A closer look
A Man and Woman in an Interior.
……An undiscovered Vermeer?
Oil on canvas, 73.5cm x 63.5cm
There are only thirty-six works that survive by the great 17th century Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. Sadly, some of Vermeer’s paintings are only known by description in contemporary documents and their whereabouts are unknown today. They have either been lost or destroyed, or have yet to be found or identified. This painting is a conjectural re-creation of what one of the missing paintings might have looked like.
Typically, it shows a fairly wealthy domestic interior, flooded with light. It uses many of the familiar elements in his paintings, for example the black and white marble floor, the white jug (which makes an appearance in 4 Vermeers), the black and yellow bodice (which appears in 5), and the bass viol (or ‘viola da gamba’, which appears in 4, though it is never played).
However familiar the ingredients, this arrangement of furniture and objects, the positioning and demeanour of the two figures, even this particular combination of open and closed shutters - in fact the whole composition - has all been newly invented. On a technical level, the painting has been constructed using the three-point perspective system known to have been used by Vermeer, and has been painted using authentic materials and techniques.
The painting has been designed to provoke thought. Just as with genuine paintings by Vermeer the viewer is invited to question what is going on. What are the protagonists thinking? What will happen next? We can only guess because we are deliberately frustrated by ambiguities that are intended to set up a psychological tension. The only thing that can be said for sure is that, fundamentally, the subject of the painting is the relationship between the two figures. However, as so often happens in genuine paintings by Vermeer, the nature of the relationship between the two people is alluded to, but it is never spelt out. There are many questions that could be asked, for example:
- Is the man playing the instrument, or has he just stopped?
- Is the woman silent and listening, or is she about to sing - or has she been singing?
- Has she been there all the time, or has she just walked in?
- What is the significance of the piece of paper that she holds, is it music, or is it a letter?
- What is the significance of the stormy seascape in the background, does this allude to their relationship?
- What is the significance of the painting of Cimon and Pero (or Roman Charity) by Dirck van Baburen? We know that Vermeer’s family owned paintings by this artist, but is its presence here merely coincidental or does this classical story have another meaning in this context? Or is it there because of its erotic overtones?
The viewer has to decide the truth. In thinking about the answers the viewer becomes voyeur. Passive observation gives way to active involvement in a scene that connects the fictive space described on the surface of the canvas to the space that extends forward of it, our space; our world. In aesthetic terms we can judge the success of this painting by assessing the balancing of light and shadow (or music and silence), but in the end what matters is how the viewer relates to the implied narrative. It also relies on how the viewer emotionally connects with the atmosphere it describes. Instinctively understanding and communicating these things is why Vermeer was a genius, and it is what makes those that follow him…respectful.