Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry

20 February - 22 May 2017

The Musée du Louvre, Paris, the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, are planning a landmark exhibition exploring the fascinating network of relationships among Dutch genre painters of the period 1650–1675.

This thought-provoking exhibition, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry, will give visitors and scholars an insight into how Johannes Vermeer and contemporary painters of exquisite scenes of everyday life admired, inspired and rivalled each other.

Dutch genre painting

Dutch genre paintings of the period 1650–1675 rank among the pinnacles of Western European art. While Johannes Vermeer is currently the most renowned painter of such scenes, the Delft master was only one of many artists who excelled in capturing everyday surroundings in exquisite detail. Other major genre painters included Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu and Frans van Mieris. Even though these artists were active in different cities in the Dutch Republic, their work bears strong similarities in style, subject matter, composition and technique. They frequently drew inspiration from each other’s paintings and then tried to surpass each other in verisimilitude, technical prowess and aesthetic appeal. This vibrant artistic rivalry contributed to the exceptionally high quality of their combined oeuvre.

Vermeer’s subjects, compositions and figure types owe much to works by artists from other Dutch cities. For example, his depictions of a young woman reading a letter in a moment of quiet contemplation derives from the work of Ter Borch, the Deventer artist whose pictorial innovations and psychological insights had a profound impact on his contemporaries. Vermeer also freely borrowed from artists from Dordrecht, Leiden and Amsterdam. In turn, genre painters from outside Delft adopted stylistic and thematic elements from his work to elevate their own compositions. Thus, rather than presenting Vermeer as an enigmatic artist working in isolation, the aim of this exhibition is to highlight his relationships with his contemporaries.

The third quarter of the seventeenth century marks the peak of the global economic power of the Dutch Republic. Members of the elite increasingly showed off their social status by subscribing to certain codes of dress, manners and speech, and demanded a type of art that reflected their self-image. The ‘new wave’ of genre painting emerged in the early 1650s when artists began to focus on idealised, superbly staged depictions of the domestic life and courtship between elegant ladies and gentlemen.

Affluent Dutch citizens, who wished to be regarded as serious liefhebbers (lovers of art), were expected to be able to compare paintings, recognise artists’ hands and point out stylistic and thematic borrowings from other artists. This exhibition invites visitors to take on the role of seventeenth-century art lovers and compare small groups of paintings that reflect the cross-currents of inspiration. Visitors will also be able to observe that artists had individual ways of inserting, changing and disguising their borrowings.

Curators

The exhibition’s curatorial team is comprised of Dr Adriaan E. Waiboer, Curator of Northern European Art, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; Dr Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., Curator of Northern Baroque Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington; and Dr Blaise Ducos, Curator of 17th-and 18th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Catalogue & Website

The exhibition and accompanying catalogue benefits from an extensive research programme, which will include a website that is currently being developed in collaboration with the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), The Hague. This website will chart and illustrate painters’ responses to each other’s stylistic and thematic innovations. A technical research project, led by Dr Melanie Gifford, Conservation Scientist at the National Gallery of Art presently examines the exchanges of painting techniques and materials among Dutch genre painters of the period 1650–1675.

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