Vermeer and the art of escapism

January 14, 2011

Vermeer's only known classically themed work, Diana and her companions(1653-6), includes many symbolic Christian elements, such as the feet washing and handkerchief painted like a dove.

Unless you try to understand the world in which an artist moved, felt, lived, how can you hope to understand the images that he created?  - Andrew Graham-Dixon. 2010
Thanks to a recent screening on BBC, I finally got around to seeing The Madness of Vermeer, a 2003 BBC production featuring a slightly younger, perhaps more playful Andrew Graham-Dixon.

What has always made me fond of AGD is his dedication to the history behind the images and the artist that created them. Vermeer was not in service to the most powerful men in Europe, yet his work is now universally revered due to its contemplative subject matter and technical virtuosity. Debate still rages over whether he used a camera obscura ('darkened room' in Italian) to help compose his works - my own feeling is - why not? Any artist should be able to use whatever tools they want to achieve their desired effect.

There is a school of thought that views artists as beings with preternatural talents who create their masterpieces by sheer force of will and talent. This is a romantic notion - as with any practical task, to get a polished end result requires hours of practise to develop expertise, a degree of planning plus intimate knowledge of the tools of one's craft. AGD touches on this topic and does show us a camera obscura in action, as well as examines under-surface scans of some of Vermeer's most famous works.

The lack of significant under drawing is always a red flag for use of a camera obscura in works of astounding realism and advanced lighting effects. Those who cannot accept this should perhaps have a better look at Leonardo, Raphael or even Rembrandt's under-drawings and muse as to how their skill may be deficient in some way!

 A 16th Century depiction of a camera obscura device

A camera obscura type device was first hinted at by Aristotle as early as c.350BCE. The device as a tool for artists became widely known after 1558, with the publication of Giambattista della Porta's 'Natural Magic', which can be viewed online here. This work was the first to suggest use of this device as a tool to aid drawing.

What was perhaps more interesting was the journey into the archives of the day, to reveal details of Vermeer's torrid life. AGD wowed us last year with his fascinating look at Caravaggio through archival records, as part of his book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. This program features a similar approach to the great Dutch painter.

Through archivists - whom I must admit are a fascinating group of people that deserve far more praise than they get - we get amazing glimpses into Vermeer's turbulent life - and his death in a state of poverty. It was quite sad to hear that upon his death Vermeer had no sufficiently expensive item of clothing worth selling, as was required by law at the time as a form of public bequest. His wife was also eventually forced to sell the remaining paintings, including 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' to meet the financial demands of caring for her family.

After his death, this now iconic image was sold to support Vermeer's family

This poverty and desperation is unusually something you do not see in Vermeer's work. AGD hence argues that Vermeer uses his art as a form of escapism. Writers finding themselves in difficult circumstances create idealised worlds of fiction, artists like Vermeer it seems painted scenes of tranquility and pensive contemplation that records indicate his life would not have had much of.

When one travels around the world looking at Vermeer's works in well to-do-places like the Frick Collection and Mauritshuis at The Hague, how much of this anguish resonates through the work? I dare say none. People are fascinated by Vermeer's technical skill, his depiction of light and perhaps muse on the thoughtful moments depicted, but connecting to Vermeer with a sense of empathy is much more difficult than someone whose struggle more clearly resonates in their work, such as Caravaggio,(late) Rembrandt, and more prominently in later artists such as Goya,  Edvard Munch and Frida Kahlo.

What I found particularly intriguing was the archival account of Vermeer's housemaid defending his pregnant wife from a frenzied attack by her brother. Vermeer was not present at the time - and some state that this valiant maid was the woman idolised in the famous c.1658-1661 piece The Kitchen Maid, (aka The Milkmaid).

If this was a depiction of the brave maid in Vermeer's household, is the accepted date for this painting incorrect?

What was somewhat peculiar was the reaction of Rijksmuseum curator, Dutch art historian Taco Dibbits, to AGDs linking this painting to this incident. In quite condescending fashion, Mr. Dibbits cheekily insinuates that linking an artist's work to events in their life is slightly 'Nineteenth Century'.  It is perhaps somewhat presumptuous of Mr. Dibbits to assume that Vermeer approached life with a Zen-like detachment!

This is blatantly not the case when we learn Vermeer was involved in some money related scandal at the time, acquiring funds on behalf of his wealthy mother in law and pocketing them for himself. My only comment is that any art historian that chooses to disregard the historical and psychosocial factors that influence the creative process does so at their own peril.

