Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

Vermeerandmasters-253x300John Check at Open Letters Monthly:

Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) may nowadays be the most well-known genre painter, but in his time he was far from the only such artist or the most famous. He was instead a member of a small band renowned for producing masterpieces for discerning patrons. Gerard ter Borch and Gerrit Dou, for instance, were early figures in the history of genre painting. Waiboer credits ter Borch with introducing “many new subjects, compositions and motifs readily adopted by younger artists.” Dou, meanwhile, was celebrated for the fineness of his brushwork, a perfectionist who achieved his miraculous results by lavishing untold hours on his canvasses. He was so meticulous, according to Ole Borch, a Danish botanist and chemist who visited his studio, that a viewer could examine a work of Dou’s—the work Borch had in mind depicted a sick woman in her bedroom—and “count the threads in the bed curtain.” The visiting botanist even records this priceless fact: the artist was “in the habit” of wearing three pairs of glasses to achieve his finest effects. “This,” writes Blaise Ducos, “is a rare description of a work in the painter’s studio, and indeed of the painter’s working method.”

Few records exist of these artists meeting or exchanging letters, but it is highly likely that they encountered one another’s work at auctions, in the workshops of artists, or in the homes of collectors. They must have made sketches of memorable paintings, the better to retain their compositional details, even if the sketches themselves do not survive. Artists traveled extensively within the Dutch Republic, especially those living in the province of Holland, where the towns were close to one another, travelling by coach, on foot, or by an efficient and reliable system of barges called trekschuiten. Throughout their lives, they tended to reside in different places; peregrinating as they did, they absorbed new influences all the while influencing others.

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