Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (c.1655)

Once again, as promised in my last blog, I am returning to a painting depicting the two biblical sisters Mary and Martha.  The setting for this painting is their meeting with Christ at their home, which unlike the setting and the story behind Cagnacci’s painting Martha Rebuking Mary for her Vanity which I featured in yesterday’s blog; this meeting was recorded in the Bible.  In Luke 10:38-39 it states:

“…As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  

The depiction of this meeting has been painted by many artists, such as Tintoretto in 1580, Diego Velázquez in 1618, and Rubens who painted a similar scene in 1628 but moved the setting to an outdoor terrace.  Christ at Home with Martha and Mary was painted by Joachim Beuckelaer, a kitchen scene, but from which we learnt about the rivalry between Mary and Martha.  A similar kitchen scene was depicted in the late 16th century painting entitled Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzo Campi.  In these last two paintings Martha is depicted working hard in the kitchen whilst Mary is sitting at the feet of Christ listening to what he had to say.  The tension between the two women as highlighted in these paintings was recorded in the Book of Luke 10:40-42:

“….But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?  Tell her to help me!”      “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,  but few things are needed—or indeed only one Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However the painting I am featuring today depicts Mary and Martha in seemingly perfect harmony as they listen to the words of Christ.  The painting is by the great Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer and is entitled Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.  He completed the work around 1655 and it is believed to be one of his earliest surviving paintings, coming some ten years before his more famous works, such as Girl with a Pearl Earringwhich he completed in 1665.    It is also thought to be one of his largest paintings, measuring 160 cm × 142 cm (63 in × 56 in) and this probably means it was painted for a specific commission.  The fact that the work is so large and has a very dark backdrop, unlike most of Vermeer’s later works it may not have been accredited to Vermeer but for his recognisable signature on the stool which Mary sits upon.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (1650)

There is a certain similarity with the way Vermeer has painted the folds in Christ’s robe with the 1650  painting  Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by the Flemish artist Erasmus Quellinus the Younger (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes) and one that Vermeer may have actually seen as his father, Reynier Jansz,  was an art dealer.

Before us we have the three figures, named in the title of the painting, in a kind of triangular formation almost filling the canvas.  The background is sombre and somewhat dark which ensures that we are not distracted from the three figures depicted in the work.  Our viewpoint is from the bottom left of the painting which leads art historians to believe that this could have been intended for an altarpiece which would have been above eye level.

Christ is seated, looking very relaxed.  There is a soft glow emanating from his head and this ensures that he is seen as the main figure of the three.  He wears a dark blue robe over a brown undergarment.  It is an unusual shade of blue and not the ultramarine that we see in later works by Vermeer.  The right arm of Christ stretches out as he points towards Mary.  At the same time he focuses his attention on Martha.  Our attention is immediately drawn to his outstretched arm as the colour of his skin and the brown sleeve of his undergarment stand out against the pure white of the table cloth.

Mary sits on the floor at the feet of Christ, her head resting on her hand.  She looks lovingly at Christ hanging on his every word.  Of the three she is by far the most exquisite.  Vermeer has painted her lovingly and may have been sympathetic with her contemplative nature.  Mary’s positioning in the painting at the feet of Christ is somewhat controversial as that place was usually taken up by one of Christ’s disciples and in those days for a teacher to accept a female as a disciple was unheard of.

Martha stands at Christ’s right-hand side  and we see her placing a loaf of bread on the table whilst at the same time leaning slightly forward listening to his words.  Her eyes are downcast and yet her eyebrows are raised in a questioning gesture.  She looks somewhat saddened and dissatisfied with something.  Could it be she is not happy with Christ’s support of Mary’s contemplative role?   There is a hint of a pout in her expression, which could hark back to the conflict between the two females.   All looks tranquil and peaceful in Martha and Mary’s house but I wonder if the fact that Martha is bringing in the food whilst Mary just sits and listens to the words of Christ harkens back to the different roles the women play in the household and the discord between the two sisters is caused by such differing roles.  Maybe we are at a point in time that Christ is explaining to Martha that although she is the “worker” of the household who is serving up the bread which she may just have baked, Mary’s role as a contemplative disciple is equally as important. This is more forcibly portrayed in other works of art.  I am sure there are many theologians who have looked in to the relationship between the two sisters but the general consensus is that Martha is the more aggressive and work-like female whereas Mary is the more quiet and contemplative woman.

Much has been written about the two females and it has been interesting to study the various paintings featuring the two sisters and by doing so trying to read the mind of the artist and figure out what he or she is trying to tell us about the women.

