Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fine Arts Any Day: Vermeer's Lacemaker

The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer, 1669-70.

In you are in England or heading that way, you have 15 days to see the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge of Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence. The centerpiece of the exhibition is Vermeer's Lacemaker, which is on loan to the Fitzwilliam from The Louvre. Surrounding this masterpiece of an artisan rapt in concentration as she creates an object of beauty are paintings by both Vermeer and other artists of the 17th-century Golden Age of Dutch painting. The exhibition, as discussed in a wonderful podcast by its curator Betsy Wieseman, has been designed to probe the Dutch portrayal of that edge where private and public spaces meet, the secrets found in the private space, and the silence of women, especially, as with the lacemaker, when they are at work.

There are paintings of women in all kinds of stances and activities. A young girl eavesdrops as an older woman reprimands a young boy, a woman writes a letter with an engaging smile at the artist (now us), a woman sits with her back to us but her face is present in a mirror so we can see her secret-not-so-secret expression, an elderly woman with her back to us leans over to look out the window at the pale face of a child, a woman stands poised right at the edge of the private space looking down the street while her maid and a child are walking in the inner courtyard. These are some of the images painted by the Dutch artists of this period in their celebration of the sacrosanct domestic space that their national bourgeoisie carved out for their homes--drawing the line against the public space that homes used to be in the time of the Middle Ages.

For Vermeer, this celebration of private space was also a celebration of the soul. His portrayals of women in domesticity are transformed into great art through his painting of space here on earth unified and transformed by God's celestial light.

Although I have not been able to view this exhibition, I am grateful for the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University for organizing it. You can read more about Dutch interior space here and here.

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