In her engaging and beautifully illustrated new book - Vermeer and the Art of Love - Aneta Georgievska-Shine uncovers the ways in which Vermeer challenges the dichotomies between 'good' and 'bad' love, the sensual and the spiritual, placing him within the context of his contemporaries to give the reader a fascinating insight into his unique understanding and interpretation of the subject.
In this blogpost she considers precisely how Vermeer's perspective on love challenges assumptions and why there has, until now, been no dedicated study on this fascinating subject...
Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665-1667, oil on canvas, 46.5 x 40 cm., Mauritshuis, The Hague
Why write a book about Vermeer and the “art of love”? Love is central to his oeuvre, and mentioned in almost every publication on this artist, be it a monograph or a museum catalogue. And yet, it has never been explored as a theme in its many variations.
When we think about love in Vermeer, we often imagine a view into an interior with a solitary young woman reading a letter from a distant beloved or playing a musical instrument in front of a rapt admirer. Many of his contemporaries painted similar scenes. Indeed, love was pervasive in the Dutch visual culture, as I show in the introductory overview of the various sub-genres of paintings on this theme. Like all other Dutch painters of his time, Vermeer was influenced by cultural conventions. Nonetheless, unlike his peers whose paintings reflect Petrarchan ideals about love, for instance, he is exceptional in his ability to convey an authentic human experience behind those conventions. The famous girl with her pearl earring surely calls to mind common metaphors about the pearly skin and the rosy lips of the beloved, but one could never reduce her to a mere exotic “beauty.” Even after all these years of her overexposure within our culture, we look at her and feel that moment when one human being recognises another. And suddenly, this young woman from a ‘distant’ land feels as close to us as she might have been to those who knew her while she was alive, including her painter.
Johannes Vermeer, Woman holding a Balance, ca. 1662-65, oil on canvas, 42.5 x 38 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington
Love in Vermeer’s paintings is almost never of a purely romantic kind, nor opposed to something more spiritual, if not metaphysical. His deliberate, highly refined images are both repositories of intimate relationships between the painter and the model, and metaphors for something more universal. This double perspective allows him to draw a connection between the nourishments of physical love and those of art in a painting such as The Music Lesson, or between a seemingly worldly, pregnant woman holding a balance and the Virgin Mary.
As I show in this book, this mode of thinking through analogies is also part of his culture. What sets Vermeer apart is his fine balancing between various possible ways of seeing the world. Though he often includes clearly symbolic objects, such as a mirror or a map, or presents potentially moralising ‘situations’ such as a young lady talking alone with a gentleman, he always reminds us that nothing is as simple as it may appear at first. Not every woman beholding herself in a mirror stands for vanity, nor is a girl asleep necessarily a symbol of moral imperfection. His refusal to lock ‘meanings’, combined with his attention to detail, as well as his infinitesimal adjustments of optical realities for the sake of pictorial harmonies, slows us down even in front of something we have seen countless times. And through this slowing-down we grasp what may be the most important aspect of his creative process: that lover-like absorption with the object of representation.
This quality is something he shares with his contemporaries as well, as we learn from the popular motto of the period about Love as the very force that gives birth to art (Liefde baart kunst). However, by inviting us to contemplate those private realms of experience he opens for us, Vermeer also makes us aware of another, equally important facet of love: his love for the visible world. We see that love in what is typically described as the ‘formal’ aspects of his painting: his chromatic subtlety, his compositional adjustments, and his ability to paint objects so faithfully yet make them stand out as beautiful, abstract shapes as well. These aspects of his artistry were especially appreciated following his rediscovery in the second half of the nineteenth-century. The monumental novel about a search for lost time by Marcel Proust is replete with artistic recollections, yet this arch-aesthete singles out an encounter with a Vermeer painting as the last significant aesthetic experience of one of his principal characters, Bergotte.
This writer, and alter-ego of Proust, is gravely ill. Still, he leaves his house to go one more time to a museum and see Vermeer’s View of Delft, a painting he thought he knew by heart. And as he looks carefully, he discovers new things, including a ‘precious little patch’ of yellow wall that he fixes his gaze upon ‘like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch’.
We all know those ‘butterflies’ from our own encounters with Vermeer, when we try to capture in words a reflection of light in a gleaming vessel or a pattern of a bunched-up carpet that seems to dissolve before our eyes into an abstract play of colours and shapes. Bergotte keeps looking, aware of the insufficiency of words and reproaching himself for the style of his last books: ‘I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall’.
I wrote this book just as aware of the insufficiency of words, yet I hope that by making us more sensitive to those ‘butterflies’ within Vermeer’s painting once again, we can also discover something new in what we thought we had known so well, even if we cannot put it in words. As his near exact contemporary Baruch Spinoza would observe, ‘beauty is not so much a quality of the object beheld, as an effect in him who beholds it.’ By inviting you to dwell again on the beauty of his small worlds, I hope you may feel that effect as well.
- Aneta Georgievska-Shine, 2022
Vermeer and the Art of Love is the first book to explore the theme of love in Vermeer's oeuvre, not merely in a romantic sense but also as a spiritual attitude towards the visible world, and will be released on 1 June 2022.
Pre-order your copy HERE.