This exquisite volume is as enticing as its title implies, exploring much more than the works which were on view in the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The additional paintings provide a tantalizing addition to this examination of relatively small paintings of women engaged in domestic tasks, averting their eyes, shown with a child, a maid, or alone in quiet contemplation. Of the 32 paintings in the catalogue, fourteen are of women alone.
Although the title suggests a focus on Vermeer, there are only four paintings by him, yet we are not disappointed, as the others are “Vermeer-like” in our expectation: usually well-lit domestic interiors of the 1650s/1660s with one or two well-dressed female figures, set in a single, defined room sometimes with a glimpse of another. There are few objects, but those included are well made and look quite expensive. In addition to the paintings by Vermeer, the catalogue (by Marjorie Wieseman) includes works by Gerard ter Borch, Gerard Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolas Maes, Jacob Vrel, Esaias Boursse, Quiringh van Brekelenkam and Jan Steen, not to mention the alluring painting by Samuel van Hoogstraten (Louvre) that shows no figures but only implies one (or more) by the slippers left at the threshold of an interior with keys still in the door and a version of Ter Borch’s suggestive so-called Parental Admonition hanging on the wall.
Wieseman provides a substantial Introduction to the themes in the paintings and the rooms they suggest. She lovingly evokes what real life must have been like – strikingly different from what is usually depicted. The scenes mostly take place in the voorhuis (front room) depicted far more sparingly than they were in reality. These paintings – repeatedly, yet with variety – reveal scenes that we experience as quiet, introspective and indeed, silent. Yet through contemporary documents and deduction, Wieseman explores what the real, expected, even incessant sounds might have been: church bells ringing every half hour; horses neighing and barnyard animals making their various noises; blacksmiths, shoemakers and other craft people hammering; street vendors shouting; carts and carriages rumbling, as well as the sounds of water, waterborne traffic and movement of foundations. Showing great perception and empathy with the time, the author makes one easily see that the painted rooms were a fantasy escape.
H. Perry Chapman too in her chapter on the inner life of these women examines their absorption in their immediate tasks: usually reading, writing, making music and lacemaking, distilled in the Lacemaker “to an image of unprecedented visual truth and simplicity.” Writing of the “illusion of interiority” – as these women have private thoughts that we cannot know – she eloquently expresses what draws us to these enigmatic works. Chapman and Wieseman however conflate needlework, sewing and lacemaking when referring to the virtues of needlework when perhaps it is only lace-making that may be suggested. I suspect that the choice made by the artists was deliberate. In Nicolaes Maes’s Young Woman Sewing (Guildhall Art Gallery, London), the woman is working with a needle and thread while her lacemaking work is lying on a chair beside her. It is perhaps the contrast – setting aside the more beautiful lacemaking to take up the duty of the household task – that may be intended here. Another implication of needlework, as was delicately explained to me many years ago by John Michael Montias (in relation to Judith Leyster’s Proposition illustrated here), is as a synonym and slang for sexual intercourse (sewing as naaien). It can be seen in the very few depictions of actually pricking a cloth with a needle.
However, distractions (men, drink, and a life outside their chores) were often available to women. Although acknowledged by the authors, in my view these distractions are handled a little too discretely, in fact, more so than in the paintings themselves. Thus the fairly large wine jug, the only element lit in the left third of Maes’s Woman Scraping Parsnips with a Child (National Gallery, London), is not mentioned at all.
In the final chapter, Wayne E. Franits examines the “Lap of Luxury” and the patrons of Vermeer, his social class and his contemporary reputation. He makes the well-taken and documented point that Vermeer had wealthy patrons and became quite wealthy himself; in this respect, his paintings reflect this life. His works may appear simple but they are luxurious at the same time. Objects Vermeer purchased for himself, such as an ice sled with a sail (p. 145) as well as those in his paintings, such as the hapsichord, are items beyond the reach of the middle class.
Franits significantly brings two (almost new) Vermeer patrons to the fore: the connoisseur Pieter Teding van Berkhout (1643-1713) and Maria de Knuijt (d. 1681). Acknowledging Montias as the one who first made the connection with Teding van Berkhout, Franits goes further in exploring his role as collector. Maria de Knuijt was the wife of Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-1674) who, following Montias’s discovery, is frequently mentioned in the Vermeer literature, whereas his wife is not. Franits makes clear that the Delft couple were significant patrons and that she individually also had a relationship with Vermeer as a patron and thus provides us with a glimpse of another world of women – outside of and yet connected to these paintings.
Even for those who are quite familiar with these paintings and with gender studies generally, there is new information here and fresh insight. The book provides a wealth of knowledge and a glimpse into a class that had not been so readily acknowledged. In the final analysis however this world is still closed to us; the paintings retain their mysteries – and their fascination.
Frima Fox Hofrichter