Vermeer in Vancouver: Noticing the Obvious

For more Vermeer, Click Here to go to my post “Inspired By Vermeer”.

Vancouver Art Gallery’s premier summer kick-off is the impressive exhibition: Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. The exclusive show of masterpieces from Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum includes paintings, drawings, and decorative arts from 17th century Holland. After five hours at the Gallery, I left hungry for more Vermeer. Overall it was gratifying, but I was expecting just a few more glimpses of the great master.

Of all the 128 pieces of art work, there’s just one Vermeer painting. Placed at the end of the exhibit, apparently the highlight and climax of the show, is Vermeer’s Love Letter (1669). From his signature point of view, peeking through a partial opening of pulled-back curtain, we look into another room and see a maid just handed her mistress a letter. By the exchange of their glances, it seems they’re sharing a secret understanding. This is another one of Vermeer’s works that’s full of potential stories and rich in subtexts. Actually anyone of them is a novel to be written, not less dramatic as Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Vermeer's The Love Letter

Love Letter by Vermeer (1669-70)


17th century Holland was a new Republic that had just gained independence from Spanish rule. The beginning of the exhibits sets the stage depicting a young nation with great maritime power. Domestically, it was a country marked by a vibrant economy and a rising middle class, as well as the flowering of arts and science, architecture and urban planning.

In the midst of such affluence and fresh hope, some of the artists spoke with their brushes as prophets of their time. Among paintings of naval glory and conquests, as well as glimpses of domestic life of the rich, there are also the quiet displays of still life. I must have seen them before. Why have I not noticed their significance previously?

They are paintings of withered blossoms, burnt out candles, hourglasses, books and musical instruments, and most prominently, skulls, eerie arrays of them, decaying bones and teeth. Why all these objects? The audio commentary confirms that they are Vanitas still life, the term rooted in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities.” And obviously, they are symbols of the fleeting nature of life, the callous passage of time, the transience of knowledge and human achievements:

Pieter Claesz Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz: Vanitas Still Life (1628)


Skulls on a Table

Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor: Skulls on a Table (1660)


On the piece of writing crumpled up is one last word, Finis, The End:

Still Life with Books Jan de Heem

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Books (1625-29)

It’s commendable that the rich and powerful were willing to be reminded thus, considering these were once paintings adorning the walls of their affluent homes, a nagging presence they could not ignore. And they must have paid to have them painted.


One of my favorites in the exhibition is Nicolaes Maes’ Old Woman in Prayer. Maes, a student of Rembrandt, had captured the simple piety of the old woman of lowly means: her earnest concentration, wrinkled face and hardened hands, the earthen wares and simple meal, and above all, her meager possessions on the ledge, an open Bible, a lamp, an hourglass and a prayer book. The warm light on her face almost makes her look divine. Maes did not forget to include a comic relief, her cat at the lower right bottom must have known what’s for dinner:

Nicolaes Maes Old Woman in Prayer

Nicolaes Maes: Old Woman in Prayer (1650-60)


Sources: Skulls on a Table from Vancouver Sun. All other paintings in this post: Rijkmuseum, Amsterdam.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Vermeer in Vancouver: Noticing the Obvious”

  1. Oh lovely. I might have to hop up to Vancouver while I’m in Seattle this summer to go to the art museum…

    That’ll be one side trip that’s worth your while, Ellen.


  2. I like the old woman (and her cat!), too. Thanks for your insights into 17th century Dutch culture. Fascinating stuff!

    I don’t know whether you can see it on the screen… but I’m sure the cat could smell it. It’s salmon for dinner.


  3. I gobbled up the information you gave us, thank you. I grew up with an old Dutch painting by an unknown painter, and maybe because of that I am partial to the Dutch artists. It must be their religious beliefs that made them remind themselves of the vanity of things?


    Yes, Protestantism was the prevalent faith, in particular, Calvinism. Vermeer however converted to become a Catholic, adhering to his wife’s family tradition. No matter, the book of Ecclesiastes spoke to all. If King Solomon in his most glorious days could utter “Vanity of vanities”, anyone should pay attention. I’m glad somebody did and left us with masterpieces as reminder.

    Also, I’m curious to know which Dutch painting was adorning your wall.



  4. Hi, Arti,

    Crawling out from under my pile of dock-work, I am, and look what’s waiting for me! Beautiful posts full of interest, not to mention beauty and truth waiting there down the line!

