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
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments