For a few weeks now Vermeer’s Women – secrets and silence, is sitting at my coffee table. It is a wonderful book with lots of pictures of beautiful 17th century paintings. A book I more or less fell in love with while flipping through its pages time and time again. Some of my most favorite Dutch masterpieces are depicted inside.
In fact this book is a catalogue of an exhibition. The paintings depicted were on show in The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Mass. last winter. A show I, unfortunately, missed entirely.
Being interested in 17th century art I not only looked at the paintings over and over again I also started reading the essays. The exhibition was curated by Betsy Wieseman, an American arthistorian who now works for the famous British National Gallery. And she did a good job. She choose the paintings with care because she had a story to tell. She also choose her co-authors with care. Two famous American professors of Art History who shed their light on Dutch women in the 17th century and their role in society.
The key message of the exhibition and its catalogue is actually quite simple. It can be summed up in ‘nothing is as it seen in 17th century Dutch art.’ Painters like Vermeer who paint really realistic make it seem their depiction of life was the way life was in the Netherlands in the 17th century. This is a myth. These painters were just supplying the market with the taste of the market. And in the second half of this century the taste of the market was simply for quiet, self-contained images that incorporate the contemporary ideals of feminine beauty and domesticity.
The interiors of the houses were carefully constructed to satisfy aesthetic imperatives. As Wieseman points out ‘… a savy viewer would never have mistaken the painted interior for an accurate representation of a Dutch home of the era’ (page 18). In real life the houses were much more sparse, barely lit, filled with hustle and bustle of a large household and noises from the streets. So the idea we might have of elegant homes filled with beautiful rugs, large maps of the world, lit by chandeliers and decorated with marble tile floors is a construct.
Role of women
The role women played in these beautifully constructed interiors, doing needlework, playing music, reading or writing letters and tending children, is played in solitude and silence. These paintings might have appealed to both men and women alike. Men because the Dutch home was depicted as a domestic haven sheltered from stresses and anxieties of the outside world. Women because the paintings showed the most desirable behavior for women. Quiet and modest, silent and elegant not loud and flirtatious which was regarded as lower class behavior and unworthy.
The described ideal of feminine beauty and behavior originates from the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch. By the time the famous Dutch painters were painting their masterpieces, this ideal had spread all over Europe. As a result silence and stillness were not only a mark of refinement but also a strong aphrodisiac (page 38). Dutch painters like Vermeer, Dou and Ter Borch were masters in creating this silent, elegant world where women are aloof and mysterious. Thus reinforcing the Petrarch ideal of feminine beauty for both men and women for many decades.
Antia Wiersma is Manager Public Affairs at Aletta E-Quality, Institute for Gender Equality and Women’s History. She is also an ardent art lover.