Johannes Vermeer at the Louvre…



By Charlotte Le Grix de la Salle
Translated by Brianna Reed


Vermeer – Musée du Louvre

Can light have a morality? Or rather virtue, like silence, a way of enveloping living beings and objects to reveal what’s hidden, or even divine?

Thanks to Vermeer, we are familiar with and can recognize chiaroscuros, the shine of a pearl, the tilted head of a woman, or a window from whence evanescent clarity comes. In attending to the bareness of decor, the peacefulness of everyday life, subdued intimacy, and the shine of two or three small details, Vermeer appears the genius. What’s more, he is one of the most notable Dutch masters, the “Sphinx of Delft” who, from his birth to the time of his death, would only produce about 40 paintings.

Johannes Vermeer (Delft 1632-1675)
A woman sitting at a virginal Londres, The National

So, having learned that, out of the 36 of his remaining works in the world, 12 are collected in the Louvre, one would expect that these 12 masterpieces would be fabulously staged. The Milkmaid for example, loaned specially for just three months from the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam, was prominently and centrally positioned just like the Mona Lisa. This despite the impediments prompted by the risky and sly approach of exhibit curators who worked for six full years to effectively drown the Vermeers in a sea of works by Gérard Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Caspar Netscher and even Frans van Mieris.


Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, Paris, The Louvre Museum, Painting Department
Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer, Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut

Who are these artists? They were Vermeer’s contemporaries who, at the end of the 17th century, became handsomely paid specialists of the precious “genre scene” that put forth idealized representations of powerful individuals’ private lives. These paintings place the viewer right in the subject’s house and allows them to partake functions such as the woman at her dressing table, writing a love letter, feeding parrots or even attending a doctor’s visit. In each painting there is a surprising similarity in the moment chosen, the context, the characters’ postures, and the minute details. One would almost believe they had been plagiarized.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten, Dutch Interior (« The Slippers »), Paris, The Louvre Museum
Jan Steen, Woman at her dressing table, London, Royal Collection Trust ©Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

It’s often forgotten that these artists knew each other, were in correspondence, and even in competition, with one another while painting on-command. Vermeer was part of this network; he was one of them.


Samuel Van Hoogstraten, The slippers (« Les Pantoufles »), Paris, The Louvre Museum
Jan Steen, A woman at her Toilet, Londres, Royal Collection Trust ©Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen
Elizabeth II 2016

For each one of these extraordinarily similar and refined scene alignments, the impact on the viewer remains the same. However, the Vermeer breaks away from the pattern and catches the viewer’s eye, entrancing them. The painting’s small size that transports the viewer into the recesses of intimacy is also the same—the refinement of each stroke is identical, the pose just as elegant. Yet, there is a certain mystery as well as dramaturgy. We see it through a fold in a curtain, a veiling, the hem of a sleeve—the white that Vermeer uses gives these details a particular gleam. The details are wonderful simply because the artist has eliminated all other details. He has stripped certain colors—the precious, glossy, shiny, colors whose disappearance favors only the dull, matte, and subdued colors. Gold and crimson abandoned for blue-greys and ochres. The blurry skin on the characters bathes the bodies in a sort of softness.

And then, the light movement of the hand, the surprised look or even a back that’s a little bent: Vermeer captured one singular moment, but it is obvious that something is going to happen.

Is this pending metamorphosis, as implied by a number of experts, a call for recollection, a path towards spirituality? We can start by simply seeing the sublime as it is depicted in these paintings.

Charlotte Le Grix de la Salle

Vermeer – The Louvre Museum

Vermeer and the masters of genre painting

From February 22, 2017 to May 22, 2017

Exhibit Catalogue

Vermeer and the masters of genre painting

Under the direction of Adriaan E. Waiboer, Blaise Ducos, and Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Co-edition Louvre Museum Editions / Somogy Art Editions.

Exhibition catalogue
Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting
Edited by Adriaan E. Waiboer, Blaise Ducos, and Arthur
K. Wheelock Jr.
Co-published by Musée du Louvre Éditions and Somogy Éditions d’Art. 448 pages, 300 illustrations, €39


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