Back to Blog

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

Woman Reading a Letter Gabriel Metsu

Vermeer & Masters of Genre Painting Finding Inspiration, Rivalry and Artistic Evolution

At the Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Paintings exhibit, I saw Genre Paintings that were similar in style, subject matter, and techniques.  The National Gallery of Art has put together a great exhibit that tries to explore the questions of “inspiration, rivalry, and artistic evolution” through the viewing of Gerrit Dou, Caspar Netscher, Gerard ter Borch, Esaias van de Velde, Johannes Vermeer, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen, and Frans van Mieris paintings.  The exhibit is put together extremely well, and it ends on January 21st.

The National Gallery of Art curators Adriaan E. Waiboer, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., and Blaise Ducos begins the exhibit journey with explaining that The Netherlands in 1650 had an extensive canal system which allowed people to move about the country with speed and ease.  They also explained that the middle class was becoming more established and wealthy.  They even said that the artist communities were very small, and that many of the artists on view saw each other’s work.  What the exhibit glosses over are the famous art markets, and how these artists were making a living with their art through these markets during this time.  For example, the influence of the art markets in Hague and other towns and cities throughout the Netherland region is only suggested as a location where the artists saw other artists art work.  They didn’t go into detail about who was running these markets, who decided what to show the public, and what was the price they fixed to the paintings.  They also didn’t go into detail about how the Middle Class that suddenly has the money to purchase luxury items went about selecting their own art purchases or developing their own art preferences.  It is certain that the middle-class valued art for their own personal use, but they do not value the style or themes that had been previously valued by their society.

The best example is the Young Women Making Lace theme.  Hand weaving lace was extremely important activity for a middle-class woman.  It shows that she is still industrious even though she has the finer things to work with.  Hanging this on your wall would remind the family that the wife was still working hard for the family, but with the best materials.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting Exhibit

Johannes Vermeer The Lacemaker

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting Exhibit

Nicolaes Maes Young Woman Making Lace

The next theme that the exhibit shows is the proverbial love letter writing. As an up and coming middle-class that was showing their best pieces of art in the receiving room to their close friends, relatives, and business partners (remember people conducted much of if not all their business at their homes during this time) naturally the subject of reading and writing was of concern.  Those that could afford tutors were extremely proud of this achievement.  After all the art of penmanship was a luxury that was taught well past basic writing skill.  And, to even suggest that the women and men of your family have time to develop relationships and write long letters gives the message that your family is prosperous and has servants.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting Exhibit

Gabriël Metsu Man Writing a Letter

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting Exhibit

Gabriël Metsu Woman Reading a Letter

The Woman with a Parrot theme I thought was a notable example of how artists will admire each other’s work, and try their hand at creating a similar art.  The National Gallery of Art suggests that this occurred because the artist had seen other artists works, and was compelled to think along the lines, “I really love this painting, and I think I can do something like this too…” Honestly, I think  there is more to this scenario such as the art dealer was standing next to the artist when they were viewing the piece, and saying something along the lines, “I have a lot of people that love this woman with a parrot – and I just sold this painting.”  If I was a Dutch artist, and I saw the painting that my friend sold, I would start producing the same type of art.  After all, it is better to earn your living painting portraits than someone’s house.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting Exhibit

Gerrit Dou A Young Woman in a Niche with a Parrot and Cage

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting Exhibit

Casper Netscher Woman Feeding a Parrot , with a Page



So, the question of inspiration, rivalry and artistic evolution is only half answered by The National Gallery of Art.  They forgot that the art dealer is always a key figure that bridges the gap between the audience and the artist.  The art dealer must take into consideration the preferences of the buyers or they go out of business.  It is quite simple, if you couldn’t sale your art at the market you wouldn’t be seen at the market.  This sense of economics was and continues to be a large force that moves the artist to evolve and change their techniques, themes, and styles.  There were only a few upper-class art buyers and they didn’t go to the art markets, but many middle-class art buyers that went to the art markets.

Blog written by Diane Maglaque, Producer National Gallery of Art Tours