A happy coincidence brought me to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin just as I was reading Laura J. Snyder’s book Eye of the Beholder, which is a joint biography of Anton van Leuwenhoek, the pioneer microscopist, and his neighbour (and, most likely, friend) Johannes Vermeer. The Gemäldegalerie has two fine Vermeers, the culmination of a series of galleries which gives an impressive and coherent overview of the Northern Renaissance which then lead into a series of galleries showing paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. What we see in the Northern Renaissance can be very roughly summarised as the outcome of experimentation at many levels – with oil paint rather than tempera, with non-religious subject matter and with compositional techniques such as single-point perspective. Ideas had filtered up to the north from Italy, but the range of outputs is distinctively different from those of their southern European contemporaries. There is no hard and fast delineation between the Northern Renaissance (roughly 16th century) and the Dutch Golden Age (roughly 17th century) but the Golden Age pictures are distinctively different. Experiments with light and perspective have borne fruit (Vermeer, of course, but also Pieter Saenredam), portraiture becomes more naturalistic and, indeed, intense (Rembrandt and Frans Hals), landscape, the “background” to many Northern Renaissance paintings, becomes a legitimate subject in its own right (Jacob van Ruisdaal, Aelbert Cuyp) and activities hitherto too mundane for consideration become legitimate subjects (Vermeer’s domestic interiors; also Pieter de Hooch).
Johannes Vermeer: Woman with a pearl necklace (1664, left) and The Wine Glass (1660, right). Both in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
Laura Snyder’s book offers some insights. The possibility that Vermeer used optical technology such as the camera obscura to ensure accurate depiction of perspective has been examined before. The issue, however, may be less to do with the “tricks” that Vermeer used than with the broader intersections between artists and natural scientists at the time, both exploring new ways to “see” the natural world. Look at Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child, in the Gemäldegalerie. In this masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance there are aspects of perspective and the proportions of the baby Jesus that suggests that he is following tradition rather than looking afresh at the world. The priority on direct experience over tradition is key to understanding both the scientific revolution and the art of the Dutch Golden Age and the intersection of the lives of van Leuwenhoek and Vermeer – two men who are remembered for the way in which they saw the world around them – is no mere coincidence.
Jan van Eyck: Madonna in the Church (c. 1440). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
This, however, is not the whole story. Snyder and others (Simon Scharma’s Embarrassment of Riches springs to mind) point to the wealth of the Dutch Republic during this period and how this fuelled an art market to provide paintings for the burgeoning and prosperous middle classes to decorate their homes. The market, in other words, fuelled creativity. This takes us down some interesting paths: is it demand, or is it competition amongst artists to satisfy the demand? There was an interesting item on the BBC website recently that argued that creativity is, to some extent, dependent upon repetition. The demand for art, in other words, drives the process. Vermeer, to be fair, with only 34 paintings unambiguously attributed to him, may be the exception to this rule, but living in an environment where so many artists were simultaneously trying to solve the same problems of perspective, colour and composition must surely have fuelled his own investigations into the depiction of the world around him?
Just to be clear, the free market coupled with craftsmanship may have produced the best art in the seventeenth century. In our age of mass production and multinational corporations the opposite may well be true. That’s a topic for another day…
Snyder, L.J. (2015). Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the reinvention of seeing. Norton, New York and London.