National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Johannes Vermeer and Dutch Scenes of Daily Life in the 1600s

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Artists now use the term genre, a French word meaning “type” or “kind,” to describe scenes showing people at work, play, or rest. The seventeenth-century Dutch, who did more than any other nation to popularize such images, did not see them as a single category but spoke of “merry companies,” “picnics,” “bordello scenes,” and the like. Regardless of the term, the intention of genre painting is not who people are, as with portraiture, but rather what they are doing.

Genre paintings were very popular in the United Netherlands during the 1600s, in part because they allowed the newly founded Dutch republic to celebrate its emerging national identity by depicting many aspects of its society. Quiet, middle-class households were the specialty of Vermeer and De Hooch, while Ter Borch and Metsu focused on wealthy patricians. Rowdy, rustic humor marks the work of Steen, Potter, and the Van Ostade brothers, all of whom depicted peasants.

Whether comical or dignified, Dutch genre pictures often probed social values. Sometimes the activities and objects illustrated folk sayings or served as moral emblems and religious symbols.

Guild Masters and Apprentices

Artists’ guilds normally included painters, sculptors, printers, potters, weavers, and art dealers. Students worked as apprentices in guild artists’ studios until they gained enough experience to submit a “masterpiece” to be judged worthy of becoming masters themselves.

Johannes Vermeer entered Delft’s guild in 1653 and served four terms on its board. No documents prove that Vermeer had any apprentices, but a comparison of two small works in the National Gallery suggests that he may have trained at least one pupil.

Barely seven inches wide each, the panels are remarkably similar in motif but differ slightly in handling. Both show women wearing fanciful hats while seated before tapestries. The Girl with the Red Hat, bearing Vermeer’s initials at the top, reveals exquisite color harmonies as light irradiates the hat’s feathers and glistens from the lion’s head carvings on the chair.

Young Girl with a Flute has somewhat flat lighting, and the woman’s right hand and left elbow are cut off, rather awkwardly, at the picture’s edges. If it is not by Vermeer himself, this second painting was created by someone intimately familiar with his work—possibly an apprentice, perhaps even one of his many children.

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