Johannes Vermeer – “The glass of wine” (c. 1661)

Johannes Vermeer – “The glass of wine” (c. 1661)
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Image by Mia Feigelson Gallery

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"The glass of wine" (c.1661)
By Johannes Vermeer, from Delft, Netherlands (1632 – 1675)
– oil on canvas; 65 x 77 cm; 25 5/8 x 30 1/4 in –
© Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany
www.smb.museum/en/museums-and-institutions/gemaeldegaleri…
© Google Cultural Institute:
www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/the-glass-o…
Photo: © b p k – Photo Agency / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders
"The finely dressed young lady sips the last drops of her wine, holding the glass correctly by the stem as indicated in courtesy books of the time. Her face remains hidden and her left arm folded square against her body as to fortify herself from the discreet advances of her suitor.
A similar white cap worn by the young woman appears in various paintings by Vermeer and in a many genre paintings of the time both tied and open. Marieke de Winkel, Dutch costume expert, explains that it was partly ornamental and served to protect the hairdo before and after dressing. In the inventory of Vermeer’s wife, Catharina Bolnes, three such caps were listed "drye witte kappen" although it was also called a hooftdoek in Delft. It was worn in informal situations and typically made of white linen, sometimes of nettlecloth or cotton.
Before Vermeer settled on the elegant fur-trimmed yellow morning jacket for his female sitters, he seems to have been initially attracted to a more formal full-length dress. Dutch costume expert Marieke de Winkel identifies this dress as a tabbaard, a combination of a stiffened bodice and a matching skirt. The tabbaard was always closed at the back and heavily boned to keep it as rigid as possible making it adapted for formal occasions only. The choice of this striking red satin dress with its scintillating gold brocade suggests that the girl entertained high expectations from the encounter with the debonair gentleman and has dressed herself to make her best impression.
To depict the extraordinary red which ignites the cool blues and grays of the composition, the shape and lighting of the dress was first worked up with vermillion, the only bright opaque red available to painters of the 17th century. According to a fixed recipe, once thoroughly dry, the passage was subsequently glazed with a thin, transparent layer of red madder diluted with natural dying oil to give the vermilion a fiery depth that cannot be approximated with a direct mixture of the two paints.
One hand on a wine jug and the other on his hip, the cavalier patiently waits on the spectacularly dressed young woman ready to pour more wine as soon as it has been drunk.
Although rivers of ink have flowed to describe the beauty and decipher the thoughts and emotions of Vermeer’s female sitters, the men who court them have received far less attention. Although they ought to be in control, in Vermeer’s paintings it is always the female who, all said and done, commands the scene relegating the man to an oddly passive role.
This gentleman would not have been considered discourteous having kept his hat on. As Timothy Brooks observed, in the time this picture was painted ‘A courting man did not go hatless. The custom of removing one’s hat while entering a building or greeting a woman was not yet observed. European only bared their heads before a monarch, and since the Dutch had no monarchs, their hats stayed on.’
Marieke de Winkel, who has written extensively about Dutch costume in relation to painting noted that in the 17th-century Netherlands," the hat was perceived as a sign of authority and male supremacy. In contemporary French and Dutch language the word "hat" could be used as a metaphor for a man, as opposed to "coif" denoting a woman.
‘German and English travelers in the Netherlands were frequently surprised that Dutch men kept their hats on indoors, during meals, in company and even in church. Members of the lower classes were required to remove their hats in the presence of superiors. Foreigners generally explained the Dutch disregard for ‘hat honor’ as their longing for egalitarianism, personal independence and freedom.’
From a technical point of view, the suitor’s drab olive green cloak was meant to subtly contrast with the brilliant red satin dress of the seated girl. Had it been brighter in color, the two figures would have been visually divided. Its sweeping folds, almost monumental, enhance the gentleman’s stature and, perhaps in a discreetly manner, his masculinity.
One of the finest passages of the composition is the gentleman’s semi-exposed ruffled cuff which gently encloses the perfectly white wine jug. He stands at a respectful distance ready to pour another glass of wine to the young lady who seems to have almost finished the first.
Critics have given interpretations to momentary tête-à-tête speculating largely on the body language of the two figures. Walter Liedtke supposes that the girl’s closed arms bent squarely to her body imply discomfort "as if the courtship were a troublesome necessity." It may also be noted that neither of his hands has been depicted, which along the same line, might suggest his unwillingness to expose his seductive intentions. However, it is doubtful she would have entrusted the suitor to enter her private chamber and accepted a glass of wine had she not felt confident of his decent intentions or at least her ability to maintain control over the situation.
These all-white tin-glazed containers were originally produced in Faenza, Italy. In the 1550s they were exported to all over Europe and by the late 16th and early 17th century had become very fashionable. Vermeer must have been very fond of this type of wine jug since it appears in strategically important areas in three other compositions (see detail of the Music Lesson left).
In Holland, such containers were imitated by local potters and became a favorite subject of a great many genre interior painters between 1650 and 1670. Although it is very difficult to distinguish between Italian and Dutch versions, historian of the Dutch decorative arts Alexandra Gaba-van Dongen believes that the ones in Vermeer’s paintings are original Italian.
