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Time and Temporality in Seventeenth-Century Genre Painting

Alexandra Libby, assistant curator, department of northern baroque paintings, National Gallery of Art. Part of the enduring appeal of Dutch paintings is their extraordinary naturalism, their ability to  “create semblance without being,” as one 17th-century art theorist wrote. Genre painters of the Dutch Golden Age have long been admired for just this ability, producing exquisite images of everyday life that, no matter how remote, feel like candid moments captured in time. The landmark exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, on view from October 22, 2017, through January 21, 2018, examines the artistic exchanges among Johannes Vermeer and his contemporaries from the mid-1650s to around 1680, when they reached the height of their technical ability and mastery of depictions of domestic life. These artists each relied on naturalism and notions of temporality in their work, but to very different ends. While many genre painters, including Frans van Mieris or Jan Steen, sought to suggest temporal development, Vermeer often reduced narrative or compositional elements in his paintings to the point of temporal indeterminacy. In this lecture delivered on November 12, 2017, at the National Gallery of Art, Alexandra Libby will explore how cultural events, scientific developments, and critical musings on time and temporality may have influenced these 17th-century genre painters to create many of their most enduring, timeless works.