Thursday, April 18, 2013

Vermeer and Vanitas Paintings–Part II

As discussed in my previous article, there is no explicit Vanitas painting credited to Johannes Vermeer. The closest we can find is a skull and bass viol in the background painting of “A Lady Writing (see at right). I altered the colors of the painting to make the bass viol more obvious. I really can’t see the skull but eye witnesses say is there. You can see this masterpiece at the National Art Gallery in Washington, DC.

I thought that it would be quite appropriate to use typical vanitas symbols in a photographic painting that would be addressing Vermeer’s passing. Which is the story behind the image at bottom right. It pictures a fictitious moment after Johannes Vermeer passed away. The recent war with Spain had collapsed the market for paintings and forced the Vermeers to live on credit for a while. As is widely known, when he died, Catharina Bolnes (his wife) was left with very heavy debts that she had to honor. The archives in Delft have a detailed inventory as you would expect from the Dutch, of all Vermeer’s possessions when Catharine filed for bankruptcy.

The image shows a time after she sold out most of the house furniture and valuable items to pay angry creditors. An unfinished painting leans against the wall, a creditor started to rip it out but then, he realized that it has no value as Vermeer did not sign it.

An empty, tipped- over berkemeyer glass is lying in the floor (a typical vanitas symbol for fleeting nature of life and time), certainly an object worth a place in a museum today, but of no value at the time. A letter of credit was thrown on the floor by a creditor who wanted to show his contempt for the family. The whisk in the extinguished candle signifies the end of Vermeer’s life and the fragile nature of our existence.

The image tries to convey the emptiness, desolation and overwhelming feelings that Catharina must have felt with her husband passing. Not only is she now responsible to carry the house, but also to raise the eleven children left.

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