“Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry” exhibition at the National Gallery, Dublin – Review

“Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry” exhibition at the National Gallery, Dublin – Review

For those who enter any major museum looking eagerly for the “Dutch Painters” section on the map, Dublin has in store a real treat this summer. The exhibition “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry” on at the National Gallery of Ireland is an exceptional event and represents a very rare opportunity to see ten of the painter’s works in one place, and certainly a once off chance in Ireland.

Ten Vermeer’s paintings – out of a total of 63 on display – may not seem like a lot, but you need to put this number into perspective: there are only 36 surviving Vermeer’s paintings, out of the 41 he completed during his life. There’s no one museum in the world you can visit that has such a concentration of the artist’s work. The same exhibition was on at the Louvre in Paris before coming to Dublin (and before travelling to Washington) and their online booking system crashed such was the public demand.

1 Gabriel Metsu (1629 to 1667), Woman Reading a Letter, 1664 to 6, NGI, Dublin, NGI.4537
Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667)
Woman Reading a Letter, 1664–6
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

What is it about the painters of the Dutch Golden Age that makes them so very appealing to contemporary audiences? Is it their artificial realism, the psychological finesse, the perfection of the painted detail? What about those unforgettable chequered marble floors? And what is it about Johannes Vermeer that makes his paintings so distinctive and so strangely ‘modern’? Is it the impressionistic quality of the scenes, the endless fascination with the female figure, the extreme control of the composition?

The curators Adriaan Waiboer, Arthur Wheelock and Blaise Ducos used a simple but very effective criterion: they grouped together paintings by themes and, under these themes, by strict similarity of subject, where the juxtaposition highlights at once the analogies and the differences.

One will be attracted to the exhibition by the star name of Vermeer, but will end up admiring equally – and for some aspects even more – all the other painters’ works on display: the impossibly vivid depiction of the silk and ermine fur of the women’s clothes (for example in Woman feeding a parrot, by Franz Van Mieris), the symmetry of the composition (the specular paintings by Gabriel Metsu, Man writing a letter and Woman reading a letter) the luscious interiors, the humour of some scenes (like the tickling of a sleeping person’s nose).

You will discover how Vermeer wasn’t ‘original’, at least in the sense that we attribute now to the word. It’s not originality of subject, but of execution that interested him and his contemporaries. But what sets him apart from the others and makes him so close to a modern sensitivity is that distinct character of timeless abstraction, which is no better exemplified than in Woman holding a balance.

6 Johannes Vermeer (1632 to 1675), Woman With a Balance, c.1664, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
Woman with a Balance, c.1664
Widener Collection. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The materiality of the subject – a woman weighing gold with a scale – finds a surprising counterpoint and is transfigured by each of the elements of the painting: the otherworldly stillness of the scene, the woman’s ethereal face, the primary colours of yellow and blue of the clothes, the painting of the The last judgement hanging in the background, which links, metaphorically, to the object of the balance.

“There is a terrific response to the exhibition here at the Gallery” the National Gallery’s press office says. ”It is also high season so it’s very busy most days. Weekends are almost booked out in advance, and so entry on Saturday and Sunday may not be guaranteed. Less busy times are in the morning from Monday to Friday. Advance booking is strongly recommended at http://www.nationalgallery.ie”.

Advice: go see the exhibition. Then go see it again before it closes, on the 17th of September.