Friday, January 12, 2018

Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek: best buds pranking and pulling a fast one?

Yesterday Wayne and I went down to the National Gallery to see the exhibit VERMEER AND THE MASTERS OF GENRE PAINTING. It was time well and enjoyably spent. Dogs of a brown and white spaniel sort appear in several of the pictures, and we heard someone joking that the several painters all used the same dog, borrowing it one after another. This morning's Washington Post had an article on two breeds of dog now newly recognized by the American Kennel Club: one is the nederlandse kooikerhondje, a brown and white spaniel which looks just like the dogs in the mid-seventeenth century paintings. I was about to write a letter to the Post pointing out that the dogs in the Post picture looked a lot like the dogs in the paintings. When I pointed this out to my friend Jane, she responded that the Post did mention (in the later edition she read) that the dogs sometimes appeared in old paintings: in other words, as she put it, someone beat me to it.
There were also parrots in some of the paintings. The first one I spotted, from a distance, looked like an African Gray Parrot to me. But on closer inspection, it appeared to be green. Is this a case of an originally gray pigment ageing to green?
Earlier today I was looking at pictures of poppies in an on-line seed catalog. That reminded me that there is a Vermeer at the National Gallery which was not included in the exhibit: his Girl with the Red Hat. I did a post about this in 2016; take a look here:

As I looked at that face this morning, I had a bit of startling insight - or was it delusion? To me that face was familiar. And it was something I saw in the exhibit yesterday which seemed to bring several things together. The exhibit included the famous paintings The Astronomer and The Geographer. There is a tradition that A. Van Leeuwenhoek was the model for the men portrayed in these paintings. Not a lot seems to be known about the connection between Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer, but this much is known: the records of their births appear on the same page of the registry in the Delft church where these were recorded. And Van Leeuwenhoek was the executor of Vermeer's will.
Girl with the Red Hat is a bit of a puzzle. The subject of the painting is wearing an outlandish get up: there is no reason to believe that the citizens of Delft went around dressed that way. That pretty much rules out its genesis as a portrait. Nor is it a typical genre piece. The painting seems not to emphasize the quality of the garments so much as it obviously gives the artist the opportunity to display some exquisite brush work. And what is that hat made of? But what really catches the eye is that beautifully rendered face. No female face in the exhibit comes close to this one: it's so natural, so warm and alive, so real. And when I look at that face I see the same face looking out from the painting of The Geographer, the face,  it seems to me,  of a young, comely Van Leeuwenhoek.
Were Vermeer and Van Leeuwenhoek best buds? Are they pranking here and trying to pull off a fast one on us?
You've got until January 21 to get down to the museum and see all three paintings for yourself. The Astronomer and the The Geographer are in the big exhibit,  Girl with the Red Hat is in Gallery 50A. And is this the first time all three have been under the same roof at the same time since they left Vermeer's studio?