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In Praise of Painting- Venerating Vermeer

Updated: 5 days ago

One cannot do better than to spend an afternoon immersed in the art created during the Dutch Golden Age, if the goal is to appreciate painting at its best and by extentsion to be inspired and and bask in the beauty of these masterworks. One of the current shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is titled, "In Praise of Painting" and it presents a fine group of canvases from Holland done mostly in the 17th century. One marvels at the beauty of paint quality in the Rembrandts and the geometry and light of the DeHoog paintings, the layered meanings of the Vermeer allegory, the Bravuara of Hals and the cacaphonous domestic households of Jan Steen and so much more.





We have viewed most of these paintings many times over the years and always come away with renewed appreciation of art, but also of life itself- as these genre paintings are concerned with the human soul and our very earthly human nature is essential to these paintings. Still, the newly presented exhibit gives the work new meaning and our appreciation is therefore enhanced. The Baroque era as expressed through these canvases is furthered, unfolded and expounded upon when we can view a large group presented together. We appreciate the context of the various works as they relate to each other and to their times.


Let's start with the sky. There are several Dutch painters of this period who specialized in skies, as Holland is flat, the topogrpahy is not so inspiring, therefore it seems natural that a coastal country would have some of its artists celebrate the glory of clouds and atmosphere that is above the oceans, dunes, cities and lands. As I also delight in painting skies, these works were of special interest. Vermeer's view of Delft comes to mind with its wonderful clouds hanging above the town. Although this work was not in the show- we can see the relatedeness of Vermeer's clouds to those of Van Ruisdael, Peter Claes and Aelbert Cuyp. Cuyp's magnificent painting of a group of cows and herdsmen is a remarkable work of art for its wonderful gray clouds against a warm evening sky. But the lyrical arrangement and the dynamics of opposites- of the cows, reveals a true artistry in composing. One black cow is standing while facing into the canvas but also looking up to the sky and setting sun, while all the other cows are reclinning as they are facing out, which brings our gaze to rest on the two men near the right edge of the canvas. Through the warm hues of the sky, we understandably regard this as a painting of the eventide. But is it? The crepuscular light streaming down through the clouds, would suggest the sun to be high in the sky. There is even a crane soaring through the sky above the cows, echoing the directioal thrust to the right.



Albert Cuyp's painting, shown above, is in the current show at the Met, it is titled, "Young Herdsmen with Cows." A beautiful large canvas of 1655 shows an invented landscape, (not of his native Holland) with wonderful evening light and clouds arranged in a subtle orchestration of form.


Vermeer's "Allegory of the Catholic Faith" sometimes just called "Allegory of Faith" was my resting point during the visit. I sat on the conveniently postioned bench to sketch from this large canvas. Sketching then becomes an act of veneration as it allows for an appreciation and understanding that goes beyond the cursory glances that most visitors give to any work. Even when not depicting relgious themes, some understandly regard these genre scenes and the vision expressed as sacred. And this day was no exception, as the drawing process offered many delights. The two globes in this painting were seen to be composional bookends of sorts as they enclose and conatin the diagonally slanting woman. At the top we have a large crystal sphere which is supposed to symbolize the soul. For me it recalled the Van Eyck painting of the Arnolfini Betrothal and others- which include similarly reflecting surfaces. Under the model's right foot is a globe representing the world. The concept of the paintng was inspired by a book by Cesare Ripa titled, Iconologia, published a in 1644. This fact further underscores how there is an important interaction between authors and artists- we can think of a similar influence with many Italian Renaissance artists being influenced by the written work of Leon Battista Alberti from his book, De Pictura or On Painting.

Above- A sketch done at the Met of the Vermeer painting of the Allegory of Faith. On the right and top borders, you will see hash marks indicating the the main verticals and horizontals of the painting. The frame and crucifix are indicating to show the realtionships of these main lines. You will notice an "X" in the middle left, to indicate the vanishing point.

Vermeer's "Allegory of the Catholic Faith" sometimes just called "Allegory of Faith" was my resting point during the visit. I sat on the conveniently postioned bench to sketch from this large canvas. Sketching then becomes an act of veneration as it allows for an appreciation and understanding that goes beyond the cursory glances that most visitors give to any work. Even when not depicting relgious themes, some understandly regard these works and the vision expressed as sacred. And this day was no exception, as the drawing process offered many delights. The two globes in this painting were seen to be composional bookends of sorts as they enclose and conatin the diagonally slanting woman. At the top we have a large crystal sphere which is supposed to symboize the soul. For me it recalled the Van Eyck painting of the Arnolfini Betrothal and others- which include similarly reflecting surfaces. Under the model's foot is a globe representing the world. The concept of the paintng was inspired by a book by Cesare Ripa titled Iconologia, published a in 1644. This fact further underscores how there is an important interaction between authors and artist- we can think of how many Italian Renaissance artists were influenced by the written work of Leon Battista Alberti.


The interplay of the diagonal of the figure with the rigid geometry of the room's interior as foil was fascinating to observe. I like to analyze the intervals in paintings and that was my main purpose while doing the sketch. To understand the relationships of forms and how they all coalesce under Vermeer's orchestration is essential to the painting. I think of Velazques painting in the Prado titled, Las Meninas as another supreme example of this balance of spontaneity and order.





I noticed three main diagonals in the work while sketching, the two supporting slants being understated echoes of the primary diagnoal thrust. Both of these supporting structural armatures are in the painting by Jacob Jordans in the background- which was in Vermeer's collection at the time of his death. The first slant is in the figure behing the woman, his dull red cloak covers his arm which forms the downward slant. The other supporting diagonal is formed by the arm of Christ leadnig down to the black robed woman. And these are counerbalanced by an opposing diagnoal in the shadowsed folds of white satin dress. We can even appreciate a rhythm of zigzag diagonals formed by the model's dress and blue garment along with her arm and hand over her heart. And this rhythm at the core of the composition is leading up to her gaze, which is directed toward the crucifix or crystal globe overhead.


There was so much more to marvel at here. but I am advocating the process of sketching as a means to slow down and allow the internal beauty of a given work to reveal itself. The conversation, as it were, with these masters is a fascinating endeavor. We can recall Machiavelli's report of conversations with ancient authors and those poets speaking to him, so Machiavelli conveyed as inspiration for his books and plays.


I will note how adventurous this work was at the time of its creation. It was made during an era of violent iconoclasm when statuary or paintings with any inkling towards idolatry rendered them fair game for burning and smashing. Vermeer had recently converted to the Catholic faith of his wife, and worship was often relegated to back rooms.


Finally it is interesting to note that this work was the last of Vermeer's overtly themed religious paintings. All the work which we know him by are depictions of the common moments of life- reading letters, playing music, pouring milk, contemplating maps and globes etc. It is also intereesting that some scholars regard this painting as Vermeer'r least successful canvas. The critcs mention the hardness and lack of paint quality that later works exhibit. But I found the scintillating daubs of painting in the tapestry, consistent with his later work. And the overall beauty of the work- is beyond debate and well worth anyone's time.


To view a short video of the sketch being made at the Met- click on this link-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYHu3o6ojd8


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