Card Players in a Sunlit Room by Pieter de Hooch

Card Players in a Sunlit Room by Pieter de Hooch (1658)

Today My Daily Art Display returns to the Netherlands for its featured artist.  Today I am looking at a painting by the 17th century Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter de Hooch.   He was a contemporary of the great Jan Vermeer and there are some similarities between their works which we will look at later.

Pieter de Hooch was born in 1629 in Rotterdam, just three years before the birth of Vermeer.  He was the eldest of five children.  His father Hendricksz de Hooch was a bricklayer whilst his mother Annetge Pieters was a midwife.  Pieter studied art in Haarlem at the studio of Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, the prolific Dutch Golden Age landscape painter.  His earliest employment was with Justus de la Grange a linen merchant and art collector where he acted as servant and general helper and it is thought that he paid for his board and lodgings by giving la Grange paintings some of his paintings, which was often the way aspiring artists managed to survive.  De Hooch went with la Grange on many of his business trips throughout Holland, including the town of Delft where he moved to temporarily in 1652, and on a more permanent basis in 1654 and 1655 during which time he joined the Guild of St Luke, the painters’ guild in Delft.

In 1654, whilst living in Delft, he married Jannetje van der Burch and the couple went on to have seven children.  In Delft he came under the influence of two of the town’s greatest painters, Carel Fabritius and Nicolaes Maes.  In the 1640’s, these two artists were originators  of the Delft School, a group of mid-17th century Dutch Golden Age painters named after its main base, the town of Delft.   It is best known for genre painting, such as images of domestic life, views of households, church interiors, courtyards, squares and the streets of the city.  The Delft School of painting in the 1650’s would number as its members the great Jan Vermeer and today’s featured artist.

Pieter de Hooch’s work at this time, both in style and subject matter, was in many ways similar to the paintings of Vermeer, who was still  living in Delft at that time.  De Hooch’s paintings, like Vermeer’s, were small works and though he sometimes painted open-air scenes and tavern genres he preferred painting two or three figures occupied with their normal daily duties and often shown in a sober interior interrupted only by the streaming in of radiant light from outside which, if by magic, transforms the scene.  At this time, the family unit was central to an increasing middle-class Dutch society, and de Hooch’s main characters in his works include friends, families and maids.  The world we see depicted in his paintings are glimpses of life seen unobtrusively through open doors and windows.  His works, which showed the simple life of the local inhabitants, were free of sentimentality and moralising.  Art historians believe that this period in Delft saw de Hoochcomplete his greatest works and that the artist was at this time at the height of his artistic powers.

In 1661, when Pieter de Hooch was thirty-two, he and his family moved on to Amsterdam.  De Hooch’s decision to leave Delft was undoubtedly brought on by the expectation of a larger market for his paintings in the flourishing and prosperous commercial centre of Amsterdam. It was here that he found a wealthier, more ambitious clientele, and the artwork they required was not of homely family scenes but paintings depicting extravagantly dressed people in contrived luxurious surroundings, such as country villas with palatial halls and their sumptuous marble interiors.  The patrons also wanted their paintings to be on a much large scale than he had tended to do in Delft.

In 1667 life took a turn for the worse for Pieter de Hooch.  His wife died leaving him, aged just 38, to bring up their large family.  Her death hit him hard and he struggled to cope with bringing up his young children.  Art critics believe that his struggle to survive affected his work.  His mental and physical health deteriorated and he died in 1684 in an Amsterdam mental asylum.  He was aged just 55.

The featured painting today is entitled Card Players in a Sunlit Room which he completed around 1658 whilst still living in Delft.  The finished work remained in Holland for almost one hundred and seventy years until it was bought by Lord Farnborough for King George IV of England in 1827.   It is now housed in the Royal Collection in London.  Before us we have two men and a woman sat at a table playing cards with another male onlooker standing besides the woman, pipe in hand, surveying the card game.  The mood of the painting is one of calmness.  There is an air of contemplation among the players.  This is not an animated scene, the participants are restrained.  The work is quite detailed in the way de Hooch has depicted the playing cards, the raised glass in the man’s hand and the broken pipe on the floor in the right foreground.  We fix our eyes on the fragments of the pipe on the floor and the five of spades playing card and cannot help but wonder why the artist has included them in the painting.  Was there some symbolism to its inclusion?  Should we look to interpret the existence of the abandoned pipe fragments and the single card on the floor or I wonder if the artist just wanted to get us to do what we are doing right now – trying to solve a mystery, when none exists!

