art historians; yet despite the small number of his known works, which combine a spiritual stillness with subtle motion, these light-filled, beautifully crafted masterpieces are among the most beloved artworks of all time.

Figure 2. Astronomer by Candlelight, Gerrit Dou, c. 1665
Figure 3. The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer, 1668


Reflecting the age’s intense interest, and participation, in the scientific revolution that was taking place in the 17th Century, and spurred by the Netherlands’ maritime economy and the wonders its ships brought back from its far-flung empire, Dutch artists of the period relished depicting these scientific pursuits. In each of the two works reproduced here (Figures 2 and 3), by Gerrit Dou and Johannes Vermeer, we see a man, identified as an astronomer, employing the meticulously rendered instruments of his craft, but beyond that, the two artists treat the subject in quite different ways.

In Dou’s Astronomer, painted roughly three years before Vermeer’s, a young man studies by candlelight, presumably deeply engaged in his work, long after the Sun has set. The image is rendered in a striking chiaroscuro, a clear nod to his apprenticeship with Rembrandt, which allows him to draw our attention to the candlelit face of the young scientist and the accoutrements of his profession. The deep darkness surrounding him and extending into the infinite space beyond and above suggests that the light of science will drive out the darkness of ignorance and superstition. Another feature of this beautiful work is Dou’s signature use of trompe l’oeil, making it appear that his astronomer is leaning on a table that extends into the viewer’s space, bringing us directly in contact with him.

Vermeer’s Astronomer, was done about three years after Dou’s, while clearly borrowing substantially from the earlier work, also departs in significant ways. His Astronomer is one of a pair with his Geographer (not shown here), and one of his rare depictions of a single male subject. Among the objects depicted are a planispheric astrolabe, placed in front of the celestial globe, but half hidden by the sumptuous rug that spills over the edge of the table; a copy of a book by Adriaan Metius on astrolabes, and a Jacob’s staff, an instrument used at sea to measure the height of stars; it’s jutting out from the heavy carpet, in front of the open book. All of these carefully rendered details serve to identify the subject of the painting, but what is most arresting is the intensity of the astronomer’s thought process, highlighted by the warm sunlight cast from the stain-glass window, as he leans forward, his outstretched hand reaching for the sphere: We can almost see his thoughts come to life.

Letter Writing

Depictions of letter writing, especially of young women (although there are a few men as well), abound in Dutch paintings of this period, no doubt because their men were out to sea, in the extensive trade and exploration voyages then taking place.

Figure 4. Woman Writing a Letter, Gerard ter Borch, c. 1655-56

The earliest known portrayal of a woman writing a letter is Gerard ter Borch’s painting by that name from 1655-56. Ter Borch (1617-81), was arguably the most influential among this group of artists; his paintings dominate the National Gallery show (there are 15 of them), as they did the art world in his time (with the undisputed exception of Rembrandt, who was 11 years his senior, and by the 1630s had established himself in Amsterdam). Ter Borch’s father, Gerard the Elder, was a glassmaker, and a painter in his own right; he was Gerard’s first teacher, had travelled to Rome, where he had imbibed the lessons of the Italian Renaissance, and encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps. Gerard, who hailed from Zwolle, was by far the most traveled among his contemporaries, throughout The Netherlands and beyond; he visited Rome, Naples, Madrid (where he saw the paintings of Velásquez, and painted a portrait of the King of Spain), France, Münster, and Brussels.

Another exceptionally creative member of the ter Borch family was Gerard’s half-sister Gesina, an artist and poet in her own right, and his favorite model; she appears in a number of his paintings in this exhibit (see Figure 4). By the age of 17, she had begun to copy, write, and illustrate poems, songs, and literature, and was reportedly enthralled by Petrarch’s poetry. In this example, ter Borch portrays Gesina, as she leans over a letter she is writing, in deep concentration. We can surmise that this is a love letter by the alluring appearance of the young woman, and the large covered bed just visible behind her. Our eyes are immediately drawn to a brilliantly colored Oriental rug (see also Figure 3), draped over the corner of her table, a reminder of the Netherlands’ vast reach across the globe.

Figure 5. Lady Writing, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665-67

In Vermeer’s Lady Writing (Figure 5), our letter-writer has also been interrupted, but unlike ter Borch’s subject, she turns to look directly at the viewer (or intruder), with a half-smile, suggesting that she might be pleased to see us. Unlike the image of Gesina, who appears in an even, subdued lighting, Vermeer’s lady is bathed in a soft light from an unseen window; it falls on her forehead, her left hand, and the pearl necklace she has placed on the table beside the letter she is writing. Her ermine-trimmed, pale yellow jacket is itself the color of sunlight, and you can almost feel the softness of the velvet-like fabric. This is a sensuous image, but more emphatically, one which celebrates the beauty of the mind.


Figure 6. Woman Weighing Coins, Pieter de Hooch, c. 1664
Figure 7. Woman with a Balance, Johannes Vermeer, 1664

In Woman Weighing Coins (Figure 6), Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) portrays a woman engaged in daily activity, weighing gold and silver coins, within an interior whose brilliant primary colors capture our attention. She is engrossed in her work; her face is largely hidden by her cap. Hers is a well-to-do home, as evidenced by the thick Persian rug pushed aside to make room on the table, the elaborately decorated chair, her silk and ermine jacket, and the gilded leather wall covering behind her. The open window lets in the light and air; while through an open door behind her we can make out another room. De Hooch shows us a workaday activity in an affluent household, where women were often responsible for economic affairs of the family.

Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance (Figure 7) bears striking similarities to the de Hooch work painted around the same time (although it is not known for sure whether they ever met, yet they must have known each other’s work). Each depicts a woman weighing coins, and the compositions are similar. However, beyond these superficial similarities, we find in the Vermeer, using nearly identical “props,” a far more profound narrative.

In the Vermeer, the quiet of the domestic interior and its everyday concerns is fused with the question of the meaning of mortal existence. A large painting of The Last Judgement on the wall behind the young woman tells us that there is something spiritual, beyond earthly affairs, that we are invited to take part in.

As in the de Hooch, Vermeer’s woman holds a balance in her right hand, used for weighing coins to determine their monetary value. Both women are illuminated by the light coming in from a window on the wall opposite. But, in the Vermeer, the diffused sunlight from the window creates an ethereal quality. The young woman’s expression is pensive; she is caught, both physically and metaphorically, between the scale she holds and the figure of Christ Enthroned directly above her head. His figure is surrounded by an oval shaped halo of light, which finds an echo in the shape of her head, and its halo-like covering.

Placed on the table before her are the coins to be weighed, and a jewelry box, from which strands of pearls and gold spill out; these are the things of this world; she is contemplating their worth, as against the eternal treasures represented in The Last Judgement. We see her measuring and weighing, in her mind’s eye, their relative value, and we may conclude that she will know how to correctly judge. Thus, with this simple composition, Vermeer invites us to participate in the search for immortality.


Note: Sharing of Ideas among Musical Masters

Listen to the last movement of Mozart’s great “Jupiter” Symphony, composed in 1788:

And now compare it to the brief, but totally rigorous, double fugue which forms the last movement of Franz Josef Haydn’s Third Symphony, composed in 1762 (when Mozart, later a pupil of Haydn, was only six years old):

Again, listen to the opening of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, composed in 1800:

and compare it to the opening of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #24 (in the same key) which Beethoven had so much admired as a youth:

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