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For more Vermeer, Click Here to go to my post “Inspired By Vermeer”.

Vancouver Art Gallery’s premier summer kick-off is the impressive exhibition: Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art. The exclusive show of masterpieces from Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum includes paintings, drawings, and decorative arts from 17th century Holland. After five hours at the Gallery, I left hungry for more Vermeer. Overall it was gratifying, but I was expecting just a few more glimpses of the great master.

Of all the 128 pieces of art work, there’s just one Vermeer painting. Placed at the end of the exhibit, apparently the highlight and climax of the show, is Vermeer’s Love Letter (1669). From his signature point of view, peeking through a partial opening of pulled-back curtain, we look into another room and see a maid just handed her mistress a letter. By the exchange of their glances, it seems they’re sharing a secret understanding. This is another one of Vermeer’s works that’s full of potential stories and rich in subtexts. Actually anyone of them is a novel to be written, not less dramatic as Girl With A Pearl Earring.

Vermeer's The Love Letter

Love Letter by Vermeer (1669-70)

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17th century Holland was a new Republic that had just gained independence from Spanish rule. The beginning of the exhibits sets the stage depicting a young nation with great maritime power. Domestically, it was a country marked by a vibrant economy and a rising middle class, as well as the flowering of arts and science, architecture and urban planning.

In the midst of such affluence and fresh hope, some of the artists spoke with their brushes as prophets of their time. Among paintings of naval glory and conquests, as well as glimpses of domestic life of the rich, there are also the quiet displays of still life. I must have seen them before. Why have I not noticed their significance previously?

They are paintings of withered blossoms, burnt out candles, hourglasses, books and musical instruments, and most prominently, skulls, eerie arrays of them, decaying bones and teeth. Why all these objects? The audio commentary confirms that they are Vanitas still life, the term rooted in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities.” And obviously, they are symbols of the fleeting nature of life, the callous passage of time, the transience of knowledge and human achievements:

Pieter Claesz Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz: Vanitas Still Life (1628)

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Skulls on a Table

Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor: Skulls on a Table (1660)

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On the piece of writing crumpled up is one last word, Finis, The End:

Still Life with Books Jan de Heem

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with Books (1625-29)

It’s commendable that the rich and powerful were willing to be reminded thus, considering these were once paintings adorning the walls of their affluent homes, a nagging presence they could not ignore. And they must have paid to have them painted.

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One of my favorites in the exhibition is Nicolaes Maes’ Old Woman in Prayer. Maes, a student of Rembrandt, had captured the simple piety of the old woman of lowly means: her earnest concentration, wrinkled face and hardened hands, the earthen wares and simple meal, and above all, her meager possessions on the ledge, an open Bible, a lamp, an hourglass and a prayer book. The warm light on her face almost makes her look divine. Maes did not forget to include a comic relief, her cat at the lower right bottom must have known what’s for dinner:

Nicolaes Maes Old Woman in Prayer

Nicolaes Maes: Old Woman in Prayer (1650-60)

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Sources: Skulls on a Table from Vancouver Sun. All other paintings in this post: Rijkmuseum, Amsterdam.

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