One aspect of this painting which we have seen before in some of his other works is the setting of an inner room with an open door letting us see out into a much brighter exterior.  Observe the way de Hooch depicts the light flooding in from the sunlit courtyard in the middle ground of the painting, through the doorway into the interior, lighting up some parts of the room and some of the card players, whilst other parts are cast in shadow.    It is if de Hooch wants to showcase his skill in how he handles light as it falls over different surfaces.  Look how he has depicted the effect the sunlight has on the translucent curtains and the small panes of glass in the windows.  Again see how de Hooch has allowed the light streaming in through the door play on the card players, and by so doing, defining the form of their figures.

The paintings of Pieter de Hooch often exhibited a sophisticated and delicate treatment of light which was very similar to what we see in many of Jan Vermeer’s works, who as I said earlier, lived in Delft at the same time as de Hooch.  Art historians in the nineteenth century had originally assumed that Vermeer had been influenced by de Hooch’s work, but the opposite is now being seriously considered.

The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Art of Painting by by Johannes Vermeer (1667)

My Daily Art Display starts with a question.  Hands up if you have heard of Théopile Thoré sometimes known as  Théopile Thoré-Burger.  Not too many raised hands.  Second question – hands up if you have heard of Joannes Vermeer.   Hands are shooting up all over the place!   Did you know that but for the French journalist and art critic Théopile Thoré nobody may ever have discovered the artistry of our beloved painter from Delft?

Joannes Vermeer was a rather quiet man who enjoyed painting.  He did not push his work.  He did not need to sell his paintings to survive.  He just wanted to discover new painting techniques and liked to concentrate on how light and shadow could be best represented in paintings.  So here we have a man who didn’t paint profusely and during his time was not well known.  Dutch and Flemish art dealers obviously wanted to get their hands on works of art that they could sell at a profit and thus they were always seeking works of popular artists.  To them, the important thing was to know which artists were popular at the time and thus which paintings would make them the most money for them.   The only way they could find this out was by looking at sales registers and seeing which paintings were fetching the greatest amounts.  So, as Vermeer was not so well known at the time, art dealers who had bought his paintings were known to have erased his signature from the work and substitute it with the name of a more popular artist of the same painting genre and so the name of Vermeer as an artist faded.  That was until Étienne-Joseph-Théophile Thoré came onto the scene, almost two centuries after the death of Vermeer.

Joseph-Théophile Thoré was a French art critic and political journalist who founded the newspaper, La Vraie République,  which was later banned by the government as being subversive.  Thoré eventually had to leave France and went into exile to Brussels where he stayed for ten years until he was granted amnesty in 1859.  Whilst he was in Brussels he became interested in the work of the Dutch artists such as Frans Hals, Fabritius but especially in the works of Vermeer and was mystified at the lack of Vermeer paintings.  He had seen, and was extremely impressed with Vermeer’s painting View of Delft,  which he saw when he visited the Mauritshuis of The Hague and he could not understand why such a great artist was completely unknown at this time.   Thoré researched into Vermeer and his paintings and over time proved that many paintings which had been attributed to other Dutch artists were in fact works by Vermeer.

The painting featured in My Daily Art Display today is The Art of Painting, sometimes known as Painter in His Studio and was painted by Vermeer in 1667.   Until 1860 it was thought to be a painting by the Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch but thanks to the work of Thoré it was eventually attributed to Vermeer.  This painting is alleged to be the artist’s favourite.   He would never sell it even when times got hard.  It was only later, after his death that his widow, Catharina, bequeathed it to her mother to avoid it being taken by creditors. 

In this painting we see the Master at his best with an exquisite style of painting in the way he shows the various effects on the people and the objects of the light which streams through the window.   In the painting we see just two figures, the artist, who some art historians would have us believe is Vermeer himself.  However others disagree and point to the fact that a year after his death his widow referred to the painting as de Schilderkonst (the Art of Painting) rather than referring to it as “My Husband the Artist”.  The other person in the painting is the artist’s subject, a girl dressed as the Muse of History, Clio.  She is wearing a laurel wreath, holds a trumpet and carries a book by Thucydides, the Greek historian.   We know it is her because of Cesar Ripa’s 16th century book entitled Iconologia overo Descrittione Dell’imagini Universali cavate dall’Antichità et da altri luoghi , which was a highly influential book about Egyptian, Greek and Roman emblems and had been translated into Dutch in 1644.