One somewhat important detail which perhaps pokes a hole in AGD's theory on 'The Kitchen Maid' are the dates attributed to the incident and the painting. He himself states that the incident involving the valiant maid occurred in 1663 - whereas this work is dated between 1658-61. Is AGD also suggesting the painting's accepted dating is wrong? He doesn't actually comment on this discrepancy in the program. Notes on the provenance of this painting do not shed any further light as to the actual date it was completed, though may be available in another resource.

Anyway, I invite you to watch a clip from this amazing program courtesy of the BBC and Mr. Graham-Dixon, listen to the archival records and make up your own mind. 

Following some grumbles from the BBC for originally hosting the whole program(despite it not being available for purchase), I have since had it confirmed by AGD's office that an extended clip will eventually be added to AGDs Youtube Channel.

Also, make sure you visit for an astounding web resource on this fascinating artist.


zoe said...

i love this post. i love the idea of art as a way to bring oneself *out of* suffering, instead of bringing others into it... to create a moment of light and repose where there was not one, that is an impressive art.
thank you!

Alberti's Window said...

Great post! Along these ideas of escapism, many historians feel like Vermeer used his art as a way of escaping his (undoubtedly) chaotic household. AGD may note this in his documentary - I plan on watching his clip later. Vermeer and his wife had fifteen children (although four of them died before Vermeer, so they only (!) had eleven living children). In addition, Vermeer's mother-in-law also lived with the family. One doesn't get a sense of a noisy household by looking at Vermeer's calm paintings!

Do you happen to have an online reference for the Dibbits criticism? I'd like to try and figure out the context of his statement. Vermeer's work fell into relative obscurity after his death, and his paintings were popularized in the 19th century - I'm wondering if Dibbits is trying to make some commentary or sly reference to the 19th-century interest in Vermeer? (If not, it sounds like he just favors recent approaches to artistic interpretation, like postmodernism.) Anyhow, if anyone is interested, you can read about the 19th century interest in Vermeer in Emma Barker's case study, "The Making of a Canonical Artist: Vermeer." A preview of the case study is available here.

Unknown said...

Hello Zoe! I remember you as one of 3PP's earliest visitors - welcome back! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think it is very special that Vermeer achieved these works amidst personal chaos. It says something very interesting about the human character - and actually reminded me of a Japanese film called Dodeska'den(1970) which depicts the lives of Tokyo Slum dwellers - there are some fascinating sequences where characters imagine their dream home away from the poverty and domestic troubles, something which Vermeer seems to be doing in his works.

@M - Cheers for the reference! The 'internal escape' is essentially the core of AGDs presentation, he reveals these chaotic historical details as he goes along discussing the contrasting serenity and contemplation evident in the works.

The Taco Dibbits quote is directly from the program, as he and AGD are standing directly in front of that painting. He very likely is comparing AGD's statements to those 19th Century writers that helped launch Vermeer to the superstar status he now enjoys. I can understand that preceding writers tended to present their case in melodramatic terms, but the evidence is all there in the archives.


Hels said...

Fascinating, isn't it. Like most 17th century Dutch artists, Vermeer was not:
a] in service to the most powerful men in Europe
b] taking commissions for church altarpieces etc
c] interested in huge history or religious themes.

So what did that leave? Portraits, genre scenes, landscapes and still lifes. I am passionate about Vermeer, and so Diana and her Companions(1653-6) comes as a bit of a shock. Is the Vermeer attribution rock solid? If it is, who did he paint it for?

Unknown said...

Hello Hels! Don't be too shocked!!

I think saying he was disinterested in religious themes is a bit of a stretch. He converted to Catholicism in order to marry - for which there was a significant stigma attached at that time. Watch the program -- AGD even visits one of the 'hidden' Catholic Churches.

It is always difficult to comprehend the spiritual climate of eras past, but I think art and the historical record are the key. Vermeer was most definitely not beyond the sacred. There are many allusions to sacred symbolism in even the works that appear secular.

Two favourites amongst us Science types are his "Astronomer" and "Geographer" On their own they appear rational, aspiritual pieces. But take a look at the relationship between the Science fraternity and the Church at the time and there is a whole new layer of meaning! Hence the need to ALWAYS consider the historical events that shape the creative process.

The Essential Vermeer is a fabulous resource, and includes provenance details for Diana etc. Here is the page you will want to look at :)

Early Vermeer

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...

I doubt that this painting is a "Diana" or any kind of classical subject. The Museum's description is very weak. It would not surprise me if these women are "Beguines" members of a medieval semi-monastic religious group that flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries but that experienced a revival in the 17th century.


Unknown said...

Hi Frank.

