The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer was no stranger to the kind of socially isolated world we now find ourselves in. His hometown of Delft was stricken with plague several times in the artist’s lifetime. In 1635 and 1636 over 2,000 people died, and in the mid-1650s and mid-1660s hundreds more.
The fact that much of his work was produced in isolation is visible in his paintings, of which the most famous is perhaps “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” He often used his house as a setting: the same windows recur again and again, the same furniture and objects in various arrangements, and even the same female figure (who may have been his wife, though it’s not known for sure).
Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” (1657-1658) Credit: Rijksmuseum
More than three centuries later, Vermeer’s paintings, which offer a window into the inner domestic lives of everyday people, still feel relevant to our own anxieties, as we are distanced from each other and, increasingly, from our lives as we knew them.
Vermeer had an incredible ability to create luminous shades of light and dark, and in some of his most famous paintings the time of day is told through light. His timeless figures are often pictured doing mundane chores. Sometimes they’re studying, sometimes they’re resting, cooking, reading, or staring into space.
Friso Lammertse, curator of 17th-century Dutch painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, explained Vermeer’s deft ability to capture that fleeting moment when you are so fully immersed in something commonplace that the rest of the world ceases to exist.
Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace” (1664) Credit: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie/Image by Google
Vermeer’s figures “seem to become part of their surroundings, without being absorbed by it,” he wrote in an email interview. “They seem to suggest a balance between humankind and its surroundings.”
Most often the main figure in Vermeer’s paintings is a woman, She is usually near a window, and the “props” are sparse and simple. In some of his paintings the figures are shown a glimpse of an exciting outside world via letters, globes, windows — but the inner worlds that Vermeer offers are quiet, peaceful places, where the time of day is meticulously depicted.
Vermeer’s “A Girl Reading a Letter at an open window” (1657) Credit: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister/Hans Peter Klut/Elke Estel
In the morning “The Milkmaid” (1657-1658) carefully pours milk into a Dutch oven. Beside her are broken chunks of stale bread, lying on a vivid green tablecloth, inviting the viewer to imagine what she might be cooking. The sun shines through the slightly shattered windowpane.
In the early afternoon the “Woman with a Pearl Necklace” (1664) tries on her jewelry by a window, suggesting she looks forward to a time when she will wear it outdoors once again.
Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” (1662-1665) Credit: Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the late afternoon there is “A Girl Reading a Letter at an open window” (1657), immersed in her token from the outside world. Then in the evening the same woman plays her lute as she glances out her window. This “Woman playing a Lute” (1662-1665) is a precursor to the many musicians serenading their neighbors in some cities under lockdown today.
Turn the letter into an email, the window reflection into an Instagram photo, and it’s not difficult to relate to these isolation activities. Looking at several of these paintings together, it’s as though you are in fact looking into someone’s home, and watching daily life as a single day passes.
In the warm afternoon sun of “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,” (1662-1665) the underside of the silver bowl reflects back the fabric it sits on; in the same painting, the light reflects on the woman’s fingers as she opens the window.
Vermeer’s “Woman with a lute near a window” (1662-1663) Credit: Bequest of Collis P. Huntington/The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Vermeer encourages us to look — at his paintings and at our own surroundings — and his talent lies in his exceptional attention to detail: nothing is beneath observation.
“He shows us that there is beauty everywhere: in the shadow on the wall, in the blue of a skirt or in breadcrumbs. The paintings seem to say: look, look and see how beautiful everyday life can be,” Lammertse said. “In this time of forced isolation he can point us at the fact that extreme beauty can be found just in our room.”
Top image: Johannes Vermeer “Girl with a Pearl Earring” c. 1665, part of the Mauritshuis collection, The Hague.