In this work, the theme of gallant courtship and music making overlap. On the Spanish chair, lay a cittern and underneath it a pillow, on the table, a few opened songbooks. Presumably, moments before, the gentleman had been serenading the young lady with some sprightly cittern music before shifting tactics. He may stand a better chance at softening her heart with a few glasses of wine.
The play of light across the mute substances of the elaborately carved head of the cittern and the back of the chair comprise one of the most evocative passages in the artist’s oeuvre.
Art scholars have come to believe that Vermeer’s paintings often allude to music, a common 17th-century metaphor for love and harmony between family members, lovers, or friends. Many 17th-century songbooks were entirely devoted to love songs because musical gatherings offered one of the few opportunities for flirtatious social encounters between men and women of the elevated social classes.
The couple which appears in this paintings are members of the haute bourgeoisie who we would expect to have read, wrote, and often spoke several languages and who collected European poetry in which the latest love conventions appeared. They would have been familiar not only with Dutch music, but French and even English song-books and part music as well. The young suitor may have intoned a love song, perhaps one of poets’ Pieter Hooft, whose lyrics in the tradition of Petrarch and De Ronsard were frequently set to musical accompaniment. Some of these lyrics appeared in Hooft’s noted Emblemata Amatoria (Emblems of Love),
Although the Dutch did print their own songbooks (see image above), foreign publications were generally preferred. Contrary to other forms of culture, many people were familiar with the melodies and texts of songs whose texts reflect the problems of ordinary people. They give an excellent picture of the way in which the jeunesse doree of the time lived. Since they were made to be carried along to festive gatherings very few specimens can be found.
The wooded landscape, painted with great delicacy, is done in the style of Allart van Everdingen. Van Everdingen was the younger brother of the painter Caesar van Everdingen whose Cupid appear three times in Vermeer’s oeuvre and a fourth before the artist Vermeer eventually painted it out.
Although Dutch art scholars have demonstrated that figural paintings, maps and drawings were sometimes used to convey hidden meaning to the depicted scenes, landscapes were generally considered decorative fillers. Elise Goodman has shown, instead, that they are "iconographically charged emblems that contribute to and expand on the meaning of the pictures." Thus, the landscape in the present work emphasizes the amorous intention of the elegant cavalier who makes his love known through refined music making and wine drinking according to accepted norms of ritualized courtship. The use of the landscape as a metaphor of love was frequent in literature and popular love lyrics set to musical accompaniment.
The sumptuous gilt frame adds greatly to the aesthetically rich yet measured pleasure of the picture.
One of the most remarkable features of the painting is this colored stained-glass window which appears in another painting by Vermeer, Young Woman with a Wine Glass, in Berlin, in Berlin. The coat of arms has been identified with Janetge Jacobsdr. Vogel, first wife of Moses van Nederveen but it is not known how Vermeer came by it. Although Janet Vogel and her husband had lived in Delft not too distant from Vermeer, Janet had died in 1624, eight years before the artist was born.
The symbolic meaning of the coat of arms is now clear and certainly required no coaxing to understand it in the time of Vermeer. The female figure who holds a level and bridle personifies Temperantia, or Temperance, which is very similar to an image from Gabriel Rollenhagen’s Selectorum Emblematum of 1613. Rollenhagen’s illustration is accompanied with the text "The heart knows not how to observe moderation and applies reins to feelings when struck by desire" The level symbolizes good deeds and the bridle symbolizes emotional control. Thus, it is very probable that, together with the staid portrait on the rear wall, it provided an incentive towards moderation an admonitory comment to the protagonists’ lack of self restraint.
No other painter except for Pieter de Hooch ever lavished on the simple, whitewashed Dutch walls such attention. Some of Vermeer’s walls appear to be fruit of intense observation where every nuance light’s activity and surface texture are noted while other appear generalized solutions contrived chiefly to display the foreground elements to their best advantage. The walls of the Milkmaid, the Music Lesson and the Art of Painting are so convincing that observers rarely register them as paint. Even a skilled realist painter has difficulty discerning paint from illusion of the background wall of the Woman with a Pearl Necklace.
In this work, however, it must be said that the fine nuances of color and the carefully registering of the unevenness, cracks and stains of the wall’s surface are absent.
Since the local color of a wall is homogenously white, how might a painter use to give substance, texture and light to it? Which and what proportion of pigments must be used to render the gradual dimming of the wall as it distances itself from the light source and how does one capture the transparencies of the cast shadows?
It is rarely the case that in Dutch interior painting that, except for those most illuminated, white walls would be painted with pure white. Since the light strikes the wall at a rather oblique angle it does reflect nearly as much as the light rays that strike surfaces which are strike more directly such as the figure. In the present work the main components of the wall paint are raw umber, a rather dull be extremely useful brown, natural ultramarine and naturally, white lead, the poisonous, workhorse white which was replaced only in the 20th century by titanium white. This same mixure, in different proportions was also used in the Girl with a Glass of Wine presumably painted shortly after the presnt work."
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