Diana was not an uncommon theme for a Dutch painter at the time to aspire to. The presence of the dog as a symbolic attribute is interesting, and depicted in similar fashion by other Dutch artists.

There is more you can read about in the original link below the image.

My question to you is why Vermeer would want to paint the Beguines? Have you discovered any links between him and this order?


Dr. F said...


I know nothing about Vermeer and the Beguines. They were Catholic and you pointed out that Vermeer was a convert. I'm just guessing because Vermeer painted scenes from daily life and a depiction of women helping each other brought the Beguines to mind. Washing the feet recalls Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles. Wikipediahas a good summary.

I think Diana and the nymphs should be nude or partially nude. The dog doesn't look like it could anything apart, and Actaeon is missing.


Unknown said...

Cheers Frank - I think the most definitive attribute of Diana in the Vermeer painting is the crescent moon in her headband.

Commentators have suggested that Vermeer is indicating the viewer is taking the place of Actaeon. That being said, the Christian allusions in this work, and others are not that subtle that they are can only be unravelled by us centuries on! has a great article in Catholic aspects of life in Delft, including some information on the local Beguines.

Vermeeer and Catholic Life in Delft

It is interesting to read that the notes supplied on Provenance do not identify the original patron or recipient, so postulating that it may have been for a Catholic patron, or Vermeer's own Catholic family is not a wild assumption at all - though it would be nice to find some primary documents supporting that


Dr. F said...


I read the article on Vermeer and Catholic Life in Delft. Talk about understanding a painter's historical background to understand his work.

My initial impression was a guess but now it seems more than a guess. it looks like I've made another discovery. In such a close knit community there can be no doubt that Vermeer and his family were aware of the Beguines and their work. I first heard of them when we visited Ghent and Bruges a few years ago.

I will never take any Museum label without a grain of salt again.


Unknown said...

Well stated Frank!

This is the whole point to the scientific approach to critical analysis. The apparent credibility of the source is irrelevant, whether it is Wiki, a blog entry, a fancy textbook or a label in a high profile gallery, they ALL must be subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny!

Reputations mean nothing in the analysis of data, unless that reputation is perhaps based on sound analytical techniques, in which case that analyst would be quite open with the exact sources it used in arriving at its conclusion.

It is not something you commonly see in art historical pieces, though people like Leonardo expert Martin Kemp are far better than it than others.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Outstanding post. I love Vermeer and I love the conversation about how art/creation was used to deal with misery or pain. The ancient Egyptians believed it was our job to create order of out chaos and then to spend the rest of our time keeping chaos at bay...I guess artists do that (or attempt that) in their own way.

Alberti's Window said...

It's too bad that you weren't able to keep the whole video posted, but I'm glad that you were able to put up the Dibbits/AGD interpretation. It is an interesting discussion, though now I don't think that Dibbits is referring to the 19th century craze after Vermeer. It sounds like he takes a more distanced view to art, where one doesn't interpret every work of art through the life of the artist. I agree with you: I think it's very important to consider the life of an artist when interpreting his/her art. But I do applaud Dibbits for trying to be objective in some way. (Does that make sense?)

Well spotted about the inconsistency with the painting date and event with the maid! I would imagine the AGD is arguing that the approximate date for the painting is incorrect - but he should have emphasized that in the documentary.

Alberti's Window said...

P.S. I also have to say: the detail images in that clip are absolutely amazing! That's one of the things I love about documentaries: one can see such great shots of the works of art. The other week I went to watch an IMAX show about Van Gogh - it was fantastic to see details of his paintings blown up to be over 50 feet (16 meters) high! I was in heaven.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Vicky - Glad you enjoyed the post! I love the 'order from chaos' description of the Egyptians. It explains so much of their stylised, geometrically consistent figures and repeating patterns in their art and sculpture!

@M - Yes, I think Taco is being a bit cheeky and I'm curious as to why AGD didnt try to tease more out of him on his '19th Century' remark. This is probably why I'd never be a good documentarian, I'd be too confrontational and never get let in to places again!

I find it curious he didn't mention the date discrepancy too, AGD is usually very thorough when it comes to dates.

I think the visual medium of film/TV is a no- brainer when it comes to art history! When I studied Renaissance art/history for the first time it was all black and white photocopies, not even an overhead projector or slide show - it is no wonder that the first painting I chose to focus on was one I saw in a documentary(Tintoretto's St Mark Rescuing a Slave)

I must keep an eye out for that IMAX Van Gogh show - I saw the Hubble documentary at our local IMAX not long ago, it was fabulous!

Kind Regards

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