Reflections on Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting at the National Gallery

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on January 16, 2018
Caspar Netscher
Woman Feeding a Parrot, with a Page, 1666
oil on panel
overall: 45.7 × 36.2 cm (18 × 14 1/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

There is less than a week left to experience the ongoing exhibition of 17th Century Dutch paintings at the National Gallery of Art; an experience that may be, frankly, somewhat challenging.  There will be  large groups of viewers—nothing  like the Kusama exhibit last summer—but  enough to make one have to look side long at these beautiful, often amazing, paintings.  Naturally, where the Vermeers are, the crowds are, but during my visit many viewers, some of rather advanced age, appeared to be trying very hard to make sense of the organization of the exhibit, and of what is an extraordinary opportunity to see work that is rarely available to us.

The idea of grouping the paintings by theme or subject was a successful strategy.   In this way, the curators’ aim of showing the commonality among painters of intimate genre subjects in roughly the third quarter of the 17th century, as well as suggesting a certain level of rivalry among them, is amply visible.  There is enough interesting wall text to inform, but not to overwhelm the paintings, thus encouraging viewers to compare and contrast the works on their own.

Among the many striking aspects of the exhibition is the way in which the relative brilliance of these painters becomes so evident, even to the less sophisticated eye.  Vermeer stands out among his contemporaries on both a formal and conceptual level.  This is not necessarily meant to say that he is best, but definitively different.  An inevitable ranking among the others results, with Gerard ter Borch running a strong second, and a leveling off among some of the lesser knowns.  Yet, there is nothing in this splendid exhibit that falls below an unusually high level of both skill and expression, albeit within certain conventions.  This fact reflects the world in which they were painted; a world of unexpected wealth and luxury in an upper class society that was trying its very best to be a model of Protestant virtue.   And so, although the subjects can be classified as genre paintings, much like the still lives that Dutch artists also excelled at creating, they are often charged with more than a casual content.  What might seem rather simple at first glance will often reveal some moral lesson about the virtuous life or at the least stand as a warning about worldly and especially sexual temptations.

A good example of the latter is the National Gallery’s own Gerard ter Borch’s The Suitor’s Visit of c. 1658.  The painting shows an interior occupied by two women, one playing a lute, and a man who appears to be warming himself in front of a large fireplace.  A young woman in a marvelously painted white satin dress with a carnation jacket stands in the center of the composition, greeting a young man in the doorway who bows towards her; his left hand extended with his thumb and forefinger making a ring.  The two exchange glances that suggest prior acquaintance while the woman, (modeling for this conceit was almost certainly the artist’s sister), clasps her hands in such a way that a finger extends outward toward her visitor’s left hand.  There was a rumor about this work that a coin that had been in the man’s left hand was painted out at some point, although the conservation report does not confirm this.  Nevertheless, the situation in this work presents something of a conundrum.  Is this a suitor paying a visit to play music with the young people already in the room (there’s a viol laying on the table)?  Or, what else might be going on?  The woman’s dress is white, a symbol of purity, but her jacket is a color associated with passion.   Are the hand gestures a clear sexual innuendo or accidental?  Does the little dog between them represent fidelity as dogs often do, or is it just a domestic detail?   The equivocation here reminds us of Simon Schama’s discussion of the paradoxes in this society expressed in his well-received book, An Embarrassment of Riches (1987), stressing the polarities of materiality and spiritual virtues that had much to do with the production of works like this painting.

Gabriel Metsu
Man Visiting a Woman Washing her Hands, c. 1663-66
oil on canvas
unframed: 83.7 × 67.4 cm (32 15/16 × 26 9/16 in.)
framed: 112 × 96 × 10 cm (44 1/8 × 37 13/16 × 3 15/16 in.)
Waddesdon Manor, The Rothschild Collection (Rothschild Family Trust)
Mike Fear © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

We can compare the ter Borch with a similar painting by Gabriel Metsu, Man Visiting a Woman Washing her Hands (Waddeson Manor) of a few years later.  In this work, the setting includes a large bed in the immediate background, as well as a mirror turned towards it.  In Metsu’s painting the woman’s costume is almost exactly like that in the ter Borch, with the addition of a linen coif over her hair.  The door is opened by a young man who looks gently at her while the maid between them beams a broad, knowing smile as she pours water over a basin for the woman to wash her hands.  Again, this is an image that runs between vice and admonition.  The choice is the woman’s.  And there are many others works in this category.  The notion that Metsu might well have been inspired by the example of ter Borch is obvious here, but the way in which the former artist charged the situation is also compelling.

