When I first introduced to “genre” painting, the word “genre” intrigued me and it still does. Theoretically, “genre” paintings depict people going about their everyday activity. Such a definition suggests a very broad range of paintings. For instance Hendrick Avercamp (January 27, 1585 (bapt.) – May 15, 1634 (buried)), who painted winter lanscapes, is also a “genre” artist in as much as his paintings show people going about their daily chores or skating, or playing golf on ice.
The Dutch Golden Age: Vermeer’s Interiors
However, we can narrow down the field to people going about their daily tasks indoors and in courtyards rather than outdoors, which leads us back to the Dutch Golden Age and, in particular, to the art of Johannes Vermeer (1632, Delft – December 1675, Delft).[i] Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” a 1665 portrait, is now a favorite. Yet, Vermeer, a Dutch Golden Age painter, who lived in Delft, specialized in everyday interior scenes and his paintings of domestic scenes are now considered the standard reference.
Hendrick Avercamp may still qualify as a genre painter and the same is true of the Limbourg brothers, the miniaturists who illuminated Jean de France, duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures (1412-1416), one of the most extraordinary “Books of Hours.” These paintings feature individuals performing everyday activity or, in the case of Jean de France’s Très Riches Heures, seasonal activities,
Diversity in “Genre” Painting
Yet within the narrower field of interiors, there is diversity. One of Vermeer’s better-known paintings is “The Procuress,” c. 1656, a brothel scene in which Vermeer himself is probably portrayed (first person to the left). “Genre” works may also depict merrymakers in taverns. The “Procuress” is a legitimate genre painting, as are the paintings of drunken deer drinkers. But such paintings may not be purchased by a bourgeois housewife who would prefer to look at an interior resembling her own or one she would like to live in, which is not an insignificant factor.
“The Procuress” is a relatively early work. In fact, by 1656, Vermeer was beginning to paint the luminous interiors, such as the ones featured below, all of which may have been painted in the same two rooms of Vermeer’s well-to-do’s mother-in-law’s house in Oude (Delft). With respect to these somewhat intimiste paintings, it may be helpful to read a few sentences from the Encyclopædia Britannica‘s entry on Vermeer.
Beginning in the late 1650s and lasting over the course of about one decade—a remarkably brief period of productivity, given the enormity of his reputation—Vermeer would create many of his greatest paintings, most of them interior scenes. No other contemporary Dutch artist created scenes with such luminosity or purity of colour, and no other painter’s work was infused with a comparable sense of timelessness and human dignity[ii]
Characteristics of Vermeer’s Interiors
Chief characteristics of Vermeer’s interiors are black and white flooring leading to a vanishing point, leaded and at times colored windows on the left side of the canvas, heavy rugs on tables, musical instruments, virginals in particular, jugs, and, in “The Milk Maid,” a baseboard made of blue Delft tiles (see below). In his “Lady at a Virginal with a Gentleman,” you may have noticed that the mirror above the virginal echoes the floor. Vermeer was influenced by the Utrecht Carravagists (see chiaroscuro) who enjoyed paintings-within-paintings.
Vermeer’s interiors are clean and his characters, neatly dressed. These are rooms that suggest a degree of comfort and are a pleasure to look at as well as a collector’s dream. Vermeer, a Delft artist, sold at least 21 of his paintings to Jacob Dissius, a Delft collector. Pieter van Ruijven, a baker, also bought two paintings by Vermeer. As a result, Vermeer was not well-known outside Delft and, given that he worked slowly, there are only about 34 to 36 paintings indisputably attributed to him. He was, after all, the busy father of eleven children and an art-dealer, as was his father. From his father, he had also inherited an inn.
Vermeer as Head of the Guild of Saint Luke
Although Vermeer seems to have stayed in Delft most of his life, he did not work in isolation. He was a member of The Guild of Saint Luke, which he joined on 29 December 1653. He was elected head of the Guild in 1662, and was re-elected to the same position in 1663, 1670, and 1671, which is a tribute to the exceptional quality of his paitings and esteem on the part of Dwelft painters. He was influenced by Carel Fabritius, Leonaert Bramer, Dirck van Baburen (c. 1595 – 21 February 1624) and Gerrit von Honthorst, an Utrecht Caravaggist. He may have tutored Pieter de Hooch and Nicolaes Maes, but these artists competed with him.
The Disaster: France invades the Dutch Republic
Until the invasion of the Dutch Republic by French troops, in 1672, the Dutch Republic had been a prosperous nation. But it was suddenly severely impoverished. During five years or so, members of the middle-class could not purchase art and, by extension, artists could not sell their art, not to mention that Vermeer worked slowly and used expensive pigments (lapis lazuli, ultramarine, cornflower blue, etc). When he died, in 1675, aged 43, probably of meningitis or encephalitis, then called “frenzy,” Vermeer left behind eleven children and debts to pay. Furthermore, he would be forgotten until rediscovered in the nineteenth century by Gustav Friedrich Waagen and Théophile Thoré-Bürger.The Lacemaker, 1669-70 The Guitar Player, c. 1672 A Lady at a Virginal with a Gentleman, 1662-63 Lady Seated at a Virginal, c. 1673 (Please click on the pictures to enlarge them.) * The box on the floor is a foot-warmer. The baseboard is made of blue Delft tiles. Please click on the picture to enlarge it.
Photo credit: Wikipedia and Web Gallery of Art
So let this be our introduction to “genre” painting. The Vermeer paintings shown above are interiors and it could well be that focussing on life indoors or in courtyards is the chief characteristic of “genre” painting. Furthermore, we had the privilege of seeing some of the most beloved “genre” pieces in European history.
I must close. So, at this point, let the paintings speak for themselves.
I wish you all my very best.
- A Brief Introduction to the Dutch Golden Age in Art (michelinewalker.com)
[i] Web Gallery of Art (Vermeer)
[ii] Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. “Johannes Vermeer”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 08 Dec. 2012