Seventeenth-century Dutch national identity was an outcome of the Eighty Years’ War against Spain. The newly emerging society was staunchly Protestant, predominantly urban and culturally unique for its time. The young Dutch Republic emphatically renounced the traditional visual culture of the Catholic south. Cathedrals and churches were ransacked and their religious paintings and statues removed. In banishing art from the churches, a new range of secular painting took its place.
During the Golden Age of Dutch art, we come face to face with a new class of Europeans who made their appearance on the world stage for the first time: the mercantile middle classes. Thanks to Jan Vermeer, we are shown inside their homes, able to see household possessions. One of the specialties of Dutch art is genre painting, scenes of everyday life represented in the most literal, realistic way.
Vermeer is generally considered the greatest of all the Dutch genre painters. Some of his paintings depict rustic women and domestic servants in kitchens, but more often he painted middle-class women in beautifully appointed interiors.
Vermeer was born in Delft in 1632. His earliest works include religious and mythological subjects as well as genre scenes. By 1653 he had become a master in the Delft painters’ guild. He produced relatively few paintings. Only about 34 paintings are known, and he may have worked on each one over an extended period of time.
Most people would agree that much of the magic in Vermeer’s paintings stems from the artist’s portrayal of light. Here, his mastery of this technique is shown in the way it catches the face and arms of the young woman and the intricate folds of her sumptuous blue satin gown. Typically, daylight streams into his interiors from a window on the left-hand side. In this painting, the light comes from the front. This is not only unusual in the artist’s work but has created an entirely different mood.
Like most of his genre paintings, Vermeer presents us with a restrained, even simple composition. According to the National Gallery, London’s curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings, Bart Cornelis, the artist was acutely aware that such simplicity risked looking stilted if painted with too much attention to detail. This is not to say that what we see is not convincing, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that Vermeer’s handling of paint is in fact surprisingly free. Some of his contemporaries depicted forms by using almost invisible brushstrokes to create an enamel‑like surface. Instead Vermeer evokes their appearance with highly suggestive touches, so much so that certain sections even seem slightly out of focus. In this painting, it is perhaps easiest to observe this in the treatment of the gilt frame around the painting in the background, which consists of an assortment of judiciously placed dabs of paint that make perfect sense when taken together, but do not indicate anything in precise detail. It is a clever device, because this is also how the human eye perceives reality.