The Young Vermeer, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh


This tiny show of just three paintings, hung in a small, chapel-like rotunda in Edinburgh's National Gallery, is of great importance. Vermeer of Delft painted little. He came to fame late. Unlike Rembrandt and Gerrit Dou, he was not celebrated during his lifetime, and it was not until the middle of the 19th century that his works were rescued from oblivion, and began to be valued and evaluated properly. He produced about 60 works during his lifetime, of which just 36 survive. Given that he had a working life of approximately 20 years, this amounts to about three paintings a year.

So we have before our eyes 10 per cent of Vermeer's surviving output, shown all together for the first time, and all produced over a span of about three years, from 1653-6. They are very different in certain respects from the works of the mature Vermeer, but in other ways we see that other painter emerging into being in these canvases of his relative youth. Their single most striking feature is their size. How tub-thumpingly large they for Vermeers! We had thought that he was always intimately small. Not so.

In these works, Vermeer is striving to become known as a history painter in the making. The first of the three, Diana and Her Nymphs, is a version of a celebrated mythological scene, but it lacks the explosive narrative drive of other famous paintings that circle about this theme. It is quietly pitched, almost meditative. We see a small group of woman. One is kneeling, washing Diana's feet. Would we know that this was a scene from classical mythology? Barely at all. There is already an air of self-absorption in the way that these women's faces have been painted, which would be one of the defining characteristics of the mature painter. We also see the way in which he luxuriates in the use of colour on fabric, and how he plays with the light.

The second, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, painted a little later, is the re-imagining of an episode from the New Testament. Martha brings in the bread, a round loaf. Christ is seated, gesturing towards Mary. Mary is listening, rapt, crouched beside the table. Her enshadowed face, dark against the bright whiteness of the table cloth, is in profile. The third painting, which 19th-century critics decided to call The Procuress, makes a mighty leap in the direction of maturity. This is a genre painting, a scene of ordinary life. We are inside a brothel. We could call this a rather sinister vicious scene if we chose to do so. A young woman is being pawed over by a man with a coin in his hand, while another man looks on, leeringly. An old woman, the procuress, has a fiercely intent, raptor-like stare. And yet this painting, tonally, feels so tender. The young woman wears a lovely yellow blouson. The painting is almost dominated by a rug painted so carefully, so colourfully, so rapturously, and the young seductor's red coat with its piping so beguiles us too, that we rather feel that Vermeer gave no more than a second's thought to whether the scene was morally dubious. Ah, with freshly mixed paint, applied in such broad strokes, one can do so much! Yes, that's probably what he thought.

To 13 March (0131 624 6200 )

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power