However, there is one thing I noticed about Vermeer that seems particularly interesting. The background of his interiors borrows from the main color in the garment people are wearing. This process creates a degree of continuity to his paintings. However, here, the white hat and cape are major factors in the manner Vermeer shapes the canvas and gives the whole painting the pale or bright area it requires.
In this painting the red of the dress colors some of the floor tiles. Yet, the white wall is suddenly blue. The way Vermeer allows the light to touch here and there brightens up the painting considerably.
This painting is nearly monochromatic, but that is because it is a detail. The detail looks like a gold and black painting. The darkened wall makes the girl’s face stand out. This is a common technique, but would that more of us could do this so well.
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.
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 Agepainter, 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, by Johannes Vermeer, 1656
“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.
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.
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.
Young Lady seated at the virginal, Johannes Vermeer
Johannes, Jan or Johan Vermeer (1632 – December 1675), Dutch
The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book
The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, an early 17th-century English manuscript for keyboard music, is yet another compendium of musical pieces that combine the pieces of several composers. As I have mentioned in others blogs, a compendium is a monument to a period of music. The Fiztwilliam is named after library antiquarian Viscount FitzWilliam who bequeathed the manuscript collection to Cambridge University, in 1816. It is now preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, at Cambridge.
An Elizabethan Compendium
However, we tend to associate the Fiztwilliam with Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603, Queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Elizabeth I did not marry. In fact, the FitzWilliam was first entitled Queen Elizabeth’s VirginalBook. But Elizabeth, who died in 1603, never owned a copy of the book. Elizabeth I was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, a music lover, as was her father, and a learned woman. She was fond of dancing: the galliard, in particular.
Francis Tregian the Younger or William Byrd
The Fiztwilliam Virginal Manuscript contains an impressive 297 pieces and one blank page numbered 298. It was probably compiled by Francis Tregian the Younger, a recusant and amateur musician. Recusants were persons who refused to attend Anglican services. Tregian may indeed have copied the pieces, but if he did, he stopped in 1618, the year of his death. The Fitzwilliam contains pieces composed between 1562 and 1612. The manuscript is also attributed to William Byrd. So its origin is disputed.
“Virginal” as a generic term
I should indicate that the word “virginal” is often used to designate the clavichord, the harpsichord, and other plucked instruments. Among these “virginals,” the quietest is the clavichord. The virginal and the clavichord are rectangular instruments, but the harpsichord resembles grand pianos. However some are upright instruments higher than the highest upright pianos.
Pianists do play Couperin, Scarlatti, Handel, Bach and other composers who were active before the piano was developed. For instance, J. S. Bach’s keyboard music was composed for the harpsichord or the organ. The famed Goldberg Variations were written for a two-keyboard harpsichord. Although he composed for the piano, some of Mozart’s compositions can be played on the harpsichord.
Composers represented in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book
The FitzWilliam (now called Fitzwilliam) contains pieces by composers who are relatively unknown to pianists: Doctor John Bull, Ferdinando Richardson, Giles Farnaby, John Munday, Peter Philips, Thomas Morley, William Byrd and a few anonymous composers.
Specifically, pieces and composers featured in the Fitzwilliam are the Galiarda, the Galliardo, the Pavana, the Fantasia, the Maske, the Corranto, the Gigge, Variations, Preludes, a few liturgical pieces with a title such as “Barafostus’ Dreame,” ” Pakington’s Pownde,” “Ladye Riche,” “Put Up Thy Dagger Jemy,” the “New Sa-Hoo,” “Quadlings Delight,” “The Ghost,” “The Earle of Oxford’s Marche,” by William Byrd, “Lachrymae Pavan,” by John Dowland (arranged by Giles Farnaby) and others.
So the “virginals” required their own composers, but it could also be said that they required and still require their own performers. When pianists try to play a “virginal,” usually the harpsichord,they can no longer bite into the keys and have to execute the ornaments in a different manner than on the piano. The two instruments are keyboard instruments, but one “touches” the virginal and related instruments and “plays” the piano.