Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

A Lady Writing (c. 1665) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Among the most enduring images of the Dutch Golden Age are genre paintings, or scenes of daily life, from the third quarter of the seventeenth century. Made during a time of unparalleled innovation and prosperity, these exquisite portrayals of refined Dutch society—elegant men and women writing letters, playing music, and tending to their daily rituals—present a genteel world that is extraordinarily appealing. Today, Johannes Vermeer is the most celebrated of these painters thanks to the beauty and tranquility of his images. Yet other masters, among them Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris, and Gabriel Metsu, also created works that are remarkably similar in style, subject matter, and technique. The visual connections between these artists’ paintings suggest a robust atmosphere of innovation and exchange—but to what extent did they inspire each other’s work, and to what extent did they follow their own artistic evolution?

The Letter (c.1660 - 1665) by Gerard ter BorchRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Ter Borch and the “Modern Composition”

Gerard ter Borch was the most influential of the Dutch genre painters owing to his remarkable ability to depict elegant images of domesticity and leisure that conveyed the inner life of his figures. He seemingly turned to genre painting because his father, Gerard ter Borch the Elder, encouraged him to focus on “modern compositions,” meaning scenes of everyday life rather than religious or mythological subjects: “And when you wish to paint, work up some modern compositions, as you surely can....If you do that you will be loved by God, as you were in Haarlem and Amsterdam.” Ter Borch the Elder wrote these words to his son in 1635, at a time when the Dutch Republic’s thriving shipping industry had created enormous wealth for its citizenry—which, in turn, stimulated a booming art market. Scenes of daily life were particularly appealing to the newly affluent, especially refined images depicting lively gatherings and festive garden parties.

Woman Writing a Letter (c. 1655) by Borch, Gerard terMauritshuis

When Ter Borch fully turned his attention to genre scenes around 1650, however, he depicted just a few individuals—sometimes even a single figure—engaged in leisure pastimes or tending to daily rituals in quiet, domestic interiors rather than the bustling communal scenes favored by the earlier generation of artists. This approach resonated with many of his contemporaries, including Vermeer, who soon followed his lead.

A Lady Writing (c. 1665) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Among the most influential of Ter Borch’s paintings was Woman Writing a Letter (Mauritshuis, The Hague), which depicts his favorite model, his half-sister Gesina, in an intimate moment of putting her thoughts to paper. Quill in hand, and totally absorbed by her writing, she possesses an air of quietude and thoughtfulness. This feeling is enhanced by the delicacy of Ter Borch’s brushwork as well as his sensitivity to her emotional state of being.

Vermeer’s Lady Writing is one of several works by different artists that reflect the influence of Ter Borch’s masterpiece. In Vermeer’s painting, an alluring young woman poised over a letter looks out at the viewer with a knowing smile. Vermeer, like Ter Borch, minimized narrative and anecdotal elements that would explain the woman’s expression, and he endowed her with the same abiding grace that Gesina exudes. Although the compositions are similar, the Delft master brought a different artistic sensibility to his painting.

Whereas Ter Borch employed an earthen palette of ocher and reds, Vermeer harmonized lemony yellows with teal blues, blending their tonal values throughout the picture to create chromatic balance. He also carefully arranged the composition to enhance the scene’s equilibrium and instill a feeling of timelessness.

The Hermit (1670) by Gerrit DouNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Networks of Influence

Like Ter Borch, Gerrit Dou turned his attention to scenes of upperclass domestic life during the 1650s. For twenty years the Leiden master (a former student of Rembrandt) had occupied himself with portraits, tronies (character studies), hermits, and scholars. 

A Woman playing a Clavichord (c.1665) by Gerrit DouDulwich Picture Gallery

Midway in his career, perhaps sensing the change in tastes among patrons, he began portraying elegant women playing music, gazing in mirrors, pining for loved ones, or holding a pet. The subjects Dou and Ter Borch painted were related, but the two artists differed in their techniques. While Ter Borch painted in a flowing manner, smoothly blending colors using small, rapidly applied brushstrokes, Dou went further and worked in a “fine painting” (fijnschilder) technique, marked by invisible brushwork and extraordinary attention to detail.