There are other fascinating things about this painting.  We see a heavy curtain pulled to one side like a theatre curtain being drawn allowing us to see the actors on stage.  The addition of the drawn heavy and ornate curtain was a way in which Vermeer was able to achieve perspective.  You can see that the drawn curtain partially covers both the trumpet and map and some of the objects on the table.  Does he want us to come forward and draw the curtain further aside so we can see more?  The curtain is almost real to our eyes and maybe Vermeer learnt this trick when he read the tale of the famous contest of Greek antiquity held between two renowned painters Parrhasius and Zeuxis to see who was the finest. This story was cited by Plinius the Elder from a Greek source in his Naturalis historia, which he wrote in 77 AD.   Zeuxis had produced a still life, so convincing that birds flew down from the sky to peck at the painted grapes. Parrhasius then asked Zeuxis to pull aside the curtain from his painting. When it was discovered that the curtain was a painted one and not a real one, Zeuxis was forced to concede defeat, for while his work had managed to fool the eyes of birds, Parrhasius had deceived the eyes of a human being!

An empty chair stands below the curtain.  Maybe we are being invited to sit down and watch the artist at work.  On the back wall is a map of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands which was published in 1636.   Although we have come to accept that north is always at the top of our present day maps, in those days West was at the top of their maps, south was to the left hand-side and north was to the right-hand side.  Look and see how the artist has depicted the map with a heavy vertical crease down the middle and by doing this is highlighting the division between the Protestant Netherlands to the north (right-hand side) and the Habsburg-controlled Flemish Catholic provinces in the south (left-hand side).

Now take a look at the chandelier which is high up at the centre of the painting  It in some ways reminds us of the one shown in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.  We can see surmounted upon it the double headed eagle which was a symbol of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty of Austria, who had once ruled Holland.  Vermeer was believed to have been a Catholic and some art historians believe that he painted the chandelier without candles as a statement that in Protestant Holland, Catholicism had been suppressed (snuffed out like a candle).   Vermeer paints this chandelier majestically showing in detail the light and shade of the various arms depending on how the light from the window strikes them.  Chandeliers like this one are seen in many paintings and cynics say that they are only there so that artists can demonstrate their painting prowess at being able to show them with various shades of light.

One interesting note with regards its provenance.  In 1940 the painting was bought by Adolf Hitler for his personal collection for 1.65 million Reichsmark.  Fortunately in 1945 it was rescued from the depths of a salt mine where it had been hidden.  Today it can be seen in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna where it has hung since 1946.

It has been a long and interesting tale of a painting which I was fortunate enough to see when I visited Vienna late last year.  The Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna is definitely a place you should add to your “must visit” list.

A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman by Johannes Vermeer

A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1664)

The Dulwich Picture Gallery has had an unusual but ingenious idea for their two hundredth birthday celebrations.  They wanted to do something which would reflect the importance of the building and the beauty of their collection as well as reflect Gallery’s unique place in the history of museums in England and the world.  They have what they term the “Masterpiece a Month”.  It features  just one sensational work of art at a time, one a month, each a work of genius presiding as a kind of high altarpiece at the end of the main gallery.  These great works of art would be looked upon as a series of the most beautiful birthday cards for the Gallery.  To achieve this dream the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery had to approach famous institutions and curators of private collections and ask to borrow one of their great paintings.

Today’s painting for today’s My Daily Art Display was the featured painting for March at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which was on display when I visited last week and is from a private collection – the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  It had been acquired for the collection by George III in 1762.  It is Johannes Vermeer’s A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, sometimes known as The Music Lesson.    Vermeer completed this oil on canvas work circa 1664.  When King George III acquired the painting it was thought to have been painted by Frans van Mieris the Elder due to a misinterpretation of the signature and this error was not rectified for another century when in 1866 the well-known art critic and Vermeer scholar, Théopile Thoré, conclusively proved the work of art to have been painted by the great Dutch artist Vermeer.  The artist’s signature, IV Meer (IVM in monogram), is along the lower edge of the frame on the extreme right.  More writing can be seen on the underside of the lid of the virginals:


which translated means

“Music – companion of happiness / medicine for grief”

Porcelain pitcher

So what can we observe in this painting.  Light streams in through the windows on the left and fills the room.  The light emphasizes the texture of the objects such as the pile of the Oriental table covering, the small white porcelain pitcher on a silver plate and the brass studs on the blue chair.  Vermeer often depicted white porcelain jugs in his works of art. They usually contained wine, which was supposed to act as a love potion and help men seduce women.

The painting is characterised by the meticulous use of perspective which draws our eyes to the rear of the room where the figures are placed.  There is a young woman with her back to us, seated at the virginals, a keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family.  The instrument and the inscription are similar to those made by Andres Ruckers of Antwerp in the early part of the 17th century.  As we look at the painting, our eyes follow the line of perspective towards the people and we become aware of a table jutting out into our line of sight and on which is a multicoloured Oriental carpet covering.  Just behind it is a chair covered with a light-blue fabric and on the floor lies a discarded honey-coloured viola da gamba, which was one of a family of bowed, fretted string instruments which first came to prominence in the 15th century and was used mainly in the Renaissance and Baroque period. 

