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.