Self-Portrait (ca. 1665) by Gerrit DouThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dou spent his entire career in Leiden, where he trained numerous artists in his refined style of painting, including Frans van Mieris, whom he called “the prince” of his pupils. At the same time, younger painters inspired by Dou also drew inspiration from each other. For example, Van Mieris and Jan Steen, who was also from Leiden, often borrowed compositional ideas, motifs, and figural arrangements from one another. This robust network of mutual influence, which encompassed not only those working in one artistic center but also artists in different cities, is borne out time and again in the rich body of seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings.

Young Woman in a Niche with a Parrot and Cage (ca. 1660-65) by Gerrit DouThe Leiden Collection

Around 1660– 1665, Dou took up the novel subject of a young woman tending to her parrot, an expensive pet that denotes her affluence. Dou’s painting found many admirers, including Caspar Netscher, working in The Hague, who painted his lustrous Woman Feeding a Parrot, with a Page (National Gallery of Art, Washington) shortly thereafter. Like Dou, Netscher represented a woman standing behind an open niche, and in both works, a drapery hanging in the niche is gathered to one side. A distinct difference between the two images is the woman’s demeanor: Dou’s figure appears sweet and chaste, whereas Netscher’s young woman is unabashedly sensual. Her gold-colored dress is cut seductively low to reveal the porcelain skin of her décolletage, while her coquettish gaze creates a lively, enticing image that feels both familiar and yet wholly original.

Officer Writing a Letter, with a Trumpeter (c. 1658-59) by Gerard ter Borch, Dutch (active Haarlem, London, Amsterdam, Zwolle, and Deventer), 1617 - 1681Philadelphia Museum of Art

Close Encounters

The similarity of themes, compositions, gestures and poses in so many genre paintings raises the question of how these artists may have encountered each other’s work. In the case of Dou and Van Mieris, the two artists had been teacher and pupil and they also spent their entire careers in Leiden. They lived in the same neighborhood, belonged to the same guild, and even shared (and possibly competed for) the same patrons. The intersections between their works are thus not surprising. The relationship of Ter Borch and Netscher was also that of mentor and student, while Steen and Van Mieris were drinking buddies, perhaps accounting for their artistic overlap. Even in the absence of personal connections, however, the ease of travel in the Netherlands would have provided opportunities for artists to see one another’s paintings, whether in guild halls, at auctions, through dealers, or in collectors’ homes. Thanks to coaches, wagons, and even horse-drawn barges called trekschuiten, which traversed the hundreds of canals that connected towns, travel during this time was convenient and efficient. One could go by barge from Amsterdam to Haarlem in one hour, with trips leaving every hour, from Haarlem to Leiden in two hours, or from Delft to The Hague in one hour and fifteen minutes. Such effortless mobility between artistic centers must have facilitated cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques. 

Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664) by Johannes VermeerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Inspiration, Rivalry, and the Art of Vermeer

Today, Vermeer is the most celebrated of all Dutch genre painters, even though little is known about his life, including his training and his travels outside of Delft. While many of his pictures are related thematically or compositionally to those of other Dutch artists, they remain distinctive. Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance (detail), for example, has a restrained quietude that differs from the more active scenes that his contemporaries depicted. As in this painting, Vermeer also had an ability to infuse his scenes of daily life with substantive meaning. Here, as the woman gazes toward the balance, the painting of the Last Judgment hanging behind her imparts a spiritual significance to her act of weighing and judging.

The Lacemaker (1669) by Johannes VermeerOriginal Source: Agence photographique de la Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais

A comparison of his The Lacemaker with Nicolas Maes’s Young Woman Making Lace (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) further demonstrates this aspect of Vermeer’s artistic genius. In his painting, Maes depicted the lacemaker seated in the back of a dimly lit room, and included a number of pictorial elements—a portrait of Martin Luther and money bag hanging on the wall, and an open book on her desk—to symbolize her industriousness, frugality, and domesticity. Vermeer, however, closely cropped his composition and placed the young woman against a bare wall to focus upon the lacemaker herself. His image both captures the lacemaker’s emotional engagement in her work and conveys a sense of tranquility and permanence.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is part of the Google Vermeer Project.

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