    I confess ~ I’m not much of a fan of such paintings. They’re too dark, not so much in subject as tone, and leave me feeling a little dismal. I used to visit homes where the walls still were covered in that 1950s brown faux wood paneling and the drapes always were closed. I’d nearly suffocate, and despite my admiration for these masters, they’re not paintings I could live with.

    Nevertheless, the learning-about is good, and I’m so glad you enjoyed them. I suspect the vanities of life get communicated to us in different ways, the better to make the point!

    Off to work now, but I’ll be back tonight with/more comments and correspondence!


    1. Actually my interest in Vermeer started with the book Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. It was ingenious of her to use her imagination to construct a story behind the mysterious girl in the painting. And the film based on the book is the definitive rendition of Vermeer in lieu of actually seeing his work. Since reading the book, I’ve become one of many Vermeer fans now 400 years later.

      And for the gloomy subjects, especially skulls, I admit I avoided seeing them and hesitated posting them … until the beautiful exhibit catalogue, (using this painting as its cover) convinced me that they are not sinister in themselves but act as a good reminder of our mortality and all the rest.


      1. Arti,

        I’ve just read another time through your creative review of the assorted arts involving the Girl with a Pearl Earring, and find I have a rather different response to that painting. I recognized it immediately, although I didn’t know it was a Vermeer ~ it has more of the play of light that makes a painting appealing to me.

        I didn’t mean to imply I found the skulls distasteful. As momento mori, they’re as common as the hourglasses, scythes and such that often pop up. It’s just the tone, the darkness, the sense of gloominess that leaves me restless. I have a visceral need for light, and apparently that’s so even in my art.

        My mother and I have funny little battles about this issue. She prefers every curtain drawn and every blind lowered, while I want the windows uncovered and as much sunlight as possible. Quite seriously, I’m thinking I might get her a book on Vermeer or some notecards with his paintings on them. I suspect she’d like them!


      2. Linda,

        Recently I’ve learned that the quality of the light is found in the shadow. I love the deeper meaning this principle infers. And considering your lively description of your mother and daughter contrasts, I think yes, your Mom would appreciate Vermeer and his works. Actually many of them have lively human interests. His landscape of Delft is also beautiful. Mind you, he never painted any skulls.


  5. It was a real painting by a Dutch painter, but we have never been able to decipher who the artist was. There were 8 canvases divided from one, and so they were spread around the family. Some were in better shape than others, but they are very old – as old as Vermeer? I don’t know. We didn’t take them to a big art dealer like Sotheby’s.

    Do you mean it’s an original painting? Wow if so, you really need to bring it to Sotheby’s.


  6. Arti,
    I am coming back so late to this discussion (happily, as it turns out), but as I am so good at noticing the obvious ;)…an artist friend once told me that it is at the point where light and shadow intersect that ‘true’ color can be found. With shadow defining light and not-space space, this is becoming metaphoric dynamite…last year I had the privilege of attending an exhibit of Dutch masters, including Rembrandt and Vermeer, and while the pearl earring girl was not present, another, similar painting “Portrait of a Young Woman,” was. The pose is similar, but the light, well, it’s dark, except for the girl’s face and shoulders, which paradoxically gives her a much more innocent look than the other Girl (no, it is not the same model). Interesting, no? Or ridiculous? (I know so little about art; that’s why I’m so glad to have people like you to learn from)


    1. ds,

      I’m no artist or painter, and learning everyday. As I mentioned in my reply to Linda’s comment, I recently learned in my film course at Regent that it’s the shadow which defines the quality of the light. I’ve also found that there are similarities, obviously, in looking at film and art. (You see, I’m trying to sharpen my skill of noticing the obvious)

      I’ve discovered some more interesting facts about Vermeer’s influence on his posterior. That’s another post! Thanks for sharing.


  7. thank god i read this review, i might have foolishly wasted my money to see 1 Vermeer. what a ridiculous load of false advertising this is to list Vermeer first. what a joke.
    thanks again


    I must admit I was a bit disappointed at just one Vermeer. However, the whole exhibition is excellent. It certainly presents some good representations of the Golden Age of Dutch Art, not just paintings, but decorative arts, and a replica of the camera obscura. I still think it’s a worthwhile event.



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