Lecture Series - The Dutch Enigma: Revealing Vermeer

January 12, 2023

All those who register will automatically be sent copies of the lecture to view in your own time.



Johannes (Jan) Vermeer remains the most enigmatic of Dutch ‘Golden Age’ painters. Born in 1632 and dead by 1675, a native of Delft where he spent his entire life, we know very little about him, his training and the influences which shaped his art. To coin a phrase that might equally describe his paintings, his biography is ‘glaze-like in its opacity’. All but forgotten after his death, he was ‘rediscovered’ in the mid nineteenth century and recent scholarship has identified about 34 paintings as from his hand. His wider fame has grown more recently due to the success of the book devoted to one of his magical and mysterious paintings, The Girl with the Pearl Earring.  Due to the rarity and fragility of his paintings, exhibitions devoted to Vermeer usually contain only a handful of his works. This is what will make this year’s much anticipated exhibition in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (10 February – 4 June 2023) an unprecedented event.  The largest number of his works ever assembled will be on display. These will include The Girl with the Pearl Earring (The Mauritshuis, The Hague), The Geographer (Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main), Lady Writing a Letter (The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), Woman Holding a Balance (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) and the newly restored Girl Reading a Letter (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden).  Stimulated by this unique opportunity to look at this most mysterious of artists, I gave a pair of webinar lectures on The Dutch Enigma: Revealing Vermeer, 21 & 22 February by way of introduction to the painter and his milieu.

Lecture 1 – The Dutch Golden Age: Trade, Wealth & Art, 21 February 11am

The endless religious wars fought by the emerging Dutch nation against their Habsburg rulers engulfed the former ‘Low Countries’ from 1568 to 1648. It brought untold misery and destruction as over several decades the southern, Catholic, provinces of Flanders separated from the northern, Calvinist United Provinces of the emerging Dutch republic. When peace was finally agreed in 1648, the northern provinces had by then established an enviable level of economic independence, won by the trading activities of what we know as the Dutch East India Company or VOC (the ….). The emergence of the Dutch Republic and its confident mercantile elite in the seventeenth century introduced a new range of subject matter, very much different from the concerns of nearby Flanders. This elite rose to prominence across a series of Dutch towns and cities including Amsterdam, Haarlem, Utrecht and Delft and by then what we might call ‘the art bug’ had gripped all levels of society. Both recording and celebrating this hard-won prosperity, Dutch art of the period, whether in portraiture, landscape or genre, could not be more different from the overtly religious and allegorical tendencies of a world indebted to Rubens and his followers.

Lecture 2 – Perception and Reality: Vermeer’s World, 22 February 11am

Opening its entry on Vermeer, The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists remarks that he was ‘the most calm and peaceful of all the Dutch masters and the recognition of his greatness has been long delayed’. That may have been the case back in 1959 when the first edition of the Dictionary was published, but since then appreciation of the Dutch master’s work has been transformed. This second lecture will focus on Vermeer’s work through an examination of most of his known paintings, with comparisons made between him and a few of his contemporaries such as Gabriel Metsu and Pieter de Hooch. The total number of paintings accepted as by Vermeer has increased in recent years as a series of works thought to date from the outset of his career have emerged. Not immediately associated with his mature style, their themes include both religious and allegorical subjects, perhaps betraying what many now regard as the artist’s catholic faith. Indeed, it may be through a Jesuit priest that Vermeer was introduced to the wonders of the camera obscura, also thought to have helped him transform his style with the luminous manipulation of light across a variety of surfaces and textures, giving us that famous ‘glaze-like opacity, mentioned above.

Reading List

Tom has created a reading list which can be downloaded here

Format for Lecture

Tom gave two one-hour illustrated lectures for £25. 

You will not need to download any software and the lecture will work in any browser. For the best experience use a desktop or laptop - but it will also work on an iPad or similar tablet. You will be also able to re-watch or watch a recording after the lecture.



Register for Lectures


Filed under:

View All
Tours & Study Days