Catch It While You Can - Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence

Althoughonly contains four paintings by Vermeer himself, this exhibition, full of unknown female subjects and wonderful Dutch interiors, is an absolute delight.

It was very busy inside the Mellon Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum when I visited on a Friday afternoon; the buzz surrounding Johannes Vermeer and his 17th-century Dutch contemporary painters was evident. Overhearing snippets of conversation was an enjoyable consequence of this: one man was commenting upon the "erotic displacement" in Samuel van Hoogstraten's View of an Interior (or its traditional title, The Slippers).

This painting is featured within the 'Threshold' section of the neatly structured exhibition curated by Betsy Wieseman; the three sections themselves create thresholds, leading to the focal piece, Vermeer's The Lacemaker. With its images of women in domestic settings, the exhibition explores the relationship between inside and outside, public and private. It is interesting to note that the Dutch home was representative of an ordered country, following a long period of war.

The first section is entitled 'Invitation', with the suggestion that, here, the women are inviting the gaze of an audience. Wieseman points out, for example, the theatrical curtain swept aside in Gerrit Dou's A Young Woman at Her Toilet, a painting that is indicative of the blurred lines between public and private that are at play throughout the exhibition. This scene, which depicts a woman at her dressing table looking in the mirror, creates an intimacy which is at odds with the stage curtain. Dou's Woman at a Window and Vermeer's A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal also hold a sense of drama; the latter is highly decorative and has again the curtain drawn aside signifying the idea of public display, further reinforced by the musical subject matter.

The curtain is replaced by doorways, archways and windows in the middle section, entitled 'Threshold', which includes Pieter de Hooch's The Courtyard of a House in Delft and as mentioned earlier, Hoogstraten's View of an Interior. This piece has a wonderful sense of depth, with its two doorways drawing the viewer towards the painting hung on the right in the inner room of this Dutch home. The painting within the painting, like Dou's use of the mirror, leads to a layering effect and focus on the whole notion of the image. View of an Interior is intriguing, particularly when viewing within the context of this exhibition, due to the very fact that the female subject is missing; we infer from the slippers Hoogstraten's implication of sex.

We then move on to the final section, 'Sanctum', which contains the most intimate works of the collection. An example of this is Jan Steen's Woman at her Toilet, where there are again sexual undertones, with the exposed flesh of the woman putting on a red stocking in her bedchamber. Vermeer's other two pieces in this exhibition are also hung here: A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman or The Music Lesson and of course, The Lacemaker. The Music Lesson depicts a private encounter, where there is a great sense of distance between the viewer and the subjects.

The Lacemaker, currently on loan from the Louvre, rightfully had a small crowd gathered around it. The female subject here is particularly enigmatic; her head is lowered, focused on her work. The small scale of the painting only adds to the intrigue.

Although Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence only contains four paintings by Vermeer himself, this exhibition, full of unknown female subjects and wonderful Dutch interiors, is an absolute delight. Ideas surrounding privacy and the image itself are examined. It's both captivating and calming; we accept that more questions are proposed than answered. I'll be paying another visit before it finishes.

Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge runs until 15 January 2012. Admission: Free.


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