Sunday, 28 March 2010

Paintings that stopped the clock

Johannes Vermeer and how Scarlett Johansson increased the numbers of gallery visitors

Today Vermeer belongs to most treasured artists and is a household name, thanks to the 2003 filmatisation of "Girl with a Pearl Earring", a novel by Tracy Chavalier about one of Vermeer´s most famous paintings. On internet, Johannes Vermeer pops among the top 15 most famous artists, yet, 100 years ago, nobody knew who he was.

When a Dutch delegation gave "A Music Lesson" to the English court in the end of the 18th century, the name of the artist was changed from Vermeer to Pieter de Hooch or Nicolaes Maas, I can´t remember which one of them, as that artist was so much more valued. 200 years later, not only were the curates extremely keen to asign the painting to Vermeer, the painting is also the pride of the royal collection at Windsor Palace- because it is a Vermeer.

Even though Johannes Vermeer enjoyed some acknowledgement as artist during his life, when he died in 1675, he quickly fell out of radar of art conneseurs. If it hadn´t been for two art historians who in the beginning of the 20th century made it their mission to catalogue and in their way market his work, chances are very few people would know his paintings. After 1930s, Vermeer became very highly priced and today his paintings belong to the highlights of the few galleries that are fortunate enough to own his work. There are many reasons for this. He was in his forties when he died, so he did not enjoy to long productivity of Rembrandt or Monet. Vermeer also was extremely precise in his painting, and is said to have painted only about three paintings a year. All and all, today we know of 34-36 paintings that for sure are made by him. But, I have forgotten to mention the most important reason for Vermeer´s fame. His paintings are wonderously wonderful.

One of the reasons is the colours. Learning from the studies of among others Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer carefully planned the the colour composition in order to create the best effect. He also used real pigments, that he grounded himself and he was a pioneer in using the expensive lapis lazuli in his day and age- to my understanding, it had been reserved for Virgin Mary by artists such as Michaelangelo. This is why his paintings are so vivid and why the blues are nearly explosive.

Needless to say, I noticed Vermeer before the books. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several Vermeers, and the one that caught my eye was the one of the sleeping maid. Ironically, I did not see the maid, but I noticed the carpet. I am a toucher, I can´t order clothes on line as I need to feel the fabrice, and it is always a challenge to pass statues. Normally, I can handle paintings, but my fingers itched to touch this carpet. And once you start looking, you can´t stop. In Johannes Vermeer´s paintings, there is such a quality of harmony, balance and tranquility, that you feel as if you were suspended in time. You are drawn into an unknown world, that seems as real as the carpet seemed to me. It is no wonder that there are at least three books of fiction written about Vermeer´s paintings. I wonder that there isn´t more of them.