Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2001
Walter Liedtke, Michiel C. Plomp, and Axel Ruger Vermeer and the Delft School Exh. cat. Yale University Press in association with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001. 640 pp.; 225 color ills.; 526 b/w ills. $75.00 (0870999737)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 8–May 27, 2001; The National Gallery, London, June 20–September 16, 2001

By invoking the name of this well-known Dutch cultural idol in the title of their magnificent exhibition and catalogue, the organizers of Vermeer and the Delft School assured historically packed houses for both of the museums that hosted this show. As visitors realized upon entering, however, the show did not focus narrowly upon the genius Vermeer, who produced only about sixteen of the 159 works on display. Rather, its scope was broadly historical, examining the rise of Vermeer’s native Delft as an artistic center during the course of the seventeenth century and probing the special properties of Delft painting. Is there a Delft style distinguishable from others predominant in other nearby Dutch cities? That question is central to the exhibition, says Walter Liedtke, the exhibition’s chief curator and catalogue’s principal author, who wants “[to make] the public aware that there was much more to the Delft school than what already has…won their admiration” (18). The current exhibition thus differed fundamentally from the equally ravishing monographic Vermeer show held in Washington and The Hague in 1995 and 1996. Still, Vermeer remained very much at the heart of Vermeer and the Delft School. By design or destiny, the artist’s spirit loomed in every room and informed the structure of the exhibition as staged at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The show’s controlling themes were announced in the first room, created in part to unsettle those expecting a conventional Vermeer exhibition. In the center of the space, visitors encountered a life-sized model horse outfitted regally in a magnificent woven shabrack, shoulder cloth, and neckcloth from the workshop of Aert Spiering (cat. 140), whose father François was responsible for making Delft a center for tapestry production by the 1590s. Lining the surrounding walls were tapestries depicting mythological and chivalric themes, precious silver objects, formal portraits of the Dutch stadholders, and painted panoramas of Delft. These lavish, courtly items declared that the town of Vermeer’s birth was no provincial backwater but instead a burgh with noble pretensions and sophisticated patrons. Indeed, as the adoptive home of William the Silent, father of the Dutch fatherland, Delft once had reason to view itself as a legitimate court city equal in importance to The Hague, which was only a few miles away. The richly textured tapestries and glistening goblets on display also resonated with the precious objects represented in paintings by Vermeer that visitors encountered in the subsequent rooms. The presence of the objects also advanced an important, although not fully articulated, subtheme of the exhibition—that Vermeer’s remarkable achievement has a cultural context and that we can understand Vermeer’s ingenious production better by knowing of what it consists.

The ensuing rooms presented a history of Delft painting and drawing in a roughly chronological sequence; works were clustered mainly by artist and genre. Liedtke and his cocurators obviously went to great lengths to assemble historically significant and well-preserved examples by both the mainstays of Delft painting and by others working sporadically for the Delft market. The result of their labors was dazzling: the paintings by Vermeer—which the organizers judiciously dispersed throughout the exhibition spaces to allow comparison with works by other Delft artists (as well as to achieve some semblance of crowd control)—effectively exemplified each major phase of the artist’s career. Visitors could trace Vermeer’s complex development from the recently cleaned and restored Diana and Her Companions (ca. 1653–54, cat. 64) to the fully realized Art of Painting (ca. 1666–68, cat. 76) and beyond.

To their credit, the organizers also lavished attention upon lesser-known Delft artists, many of whom appeared here in exceptional glory. Carel Fabritius, the one-time student of Rembrandt who is sometimes credited with establishing Delft’s taste for luminosity in art, was represented by five paintings through which we can trace his development from talented disciple to individualistic master. Twelve works by Pieter de Hooch gave a particularly generous account of that often-inspired genre painter. The church interior painting of Bartholomeus van Bassen, Gerard Houckgeest, Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet, and Emanuel de Witte was also exceedingly well-represented. Scholars in the field may be most grateful, however, for the attention paid to Delft history and portrait painting produced by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, Christiaen van Couwenbergh, Leonaert Bramer, and Willem Willemsz van Vliet during the first half of the century. As Liedtke asserts in the catalogue, these often overlooked masters established vital painting traditions in Delft long before the city’s great artistic heyday in the 1650s and 1660s. Although their styles may derive in part from phenomena prevalent elsewhere in Holland, the work of these artists is nevertheless distinctive and, as Liedtke temperately concludes “in some ways more coherent than some writers have allowed” (101).

The exhibition also reminded us of how Delft’s wealth and prestige made the city a magnet for artists associated principally with other Dutch towns. The north Holland animal and landscape painter Paulus Potter, who was evidently attracted to Delft in the late 1640s, was represented in the exhibition by two panels dated 1647, both presumably produced in Delft. Jan Steen, the Leiden-born genre painter, also came to Delft for a time in the mid-1650s and produced works for Delft patrons. The organizers marked this activity by including one often-discussed but rarely seen picture from 1655 showing a well-off Delft burgher and other figures on the stoop before a dignified abode (cat. 58).

