Wednesday, 13 May 2009


I finally made it back to Dublin this week, and paid a visit to Vermeer's 'Lady Writing A Letter with her Maid', about which I wrote in my essay, which you can find here, on Matthew Hart's The Irish Game . The occasion was a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, 'Vermeer, Fabritius, and De Hooch: Three Masterpieces From Delft', whose title is pretty much self-explanatory. In a small, nicely-proportioned room, Vermeer's 'Woman Writing' (Hart, and I, prefer the title 'Lady Writing A Letter', which I think helps set out the relationship between the two women in the painting better, but the gallery calls it 'Woman') is placed facing the doorway, flanked by, on the left, Fabritius' 'The Goldfinch' (1654) and, on the right, De Hooch's 'The Courtyard of a House in Delft' (1658). It's interesting, as the Vermeer is dated circa 1670, and there is a strong sense that by that time he had taken a step forward, in terms of both dramatic depth and use of light, and felt the influence of his two predecessors.

Having never seen 'Lady Writing' before, I was first surprised that it's somewhat larger than I had imagined, and then realised that it is exactly that sense of drama, of tension contained within his scene, that had left me with the impression of a more compact piece. The other big surprise was just how powerful that curtain on the left of the painting actually is: it's weight and texture hover in the corner, as if waiting to be drawn, close off the light, shut out whatever it is the maid is looking at, and stop the woman from writing the letter which she obviously must get finished right away. The heavy drapery itself casts an ominous shadow over the lighter curtain and the room's corner, on whose edge stands the maid, as if reluctant to move fully into the light. On the floor, the seal, which restoration revealed, and the hastily discarded paper—a crumpled draft? the original note she is answering?-- add drama, but it is the light through the window, which catches her and the task of her writing in the spotlight, which is so impressive.

It's easy to see the influence Pieter De Hooch must have had on the young Vermeer. 'The Courtyard', from the National Gallery in London, is marked by the contrast of open and closed spaces, emphasized by the three doors or shutters seen hanging open, and by the multiple framings of arches, doorways and support poles. Only the adult figure in the foreground lets the composition down. The exhibition brochure makes an interesting comparison with works like Gerard Houckgeest's renderings of Delft's Nieuwe Kerk; it's possible to see De Hooch as celebrating the same play of architectural grandeur and natural light on a much more human scale. It's also fascinating, familiar as we are with the tiles on the floors of Dutch paintings of the period, to look at the brickwork in the foreground and learn De Hooch's father was a master bricklayer.

Carel Fabritius' 'Goldfinch', usually seen at Mauritshuis in den Haag, is one of the more famous images of Dutch art, and it is a working of stunning simple perfection. It was painted in the last year of his life; he was killed in the explosion of the city's gunpowder arsenal, in 1654, when he was only 32. Because it's painted on a very thick panel, it's speculated that it was meant to serve as a door for an encased painting; thus it would have an almost trompe l'oil function hanging on a way, and the delicate chain that holds the bird to his perch takes on a double meaning about the capture of art.

Delft was known at the time for its experiments with perspective; Fabritius had been a student of Rembrandt's, and again, the exhibition brochure contains the only one of his paintings making such experiments, a view of Delft meant to be viewed through a peephole in a perspective box. It puts 'The Goldfinch' into, shall we say, perspective, because the balance between the bird, the two rails, and the feeding box, set against a wall whose warmth and texture is echoed by Morandi or O'Keeffe, is perfect. The coldness of the shadow cast on the wall contrasts with the warmth of the bird itself; viewed up close the feathers soften and it's possible to imagine the small chest heaving. Take a step back, and the head takes on an almost abstract quality, mirroring the pattern of the exposed wing.

In effect, the Vermeer catches the twin appeals of these works, the sense of light creating drama within the framework of both the painting and its architecture, that he learned from De Hooch, but also the small perfect stillness, the drama of the frozen scene. Fabritius does it more with close-up, Vermeer with spot-light, but these are cinematic effects. It's wonderful to see 'Lady Writing' hung in safety in the National Gallery, it was inspirational to see it displayed in such a revealing and inspirational triptych.

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