Frans van Mieris
Woman Feeding a Parrot, 1663
oil on panel
unframed: 22.38 × 17.78 cm (8 13/16 × 7 in.)
framed: 40.01 × 35.2 × 5 cm (15 3/4 × 13 7/8 × 2 in.)
The Leiden Collection, New York
© The Leiden Collection, New York
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

There are three paintings in the exhibit with the subject of a woman with a parrot, all painted within a few years of each other.  There was certainly some inspiration among the artists who treat the subject similarly, but with distinct differences.  While it is true that exotic pets like parrots were a sign of wealth and luxury, the animals have a somewhat equivocal symbolism in art history.  They can signify truth in that they repeat one’s words for the entire world to hear.  They can represent the sense of Touch or of Hearing.  But they can also symbolize temptation, and even represent a surrogate lover when paired with women.  Frans van Mieris’ Woman Feeding a Parrot (1663, Leiden Collection) suggests the latter as the young woman touches her heart while she looks intently at the bird and offers it a bit of food.  Caspar Netscher’s version (1666, National Gallery, Washington) is more tactile and engaging.  The young woman looks out at the viewer with an inviting smile, while holding the bird on her hand.  She is seen through what appears to be an open window, over which is draped an expensive Persian carpet.  A surprised page holds a tray behind her.  Either of these paintings could also be interpreted as an allegory of the senses, but again, the equivocal nature of the parrot suggests that there could be more intended here.

Johannes Vermeer
Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664
oil on canvas
painted surface: 39.7 x 35.5 cm (15 5/8 x 14 in.)
stretcher size: 42.5 x 38 cm (16 3/4 x 14 15/16 in.)
framed: 62.9 x 58.4 x 7.6 cm (24 3/4 x 23 x 3 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection.
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

On another note, Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance (c. 1664, National Gallery, Washington) is an example of a genre scene with profound theological implications.  The woman in this painting approaches a table covered with jewels and some gold coins.  She holds a small balance in her hand as though waiting for it to still.  Behind her is a painting representing the Last Judgement.  The mood is timeless, reflective, and silent.  Curator Arthur Wheelock has commented that Vermeer first exhibited this painting within a box.  Therefore, one could only view it after opening the doors of the case frame.  It would require a decision to view the work only in moments when the viewer was ready to contemplate its meaning.  It would have been a private moment, for “both visual and spiritual enrichment”.[1]


Johannes Vermeer
Lady Writing,
c. 1665
oil on canvas
overall: 45 x 39.9 cm (17 11/16 x 15 11/16 in.)
framed: 68.3 x 62.2 x 7 cm (26 7/8 x 24 1/2 x 2 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer,
Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer. 
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

This brings me back to the comments I made earlier about Vermeer, and the distinction of his works among those of his contemporaries.  While others of these artists certainly imbued their works with admonitions and moral references, none are of this spiritual depth.  The objects and persons in Vermeer’s paintings exist in another world; one that is at a remove from ours, even if the subject is looking out toward the viewer.  An excellent example of this is Vermeer’s Lady Writing (c. 1665-67, National Gallery, Washington).   Sitting at a table wearing a yellow fur- trimmed jacket, the lady pauses momentarily to turn towards us, a gentle smile playing on her lips.  A tiny private moment captured forever as in amber.  The painting is small, and set into a large carved wooden frame that makes it appear much deeper than it does without the frame’s effect.  Seeing the painting in the exhibit, I was struck by how far away the lady seems, how enveloped in her own atmosphere, a soft haze that separates our ordinary world from hers.  Also significant is Vermeer’s simplification of form, the lack of excessive or highly described detail that would distract us from the lady’s contemplative gaze.  This is probably at the core of what separates his work visually from the others in the exhibit: an almost abstract, flattening approach to forms, simplifying the painted image so as to increase the focus on emotional sensibility.  A tiny brushstroke of white or lemon yellow turns our attention to an object like this woman’s pearl earrings that shine like little lights on each side of her face.

Gabriel Metsu
Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-66
oil on panel
unframed: 52 x 40.5 cm (20 1/2 x 15 15/16 in.)
framed: 71.2 × 59.2 × 5.5 cm (28 1/16 × 23 5/16 × 2 3/16 in.)
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland. 
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

I can’t conclude this essay without mentioning another splendid painting by Gabriel Metsu.  Man Writing a Letter (c. 1664-6, National Gallery of Ireland) approaches the character of Vermeer’s representation of the subject with a very similar sense of the privacy of the moment, and the expression of deep feelings on the part of the subject.  The atmosphere is clear, but soft.  Metsu uses natural light falling into the room to extraordinary advantage.  It illumines the young man, heightening the contrast of his black jacket and white cuffs which are painted with a broadness of brushstroke reminiscent of Vermeer.  The contrasting red in the pattern of the carpet on his table, in the window embrasure and behind his chair brightens the scene.  The light cast on the back wall of his room creates colored shadows that are painted with an extraordinary fluidity.  These surround a pastoral scene in an elaborate golden frame.  As in other works by this artist, a painting on the wall connotes the subject’s emotions, and sets a tone.  A globe in the corner behind the open window may suggest that his letter is about imminent travel.  Whatever the case, it is an arresting image, and a good deal larger than Vermeer’s Lady Writing.  Moreover, although Vermeer was also set apart by his Catholic faith, and all these artists were located in places at some distance from one another in the Netherlands, paintings like this demonstrate the close connections among Dutch painters active in this period.

[1] Arthur K. Wheelock, “On Balance,” in Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, Exhibition catalogue, Yale University Press, New Haven-London, 2017, p. 191.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is on view October 22, 2017 – January 21, 2018 at the National Gallery of Art.  Visit the museum’s website at for up-to-the-minute information on planning your visit.