Vermeer and the Delft School demonstrated persuasively that Delft was a major artistic center during much of the seventeenth century. But did a “Delft School” in the narrow sense—a local tradition of painting characterized by a sense of shared purpose, temperament, or style that distinguishes art produced in Delft from that made elsewhere in Holland—really exist? On this question, which has been hotly debated in the art-historical literature for nearly a quarter century, Liedtke is surprisingly circumspect, considering the title of his exhibition. Early in the catalogue, he responds with a “qualified yes,” but dismisses the question as “academic” (18). Later on, he concedes that “something like a ‘genuine school’ comes into view” in the 1650s, but only when one limits consideration to those painters recognized by their contemporaries as members of the city’s artistic community (53–54).

Liedtke’s reserve on this issue is understandable. As the exhibition powerfully confirmed, painting in Delft was exceedingly varied in style and content. In addition to the luminosity and spatial harmony of Vermeer, De Hooch, and Houckgeest, Delft artists gloried in the compositional and painterly freedom of Bramer, the arid monumentality of Van Couwenbergh, and the scientific accuracy of Van der Ast. This high level of visual heterogeneity undermined attempts to define “The Delft School” upon stylistic grounds alone. To his credit, Liedtke recognizes this dilemma and on occasion tries to express the uniqueness of Delft painting in terms other than stylistic. “Prestigious patrons, not [a particular iconography] or some aspect of style,” he maintains, “is the most common denominator…[of Delft artists]” (29). Elsewhere in the catalogue, he falls back upon more conventional criteria, asserting “high standards of craftsmanship, international forms…refinement, and reserve” to be typical Delft characteristics (101).

For the hefty exhibition catalogue (nearly 7 1/2 pounds in paperback), Liedtke wrote five lengthy essays on various aspects of Delft painting and culture. Two Dutch scholars, Michiel Plomp and Martin Jan Bock, contributed, respectively, chapters on drawing and printmaking and on art patronage in seventeenth-century Delft. All of the essays are informative, and Liedtke’s contributions are particularly lively and engaging (although occasionally discursive). Liedtke also contributed many of the catalogue entries, some of which could be articles in themselves. Careful reading of the notes reveals Liedtke’s pleasure in sparring with other experts in Delft painting, especially Arthur Wheelock, curator of the 1995–1996 Vermeer exhibition. Liedtke brawls mainly in the clinch, tussling gamely but inconclusively over old chestnuts like Vermeer’s use or nonuse of the camera obscura and the original setting of Fabritius’s A View in Delft (cat. 18). Every so often, however, the author steps back and delivers a strong shot to the head, as when he lambastes Wheelock for underestimating the fluidity of artistic commerce between Delft and other Dutch towns (7) or perpetuating a romantic notion of Vermeer’s sphinx-like nature in the face of Michael Montias’s revolutionizing archival discoveries (146).

Still, one might dare to quibble about at least one of the show’s central presuppositions. Throughout his text, Liedtke presents Delft as a singularly pro-Orange, court-loving bastion of political, intellectual, and cultural conservatism, a city pleased with its venerable customs and distrustful of innovation. Essential to the coherency of the exhibition, this formulation provided a rationale for “the traditional conservatism of taste in Delft (41),” an outlook that informs Delft painting to its core. Such an outlook was manifested above all in the works of Vermeer that, Liedtke proposes, exhibit a “synthesis of sophistication and understatement, or refinement and reserve, [that] reflects the ideals of Delft society, or at least that sector of society in Delft and The Hague with which Vermeer aspired to associate” (164).

But was the Delft elite really as monolithic in its conservatism as the author would have us believe? Let us recall that in addition to spawning a host of complacent burghers, Delft also gave birth to Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), the patriotic polymath incarcerated in 1619 for his anti-Orangist political positions and associations. Attaining near legendary status after his daring escape from prison in 1621, Grotius remained an intellectual presence in Delft in spite of his continued physical absence. The town was also home to the father of microbiology, Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1725), whose compulsive spirit of examination and fearless rejection of common wisdom was anything but conservative. Neither Grotius nor the ideas he represented receive mention in the catalogue essays, and Leeuwenhoek also gets short shrift. The fact that Delft generated men of this ilk suggests the existence of a powerful trend in Delft culture at odds with the narrow-minded patricianism that Liedtke details. An exhibition of Delft art that took note of the city’s intellectual and cultural cross-currents would probably look different from that displayed in Vermeer and the Delft School. It might, for instance, contain more pictures by Bramer, that master favored by the Delft civic authorities. Bramer’s emotional excess and vivacious handling of paint place his work at odds with most of the pieces chosen for the current exhibition. Potter, whose unique wit never failed to challenge conventional thinking, also would be better represented. Likewise, it might contain fewer works by De Hooch and, yes, Vermeer. Such a show of Delft artists could carry the true title of The Delft School.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University