Vermeer’s Change of Mind

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Whilst in the main art gallery in Dresden recently, a large painting with a rather beautiful oriental carpet in it caught my eye. The painting called The Procuress was painted in 1656 and depicted the buying of a young woman for sex. I was amazed to discover that it was painted by Vermeer, that master of the quiet, contained bourgeois interior. The four figures in The Procuress lean into the picture and over the oriental carpet.  The young woman who is being procured is modestly dressed in a white cap and brilliant yellow jacket.  The man paying for her favors leans over her, coin in hand ready to drop it into her outstretched palm whilst his left hand firmly covers her left breast. Despite the coarseness of this transaction there is a gentleness and intimacy to the two figures who have agreed the deal. The couple are bathed in light, a light which separates them slightly from the procuress herself, an androgynous figure in black with a slightly menacing smile who peers round at them from the back of the painting. A man on the left of the picture in a large black hat looks out at us, smiling. He is not part of the threesome but rather an observer of the scene which is unfolding before him and us.

 

This painting was so unlike the Vermeer that I thought I knew and the one whom was lodged in my imagination, that I found it hard to believe that he had painted it. The Procuress is a big painting, far larger than all those subtle later pictures of interiors. But it was the subject matter that really surprised me.  This is one of the few paintings known to exist of the artist’s attempts at subjects of Bordeeltje or low life.  In the mid 17th century when he painted this there was a flourishing group of Bordeeltje painters who painted brothels and street life, often lascivious in content. Many painters of the period made their living painting such scenes, yet within a year of painting The Procuress Vermeer had produced Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window. The painter had moved quickly from painting biblical scenes to The Procuress and then had another dramatic change in style and content and spent the rest of his life painting what we now all think of as typical Vermeer; studies in calm domesticity with intense psychological interest and insight.  It is as if the painter’s interest in the external world of religion, power, money and sexual favors had swung dramatically to the other end of the spectrum, into a smaller internal world of thoughts and feelings where the room depicted becomes part of the subject’s and the beholders imagination. The observer is now the viewer of the painting rather than a figure in the painting itself.

 

Vermeer’s concentration in his paintings on domestic and internal worlds have been understood by psychoanalysts as a reaction to his turbulent private life. This is entirely speculative however and as a result, I believe, of little interest. All we really have to go on is our own responses to Vermeer’s paintings. I find the different ways in which I respond to The Procuress and Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window tell me something about where the painter’s interests lay. I think The Procuress is a wonderful painting, which engages me in an extroverted world of colour and street life and story. It is a painting about doing and action and is a sensitive depiction of how women’s bodies were used and sold. I can only imagine that he would have been a successful painter of Bordeeltje if he had continued on this path. For whatever reason however Vermeer then began painting pictures about introversion and being in the moment and, surprisingly for the times, these qualities are almost entirely given to women. My responses to these two painting are therefore significantly different. Girl Reading a Letter draws me in and makes me think in a way that The Procuress does not.

 

When he was painting Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window Vermeer had originally painted a picture of Cupid hanging on the wall behind the young woman, but he painted this out and a tall blank wall remains. The picture of Cupid would have been seen as a direct reflection of the content of the letter; that it was a love letter, but without this we are left to speculate what kind of a letter it is that the young woman is reading. The painting makes you work at your own imaginative understanding. A long green curtain is drawn back to the right of the picture, framing the scene we are being shown, as if we have been allowed to gaze at a private moment. The young girl faces the open window where there is light for her to see her letter. Her face is composed and concentrated as she reads down to the bottom of the bent page. We can see her reflection in the glass of the open pane; this moment of concentration and reflection is captured by Vermeer in a way in which he makes us believe that there is nothing more important in life than being able to appreciate these moments of aliveness and being. We are lucky enough to have been shown something that would normally have been private. If this young woman knew we were looking she would not have been so entirely in her own time and moment. By seeing her we are able to recognize those moments in ourselves, when we lose awareness of our bodies and our surroundings for brief periods of time. In this supreme painting of emotional concentration this young woman is unaware of her physical self, the external world is for a moment, lost to her and so it is on some level to us. We know on one level that it is a delightful room with a scarlet red curtain draped over the window and a beautiful oriental rug covering a table, but these visual elements seem to be part of the state we are experiencing rather than part of a real room.

 

Vermeer used corners of his house and his props of curtains and rugs much in the same way that Matisse did three centuries later. Yet Matisse did this in a calculated way knowing that this was by then a very accepted mode of conveying feeling and mood. Vermeer elicits an emotional response in us by apparently painting reality, this lovely room with curtains and rug and fruit in a bowl appears to draw us in but once there we find that we are in the body of the young woman and experiencing what she is experiencing. Then we realize that this room is also part of that experience. It is a room that changes to reflect the human presence in it.  We have been seduced into a state of mind; and what a fascinating and engaging seduction it is. For as in all successful seductions we have glimpsed a part of ourselves.

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