Detail of man and woman at the Virginals

However all the activity is at the back of the room.  Vermeer has used the colour black and this immediately grabs our attention.  The colour is used to outline the virginals.  It is also used to frame the picture on the wall and this colour is utilised by Vermeer on the back of the lady to draw the tailored lines of her bodice and acts as a stark contrast with the inlay that embellishes the front of the instrument, the red of the lady’s dress and light-blue of the chair.  The most startling use of black is in the patterned floor design.

We, the viewers, have been moved back by this use of perspective.  We almost feel we are interlopers or eavesdroppers on this private scene.  Take a look at the mirror on the wall.  We see the reflection of the woman’s face and shoulders as she turns towards the man. Her reflection is slightly out of focus and diminished in scale reflecting the optical effects of a mirror which is a sign of Vermeer’s observational skills.  However some art historians believe that this could also be due to the fact that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura.     We can also see part of the table and the legs of the artist’s easel and a box which we assume contained the artist’s paints (or the camera obscura?).    From this we pick up the inference that Vermeer is part of this scene although, like us, he is standing back from the space occupied by the two main proponents. 

On the back wall,  to the right of the mirror is the painting Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirk van Baburen.  It was known that this painting was at one time owned by Maria Thins, the mother-in-law of Vermeer.

Who are these two people?  Teacher and pupil?  Lovers sharing a musical interlude?   Simply fellow musicians?   Who knows what their relationship is but as there are two musical instruments in the room and an empty chair we can deduce that they are fellow musicians and he is listening to her playing and who knows, maybe he is accompanying her playing with a song.  Observe the man’s facial expression.  It is a rapt and loving expression and I am hazarding a guess that there is “love in the air”.   The association between music and love as a theme was often used by Dutch 17th century artists.  The fact that we have two instruments in this picture probably signifies that at one time this was a musical duet and this represents the emotions of the two people.

If you needed to have another reason for visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery other than to view their magnificent permanent display then this bi-centennial idea of having one additional masterpiece per month is a winner.  The next Masterpiece a Month will be in April and is The Vision of Saint John by El Greco.

The Glass of Wine by Johannes Vermeer

The Glass of Wine by Jan Vermeer (c.1659)

My painting today entitled The Glass of Wine was painted around 1662 by the Dutch Artist Johannes Vermeer and now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.  The picture shows a woman seated at a table drinking a glass of wine.  Her face is almost hidden by the nearly empty glass. She is elegantly clothed wearing a red satin tabbaard with its dazzling ornate gold brocade suggesting that she has dressed to please her guest.  An elegantly dressed and debonair looking man stands at her side, keeping a respectful distance from her.  He looks straight at her with his hand, enclosed by a ruffled cuff, on a porcelain pitcher and seems to be waiting to fill her glass.  His drab coloured clothing is in contrast to the woman’s attire and aids the visual divide between the two characters in the painting.

A number of song books lie on the table which is covered by a heavy ornamental cloth.  On the Spanish chair there is a blue cushion on which sits a cittern, a stringed instrument dating from the Renaissance.   This is an instrument that often occurs in Vermeer’s pictures and symbolises both harmony and frivolity.  Should we believe, that moments before, the man had serenaded the woman?   Vermeer gives no indication as to the relationship between the man and woman or whether consuming alcohol will lead to the softening of her heart towards the gentleman.   Maybe Vermeer just hints at a relationship. 

The stained glass window to the left of the picture features a woman holding a level and bridle, personifying Temperantia (temperance).  The level symbolises good deeds and the bridle symbolises emotional control. The coat of arms has been identified as that of Janetge Vogel, first wife of Moses van Nederveen, who lived in a house on the Oude Delft canal.   Why this coat of arms?  Janetge Vogel had died in 1624, eight years before Vermeer was born and some thirty five years before he painted this work and even though Vermeer lived close to this house, it is unlikely that he had ever lived in it.  This coat of arms also appears in another of Vermeer’s painting The Girl with Two Men. 

The clothes of the figures, the patterned tablecloth, the gilded picture frame hanging on the back wall, and the coat of arms in the stained window glass all suggest a wealthy and high-class setting.  Vermeer has an interesting way of showing the light coming in through the leaded window and how it interacts with the people and objects in the room.