Vermeer Arrives in DC

Even if you don’t know anything about art, I think it’s safe to say that most of us can conjure an image of the great Dutch Masters—it’s that luminous quality to their paintings, the realistic sheen of a silk skirt, the heavy texture of a rug that’s been thrown over a table.

And when you see their works in person, it’s breathtaking.

Gabriel Metsu
Man Visiting a Woman Washing her Hands, c. 1663-66
oil on canvas
Waddesdon Manor, The Rothschild Collection (Rothschild Family Trust)

On Sunday, “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” will open at the National Gallery of Art for an exhibit—its only U.S. stop—that will last through Jan. 21. Vermeer’s works are the stars of the show of course, but they are curated with the grand master’s contemporary artists of the late 17th century, such as Gabriel Metsu, shown above. The light, the shadows, the fabric textures, the glint of the brass chandelier and gilded bedpost, and the softness of the marble columns are just stunning.

As an interior-design writer, this exhibit is especially captivating because the “genre painting” movement in the Netherlands is seen as a turning point in art—away from figurative Biblical scenes and towards a celebration of home culture.

“So many of [Vermeer’s] paintings depict things that we do in our own lives—writing a letter, playing an instrument—but somehow in his paintings, those actions become really important,” said Arthur Wheelock Jr., the curator who was also responsible for the last blockbuster Vermeer exhibit in 1995. “They’re so distinctive. Somehow it gets locked inside you and becomes a part of you.”


Johannes Vermeer
Lady Writing, c. 1665
oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Harry Waldron Havemeyer and Horace Havemeyer, Jr., in memory of their father, Horace Havemeyer

Vermeer wasn’t the only one who expressed reverence for daily life:

Gabriel Metsu
Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-66
oil on panel
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

I can’t stop staring at that ornate gold frame in Metsu’s painting-within-a-painting. You feel as though you could stroke the fibers in that rug, and feel the warmth of that sunlight coming through the window.

Placed in context with these other painters, Wheelock said, you’ll quickly see “the importance of elements in the home—the chair, the table, the pictures on the wall.” Painters like Pieter de Hooch, he says, used interior architecture—windows, floor tiles, entries into other rooms—as a way to structure his subjects, Wheelock explained.

Pieter de Hooch
Woman Weighing Coins, c. 1664
oil on canvas
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Property of Kaiser Friedrich Museumsverein
bpk/Gemäldegalerie, SMB, Eigentum des Kaiser Friedrich Museumsvereins/Jörg P. Anders

The more I scrutinized each painting, the more I came to conclude that these wealthy homes might have easily been published in the Architectural Digests of their day. Just look at de Hooch’s painting above, with its Fortuny-like patterning on the wall, the inlay on the chair, and the rich colors in the rug.

Cleanliness was truly next to godliness during this era, I was told, so even the most menial elements of the household—brooms, cloths, a washing basket—were celebrated, as you can see here:

Johannes Vermeer
The Love Letter, c. 1669-70
oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, purchased with the support of Vereniging Rembrandt

In all these spaces, Dutch Ambassador Henne Schuwer said, “You’ll see the richness of the 17th century, what we call our Golden Age in the Netherlands.” The exhibit places Vermeer’s subjects next to similar settings by other painters, who were living in different cities at the time. Whether they (mostly women) are writing letters, playing the lute, greeting male suitors, or feeding a pet parrot, it’s remarkable how similar the scenes are, even though each artist was working independently.

I was, of course, attracted to the architecture of these grand homes and to their decor.

Gerrit Dou
Woman at the Clavichord, c. 1665
oil on panel
By Permission of The Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Just look at the millwork, the arched entry draped in tapestry, the mullioned windows, the table base, the elaborately carved stool and its plump velvet pillow. That’s a parrot cage hanging above, but wouldn’t it make a killer light fixture?

Here’s Vermeer’s version of this scene, painted 10 years later:

Johannes Vermeer
Young Woman Seated at a Virginal, c. 1675
oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London. Salting Bequest, 1910
© The National Gallery, London

I couldn’t help noticing that in nearly every painting, there was the same type of chair again and again, which is alternately referred to these days as a Jacobean chair, a back stool, or a farthingale chair. According to the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “the type was introduced as a chair for ladies in the late 16th century and was named in England, probably in the 19th century, for its ability to accommodate the exceptionally wide-hooped skirts also called farthingales.”

You can spot this chair everywhere:

Gerard ter Borch
Young Woman at Her Toilet with a Maid, c. 1650-51
oil on wood
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.10)
© 2017 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence


Gerard ter Borch
Lady at Her Toilet, c. 1660
oil on canvas
The Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund, General Membership Fund, Endowment Income Fund and Special Activities Fund
Bridgeman Images

The details are especially keen when just a piece of the chair makes it into the picture:

Johannes Vermeer
Woman with a Pearl Necklace, c. 1662-65
oil on canvas
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
bpk/Gemäldegalerie, SMB/Jörg P. Anders


Frans van Mieris
Woman Feeding a Parrot, 1663
oil on panel
The Leiden Collection, New York
© The Leiden Collection, New York


Johannes Vermeer
Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, c. 1670-71
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, 1987 (Beit Collection)
Photo © National Gallery of Ireland

I couldn’t help myself, so I started looking around.

Turns out that John Saladino did an interior inspired by the Movie “Girl with a Pearl Earring” after the Vermeer painting. The chairs were a prominent piece of that:


A British catalogue of miniatures calls this model the Vermeer Chair:


And here’s one on 1st Dibs, built in 1650—it could have made an appearance on any one of these paintings:


Chairs upholstered in rug material were called Turkey-work, because the rugs generally came from Turkey. Here’s an example from 1675, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:


My favorite is this chair, made in 1649, which is in the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London:

There are so many angles to study in this exhibition, whether you’re into interiors, dogs or parrots (both figure prominently), musical instruments, fashion, or simply the near-magical methods these painters employed, you need to go check it out!

This Sunday, the National Gallery is hosting an introductory lecture on the exhibit with Adriaan Waiboer, head of collections and research for the National Gallery of Ireland, and Wheelock from our own national gallery. It’s unclear whether we’ll be able to see all these paintings, painted within the same era, side by side again. Having them all together tells us so much about “the high life,” as they call it, in the Netherlands’ Golden Age.

“It’s seeing your life’s work come together in an interesting way,” said Wheelock, who delivered his dissertation on Vermeer as a young graduate student in 1973. “Old friends have come back together to say hello again.”


  1. Love this post! Art is so influential and inspiring – it certainly is in my work. And Vermeer, especially, depicting layered, beautifully lit interiors. One painting can indeed inspire an entire design scheme.

    Well done. xo