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Through the Eyes of Vermeer: How a Dutch Painter Captured the Beauty of an “Ordinary” Life

RWC tutor Daniela Gutierrez gives background on the life of the renowned artist Vermeer.

Born in 1632, one of the most renowned painters from the Golden Age, Dutch painter, and master Johannes Vermeer, is estimated to have painted no less than 60 paintings. Of these, only 33 of his paintings have survived. His most well-known painting depicts a girl with a pearl earring adorned in exotic clothes, glancing gently at the viewer amidst a black background. This mysterious beauty is his most famous work, Girl with a Pearl Earring. However, as is the lives of many artists, he wasn’t recognized for his art when he was alive, and at only the ripe age of forty-three, he passed away, temporarily forgotten. To this day little is known of him, yet upon closer inspection, from the canvas emerges a philosophy exalted and expressed in his works. Amongst his most famous paintings are The Little Street, The Milkmaid, The Lacemaker, and Woman Reading a Letter. Unlike the classical paintings showcasing the heroic acts and beauty, of gods and goddesses, which stir the imagination of humankind to greatness, Vermeer’s works present the more humble and simpler nature of humanity: the ordinary. His subjects are neither on grand conquests nor show the drama and grandeur of aristocrats. Instead, in his canvas they are forever sustained in time, attending to the simplest of tasks. A milkmaid pours a cascading portion of milk from a pitcher into a bowl; her complexion is peaceful. A lacemaker devoutly directs her attention to working on a bobbin lace. His technique envelops the scenes he paints with a softness, basking the moment with intimacy. Finally, the view of a little street illustrates the duties of everyday life. In it, a woman is seen sewing, and another is cleaning, while the children play. From a mere outsider’s perspective, the house appears old and discolored, but Vermeer’s attention to the rugged aspect of the building provides a tender and beloved point of view of the home, which dearly provides shelter for its inhabitants. Vermeer is known for his profound care and dedication to his works, but it is precisely because of this that he is able to beautifully show the hidden and unspoken lives of everyday people. Through the gentle interplay of both shadows and light in his paintings and his scrupulousness towards detail, he magnificently captures the solitude, quietness, and intimacy seeping within ordinary life.

When the drama, excitement, and glamour ceases, one returns to find that the “lesser,” mundane aspects of life must be tended to—clothes need to be washed, the floors need sweeping, and the dust on the windows must be cleaned. And in the reflection of the stained, glass window, the caress of the sunlight etches closer to oneself—in this singular moment, the ordinary has touched you. Through the profound renderings and lens of Vermeer, one reconciles oneself with the ordinary.

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