It's a woman's world: How Dutch masters revered their female subjects

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

An exhibition of the work of Johannes Vermeer and his fellow Dutch masters at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge shows how they revered their female subjects, says Adrian Hamilton

No exhibition of Johannes Vermeer's paintings can be anything but a joy. The Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, however, has gone one better with a show not just of several of his greatest works but shown them among similar works by his contemporaries in a way that makes you look at them with an entirely fresh light.

Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence is built around the loan from the Louvre of Vermeer's The Lacemaker of 1670. The French museum had wanted to borrow one of the Fitzwilliam's most valuable paintings, Titian's late Tarquin and Lucretia. And so a rich exchange was agreed. Titian in return for what must be one of the Louvre's very finest works, the Dutch master's intense gaze on a lady at work making bobbin lace.

Face to face with this small masterpiece , you are drawn into an action and a world that is completely compulsive. Everything is perfect and everything is calculated, the light that falls on her face, the plastered wall behind her, the coloured threads falling from the box in thickly applied paint contrasting with the exquisite lace round her neck. It's a work you can look at again and again without ever fully encompassing its meaning.

Around this loan, the curator of the show, Marjorie Wieseman from the National Gallery, has elaborated a theme of the Dutch fascination with women in the home, the silent world of domestic chores, private rooms and cloistered existence. The Dutch passions for interiors – they were some of the most expensive pictures of their day – is well known. So are all those scene paintings of stolen kisses, secret letters and drunken revelry. But this show of 32 works takes a particular tack, concentrating on the way that women in these interiors are looked at.

It's a very contemporary concern. A decade ago, the subject might have aroused a passionate feminist examination of the male painter's celebration of domestic virtues that were in reality a form of servitude. And you can still take that interpretation if you so wish. Vermeer stands apart, but the paintings by Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Nicolaes Maes and others represented here were undoubtedly understood to be praising the middle-class family values held to be the foundation of the newly nascent Dutch Republic. The hanging keys in the locks and the bright light outside that shines through the windows and open doors are reminders that the world of women was a constricted one.

What impresses about these pictures, however, is not the social points being made or the moral references to the vanity of the dressing table that are such a feature of the narrative and conversational pictures of the time. It is the absence of men. The women portrayed by the Dutch painters of the mid-17th century were all painted by men and their works bought by men. Yet in the works gathered here there is such total concentration on capturing the woman at work or in thought, that they become objects of veneration in their own right, a lauding of womanhood as much as their usefulness.

Jan Steen, best known for his low- and high-life scenes, is the most voyeuristic with his pictures of a woman undressing in her bedroom but few of the other paintings are so openly erotic. In some, the sitter is aware of the onlooker's presence but looks blankly and disinterested. In most, it is the woman's daily tasks that absorbs her and our attention. Gerard ter Borch is particularly good at communicating the way that his women's hands work their tasks while their minds drift to other things.

The biggest revelation to me, however, are the paintings by Jacobus Vrel. Almost nothing is known about him, where he was born and where he died. But his works belong entirely to himself in their stark minimalism. In one picture, the woman leans out of an open window suffused with light, the room barely enlivened by a tiny fire in the lower right hand corner. Then in one extraordinary picture, an elderly woman topples forward from her chair to peer through the window at the face of a child on the other side. A ghost from the past, the memory of her own lost childhood or a stranger? We simply don't know.

The sense of the unknowable is the abiding sense of these works. What are these women thinking of as they ply their tasks? In earlier days the assumption was that, if they were reading a letter or dreaming, it would concern a relationship with a man, now one is more inclined to read a privacy that we cannot as viewers breach.

Vermeer is the genius at it. The exhibition ends, as is only proper, with The Lacemaker. But it also has three other works, including the Queen's The Music Lesson, in which the mirrored face of the girl playing the virginal glances sidewise to suggest something we cannot quite guess at, and the National Gallery's brilliant study of texture and balance A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal. To lead off the show is a rather less well-known Vermeer, from a private collection and only fairly recently established as a work by the painter himself. It's from the same period as The Lacemaker. Indeed, analysis has shown that the canvas is from the same bolt of cloth. It is again a painting of a girl at the virginal, only this time concentrating on the girl herself. She looks up at us, acknowledging our presence but giving nothing away of her thoughts as she pauses in her playing.

That is the pleasure of this enchanting, and free, show. It encourages you to get up close and personal to the paintings, to look minutely at the exquisite detail of the dress, the hair, the slipped-off shoe and the carpeted table. But the closer you get, the more enigmatic these works become.

Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (01223 332900; www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk) to 15 January

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment