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  • Russ Ramsey

Vermeer's Women

There are only 35 paintings by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) in existence. His paintings are simple but very detailed scenes. Most of them include women, and he never painted the same woman twice. Today’s Art Wednesday is devoted to the women Vermeer painted.

Vermeer, 1657, A Maid Asleep

Vermeer’s short catalog has some repeated themes—most of them of an intimate nature. Of his 35 paintings, eight feature music, seven feature a man and a woman alone together, six feature hand written letters, and six feature wine.

Vermeer, 1658, Girl Reading Letter at an Open Window

Ambiguity is one of the marks of Vermeer’s work. Here a man seems to make advances toward a lady as another man sits nearby. They are the only three in the room. The second man looks away. The lady looks at us, the viewers. What is welcome? What is unwanted?

Vermeer, 1659, A Lady and Two Gentlemen

Vermeer’s The Milkmaid from 1660 shows us a common servant of the wealthy. The small heater on the floor says she works in a cold maid’s kitchen. Her ingredients make simple bread pudding. But her face shows Vermeer carefully layered paint to sculpt her beauty.

Vermeer, 1660, The Milkmaid

The Girl with the Pearl Earring (1665). The black background makes this a painting of two things: a young girl and a costly jewel. She couldn’t have bought it. Was it hers? Was it borrowed? Was it given? By whom? Why?

Vermeer, 1665, The Girl with the Pearl Earring

Most portraits from the Dutch masters were commissioned works they were hired to do. Historians think Girl with a Red Hat (1667) was a “tronie,” a portrait painted of no one in particular for no one in particular—something to show and sell.

Vermeer, 1667, Girl with a Red Hat

Music filled Vermeer’s work, often used in scenes depicting courtship or something more intimate. Based on the range of musical devices he painted—sheet music, virginals, harpsichords, lutes, guitars, and flutes—music was a big part of Vermeer’s life.

Vermeer, 1673, The Guitar Player

Vermeer’s work depicts wealth, but he died in obscurity, poor, leaving his wife and children with debt. It wasn’t until the 19th century that he was recognized as one of the masters of the Dutch golden era.

Vermeer, 1674, Lady Standing at a Virginal

That’s it for today’s Art Wednesday focused on the women in Vermeer paintings. I’ll close this series out with The Concert (1664-66), which was stolen during the Gardner Heist. One of the most valuable paintings ever stolen, worth an estimated $200,000,000. Think about that.

Vermeer, The Concert, 1664




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