Tag Archive: genre painting

Intimate Heroism: Vermeer in His Time and Beyond

Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, Oil on canvas, 1670-1671. Musée du Louvre.

Thirty years ago, I wrote a poem that ended, “I’ve never lived in a city without a Vermeer.” My cities were, by pure coincidence, New York and Boston. But my interest in Vermeer borders on obsession, and I’m still wrestling with why his paintings are so particularly seductive to me. There’s always the ravishing beauty of the painted surface, the elegance of structure and detail, but also the balance of bravura and a kind of restraint—the way the usual mundane, anti-heroic subjects of Dutch genre painting, however beautiful they are in the work of his contemporaries, take on qualities of the spiritual and even the heroic, qualities that are more like—and sometimes equal—the more overt aspects of spirituality and heroism in, say, Rembrandt. “Rembrandt ist Beethoven, Vermeer ist Mozart,” I overheard someone say to herself looking at a Vermeer. (Could we add Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy? Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman? Or Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell?) That complicated combination of dazzle and modesty may be an essential difference between Vermeer and his contemporaries, including Rembrandt.