A pretentious title! What could I possibly have to offer regarding these two supreme masters of their fields? Well...not much. I certainly wouldn’t want to tread in the footsteps of a prominent Bach scholar whom I once heard make an absurdly inflated comparison of Newton and Bach, based on the Principia and the canon “Trias Harmonica” (BWV 1072). That elaboration of Frère Jacques has a somewhat shaky pedigree, and looks, to me at any rate, too simple-minded to be a late canon by the last great master of counterpoint.
The pedigree of the painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) I would like to discuss was greeted with skepticism when its signature was first discovered in 1901, but is now secure. It is one of the four early works in a style, or styles, very different from the later masterpieces which have made artist famous to a point where “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (isn’t it actually a silver bangle à la turque?) inspired a maudlin film starring Scarlett Johansson. I was only vaguely aware of the first four until my daughters made me a gift of the Rijksmuseum’s catalog of their recent, near-complete Vermeer exhibition. The artist’s abandonment of historie painting after these (and other lost?) efforts in order to devote himself to a superhuman mastery of optical and spacial effects represents one of the most astounding and sudden turnarounds in art history. Perusal of the catalog sent chills down my spine when I read that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, then on the verge of inventing the microscope, was executor of Vermeer’s will.
“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh) is probably the earliest surviving work of the Delft master, dated by scholars to around 1654. The other three are more clearly indebted to the Utrecht caravaggisti. A painting by one of these imitators of Caravaggio, Dirck van Baburen, appears twice as background in later paintings by Vermeer. This could mean that it was present in the house on the Oude Langendijk where Vermeer carried on his father’s art-dealership sideline, but it could also be an homage to a teacher. Absolutely nothing is known about Vermeer’s training as a painter. The years of his life before marriage documents commence in 1652 have left no trace on the historical record, but he joined the Delft guild of St. Luke in 1653 as “master painter”. By contrast, there is a considerable amount of information about Bach’s apprenticeship, however much we would like to know more.
Where did Vermeer learn the solidity of the figures, the intimate atmosphere and the use of earth tones found in “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, which distinguish it from the three later (early) works? I’m truly no expert, but when I saw the reproduction in the catalog, I immediately thought: France. Vermeer was a Catholic, and while Utrecht was the most Catholic city in the Dutch Republic, France was a Catholic country (which, after the Edict of Nantes, tolerated Protestants until it was revoked by an evil monarch) where the young Vermeer may have felt more comfortable than in the Calvinist Netherlands. Overland passage through the Spanish Netherlands became possible when peace negotiations to end the 80 Years’ War began in 1646.
The most interesting French interpretations of Caravaggio’s revolution come down to us in the works of Georges de la Tour (1593-1652)** and the three brothers le Nain. Two of them died in 1648, but Mathieu lived until 1677. Philippe de Champainge (1602-74) was the foremost French painter of the time, but I see less resemblance in his work to Vermeer’s painting than in that of the four artists just cited.*
Whatever the truth of this flimsy speculation, the indisputable thing is the transition in Vermeer’s work from the derivative to the unmistakable. He took what he found around him, experimented with it, and then went his own singular way. And that is exactly the case with Sebastian Bach as well. The young orphan studied forbidden works by candlelight in his brother’s house, reworked fugue themes by Erselius and Albinoni, and arranged trio sonatas by Reincken. By 1713, when Prince Johann Ernst returned to Weimar from studies in Utrecht with concertos by Vivaldi in his baggage, Bach was already a great composer, but arranging the Venetian’s works for keyboard seems to have been the final impetus towards his evolution into...Bach. He remained something of a chameleon – Gustav Leonhardt once agreed with me that every piece in the Wohltemperiertes Clavier seems to be by a different composer – but after the Weimar period, there is no mistaking the man.
I find it interesting that Vermeer, the four French artists I mentioned as possible influences, and Bach were all provincials: Vermeer from Delft, the le Nains from Laon in the north, de la Tour from Vic-sur-Seille in Lorraine, and Bach from Eisenach in deepest Thuringia. I suspect that interest may have its origin in my own provinciality. Could it be that growing up loin des cours, dans un lieu solitaire (act 1 scene 1 “Cyrano de Bergerac”) predisposes one to independence of mind and spirit?
May 17, 2023 (Christi Himmelfahrt )
*The catalog suggests the Amsterdam artist Jacob van Loo’s “Diana and her Nymphs” (1648, Gemäldegalerie Berlin) as inspiration for Vermeer’s 1656-6 work on the same theme. The American artist Jacqueline Block has observed that some of the hands and feet in the van Loo look like they were painted by Vermeer, as journeyman, assistant or student.
**I happened to stumble upon the epochal 1972 Georges de la Tour exposition in the Orangerie of the Tuileries. He has remained a favorite of mine since then, and when offered a choice of cover for my first CD for NAXOS, I asked for a work of his. The art department first said they couldn’t find anything. I put them on the track of a considerable selection. They chose a bad copy of a lost painting, and put it on the cover, reversed. The pieces on the CD were attributed at the time – for the most part falsely, as I now believe – to Louis Couperin, so the blunder somehow seems appropriate. I was told the disc never sold enough to justify reprinting the insert.