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
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 essentialvermeer.com for an astounding web resource on this fascinating artist.