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Vermeer—from young painter to master

Two exhibition catalogues demonstrate their increasing importance to scholarship, but with different approaches

Vermeer's "The Art of Painting", around 1666

Two publications on Vermeer, one on his early paintings and the other on his greatest masterpiece, raise questions about what makes a good exhibition catalogue. The Young Vermeer, produced by the Mauritshuis for a touring show in The Hague (until 22 August), Dresden (3 September-28 November) and Edinburgh (10 December-13 March 2011), adopts the accessible approach. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna went for the scholarly option with its treatise on The Art of Painting, about 1668, for the exhibition it held on its own picture earlier this year.

The Young Vermeer is concerned with just three works, the artist’s earliest paintings. These are Diana and her Nymphs, around 1653-54 (Mauritshuis), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, around 1654-55 (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh) and The Procuress, 1656 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden). The catalogue by Edwin Buijsen, head of collections at the Mauritshuis, provides an excellent, succinct account of the youthful Vermeer.

All three pictures were done before the artist reached the age of 24 and represent history or religious subjects, but it remains a mystery where Vermeer trained. Buijsen posits several theories: the Delft studio of Leonaert Bramer (a history painter), the Utrecht studio of Abraham Bloemaert (a Mannerist artist) or the intriguing suggestion that he was self-taught at home.

Vermeer almost certainly painted more early pictures, and it was this period which was so successfully exploited by the notorious 1930s forger Han van Meegeren, who created a string of religious works (most were recently on show at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam). However, archival sources suggest that two early authentic Vermeers could still survive, unrecognised: Visitors to a Tomb and Jupiter, Venus and Mercury.

The focus on the early work raises the question of how the artist developed into the Vermeer we know and revere. The turning point was in 1657, with The Letter Reader (also now at Dresden). As Buijsen points out, it could have been a matter of fashion (Pieter de Hooch switched from history painting to genre in the mid-1650s) or it might have been under the influence of his artist friend Gerard ter Borch. More plausible is the suggestion that the later Vermeers reflected the taste of his patron, Pieter Claesz van Ruijven, a Delft collector who bought 21 pictures.

Buijsen’s catalogue, available in both Dutch and English, is perfect for the general exhibition visitor, summarising recent research. At 92 pages, it is attractively produced and accessible. It will also serve for the Edinburgh show, although Dresden plans a more detailed German-language publication. However, for specialists there is little that will be new.

Earlier this year an exhibition was held of a single masterpiece of Vermeer’s maturity, The Art of Painting. Presented at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the picture was the centrepiece, surrounded by objects similar to those depicted in it (trumpet, tapestry, chandelier, etc), documentation and related material. The catalogue, by Sabine Haag, Elke Oberthaler and Sabine Pénot, is now the definitive publication on this much debated painting. Although in German, there is a full English translation at the back.

The Vienna catalogue includes fascinating details. Infrared reflectography has made it possible to read a date on the painting, probably 1668 (but frustratingly the last digit is unclear, and it could be a six or seven). Details are given about its 20th-century ownership, which are highly relevant, since there is a current Nazi-era spoliation claim from the descendants of Jaromir Czernin.

Running to 335 pages, the Vienna catalogue is a scholarly publication. Although profusely illustrated, its sheer depth may well be inhibiting to some readers, restricting sales. Nevertheless, an exhibition catalogue such as this offers a marvellous opportunity to provide an up-to-date synthesis by leading specialists. Although there were major Vermeer retrospectives in 1995-96 (Washington, DC and The Hague) and 2001 (New York and London), it looks likely that owners may become increasingly reluctant to lend, making it even more important to prop­erly record those exhibitions which do take place.

Edwin Buijsen, The Young Vermeer (Waanders Publishers in association with the Mauritshuis), 92 pp, €32.52 (hb) ISBN 9789040076800

Sabine Haag, Elke Oberthaler and Sabine Pénot, Vermeer: die Malkunst (Residenz Verlag in association with the Kunsthistorisches Museum), 335 pp, €35 (pb) ISBN 9783701731879

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