Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Light Shines Through: How the Dutch Masters Paint Natural Light in the 1600s

Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675) was one of the many artists from the Golden Age Dutch Period.  During this time there were many paintings being made, mainly smaller genre paintings.  These paintings were easier to sell and less time consuming to make than larger commissions.  During this time, Dutch painting had less emphasis on religion and history paintings and more on everyday life.  Vermeer and the artists that we will see in this show fall into this category of painting.
Vermeer was called the painter of light and was one of the most renowned for using natural light sources.  In order to better understand his Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, and his title Master of Light, it is important to look at what other Dutch masters were doing at the same time period with natural light to showcase their subjects and how Vermeer was different from them.  
We will see that Vermeer chose to make light the most interesting part of his pieces while others focused more on other aspects such as story, darkness, character and subject matter, to make their paintings stand out.  With that being said, this curation will aim to show five different artists styles, all from the Dutch period. This will not only give us a better understanding of what made Vermeer stand out from his contemporaries but also give a look into the past to better understand the Dutch masters.  

Rembrandt, Anna and the Blind Tobit, ca. 1630, oil on oak, National Gallery, London, IN

In this first painting by Rembrandt, that is meant to represent piety and adversity, we see the similarities between it and the Young Woman with a Water Pitcher in that it shows calmness and peacefulness.  But these two paintings are also very different as well. This painting uses more dark shadows and colors and Rembrandt concentrates on the dark first and then adds the light. This is in contrast to Vermeer who wishes to make the light the subject of the painting.

Hooch, A Woman with a Child in a Basement Room, ca. 1656-1660, oil on canvas, Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam, No. 1248

Hooch and Vermeer both concentrated on light in a space and were fascinated by it.  Although A Woman with a Child in a Basement Room appears to be very similar to A Young Woman with Water Pitcher, the two are very different in many ways.  In comparing the two, they both have open windows that let in let to the picture but where Vermeer’s picture almost highlights the open window by making the woman gravitate towards it and the light, A Woman with a Child in a Basement Room concentrates on the figures and puts them off to the side, away from the light.

Steen, Merrymaking in a Tavern, 1674, oil on canvas, The Wallace Collection, AN P158

This picture by Jan Steen shows another picture with an open window using natural light but the
concentration of the whole picture is very different from that of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.  
This picture focus more on the busyness of the scene and the emotions and actions of each of the
characters, human conduct is shown in many stages of life. Whereas the Young Woman with the
Water Pitcher doesn’t even tell us exactly what she is doing, rather the picture focuses on the light
played on the subject.  

Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation, 1632, oil painting, The Louvre

Another picture by Rembrandt, Vermeer's competitor, shows again how Rembrandt and Vermeer are so different.  Rembrandt draws us into this painting by surrounding the figure with darkness and then adding a tiny bit of light for interest.  Young Woman with a Water Picture does the opposite by showing the light and emphasizing that by a tiny bit of dark color. They both show similarities in that the window truly illuminates the subject and causes them to seem more interesting.    

Molenaar, The Artist's Studio, 1631, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin,

The Artist’s Studio has an open window and even has a young woman leaning into the light and a water basin that can be see on the floor and a map on the wall.  However, the painting is much more about the story and the idea surrounding the people rather than the light surrounding them. There are some nice highlights on the vase on the floor that is similar to Young Woman with a Water Pitcher but again, the light is not the focal point rather the idea of painting in a studio. 
Hooch, The Card Players in a Sunlit Room, 1658, oil on canvas, Royal Collection, London, AN  RCIN 405951

In this painting by Hooch we see how there is so much light streaming in, the light captures the
faces of the people and makes their activities seem more interesting and captivating.  
This is different from Young Woman with a Water Pitcher because it has more light sources, the
 open door, whereas Vermeer uses just uses one light source but floods the whole picture with it.  
The other difference can be found in the subject matter, Hooch still centers in on what is happening
in the picture rather than the light in the picture, all the people in the picture seem to have an
important story to tell.

Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca.1662, Oil on canvas, Met Museum, AP 89.15.21

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher shows the craftsmanship of Vermeer, the Master of Light.  In this picture, we can see how Vermeer carefully crafted his composition to not focus necessarily on a story, or on what the subject was doing or about to do or even on certain normal relationships for that time period.  Instead Vermeer showcases light that streams from the open window onto the young woman. It is not important what she is doing but instead how she is seen in his light and that the light is the focal point, capturing a moment in time.  

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