Early clumsy Vermeers show hints of brilliance
An exhibition of only three paintings shows Vermeer's genius as well as his foul-ups.
Johannes Vermeer was not the only 17th-century painter who depicted the
biblical story of Christ visiting the house of Martha and Mary. Many
paintings of those days show what seems to be an orgy in its early stages,
with oxen being led out and partridges, guinea fowl, peacocks and rabbits
hanging from the ceiling like drapes. There are baskets, cupboards, dishes
stuffed with artichokes, asparagus, oranges, peaches and other fruits.
Painters proved their mastery by going all out on the food. The people
central to the story were a nothing more than an excuse.
It is important to know this contemporary context when looking at the early work of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), now on display at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, which already has Vermeer's View of Delft and Girl with a Pearl Earing on permanent display. His 1654/1655 Christ in the House of Martha and Mary is one of three paintings in a special exhibition of the Dutch painter's earlier work. Unlike his colleagues, Vermeer painted the scene as if it were a sober still life. Not the food Martha may have served is its main subject matter, but the threesome comprising Christ, Mary and Martha, the light, the textures of linnen, bread and skin. He painted an almost translucent white head scarf, a shadowy face that stands out against a loose tablecloth, a glance. This early work consists of elements of contemplation and serenity that are quintessential to Vermeer's later work, which no longer depicted biblical tales, but focused on introvert portraits and atmospheric cityscapes, such as the View of Delft dated circa 1660.
Vermeer wanted to be famous
The Mauritshuis already owned one of the early Vermeers and got the other on loan from Edinburgh and Dresden. They were all painted soon after Vermeer registered with the Delft master painters' guild at age 21, and have before never been on display together. Two have been very elegantly restored, with colours so bright one can't keep one’s eyes off them. But all three are odd. Not just because their canvasses are much larger than those Vermeer used later in his career, but also because of their subjects and his occasionally clumsy way of painting.
This stands out most in the earliest piece: Diana and her Nymphs (1653/1654), which is part of the Mauritshuis’ collection. It is the only known Vermeer depicting a mythological scene. Presumably, the young artist wanted to show his skill at a so-called historical piece. In the 17th century, historical painting was held in greater esteem than still-life painting, and Vermeer wanted to be famous. He dipped his brush in yellow ochre, violet, blue, brown and green with great enthusiasm, but fouled up more than once. It is touching to see what a difficult time he had painting breasts, backs and hands. Diana's breasts seem to be growing from her collar-bones, the rock on which she and her company rest looks more like a laundry basket than a rock, as curator Edwin Buijsen wrote in the catalogue. Yet there are fragments of the later Vermeer in the light reflected by a bowl of water, the sheen of a jacket.
Out of reach
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland, also has some anatomical flaws, but here 'Vermeer's peace' has already descended. It is a fantastic prelude to the third canvas, The Procuress, from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, in Dresden
This work, dated 1656, depicts a cheerful brothel scene. A young woman's breast is fondled, there is wine and music, and a coin passes from one hand to the next. But not even all that human activity can hide what Vermeer really wants to show, the light yellow of the prostitute’s dress, so sweet and soft she might as well be a girl from one of his later paintings, a woman reading a letter, or a milkmaid. The fur coat in the foreground of the composition is so lifelike you almost want to reach out to stroke it. The use of colour is amazing, as is the sheen of porcelain, silver and wine.
Everything in The Procuress is dreamy and quiet, despite the smiles on people's faces. The event is there, up for grabs in all its brilliance. But, as a viewer, you are on the other side, among the other visitors in a museum. It is out of reach; the distance will never be bridged. No more in this early masterpiece than in his later ones.