Editorial Feature

A look at Vermeer’s relevance in pop culture

Discover the surprising ways the artist’s works have been used

While Johannes Vermeer still remains a bit of an enigma as an artist, people are probably more familiar with his work than they realise. That’s due to the multitude of references and adaptations of his work over the years. Vermeer’s subtle appearances in popular culture have led to a familiarity with his work but also a renewed appreciation. Check out the list below to see whether you’ve spotted these Vermeer moments.

Girl with a Pearl Earring: book (1999), film (2003), and play (2008)

One of the most famous references to Vermeer’s work is Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 bestselling book inspired by his 1665 painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring. The book is set in 17th century Delft, Holland, and when lead character Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry, and the care of his 6 children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond.

In 2003, Chevalier’s book was turned into a film directed by Peter Webber and starring Scarlett Johannssen as Griet, and Colin Firth as Vermeer. The film incorporates 7 of Vermeer’s paintings into the story, many being painted by Firth/Vermeer on screen. It was nominated for 10 British Academy Film Awards, 3 Academy Awards, and 2 Golden Globe Awards. The novel was then adapted into a play of the same name in 2008.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection Mauritshuis)

Nestle’s La Laitière yoghurt brand, 1974

Vermeer’s c.1660 painting, The Milkmaid has been on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam since 1908. But the majority of its notoriety is as the emblem of a famous yoghurt brand of the same name. Nestle’s yoghurt brand La Laitière was first launched in 1973 after a product manager at Chambourcy (the original owners of the brand) proposed the idea for a whole milk yoghurt in a glass jar. This "old-fashioned" yogurt didn’t launch using Vermeer’s painting, but adopted the image for a television advert and poster campaign in 1974.

The painting, which sees a woman pouring milk, was used for the associations of warmth and generosity it supposedly conjured. In the black and white commercial, it ended with the slogan: “La Laitière, a masterpiece of Chambourcy”. In 1979 The Milkmaid image then became part of the packaging of the yoghurt as a nod to tradition and authenticity. No word on the copyright implications of a global brand adopting a Vermeer painting, but maybe it’s best to let them deal with that.

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection Rijksmuseum)

The Mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist

Several of Vermeer’s paintings have been stolen and returned over the years but one painting, The Concert from 1664, has never been recovered. The painting was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum along with 13 other works. It is now thought to be the most valuable Vermeer work currently unrecovered, with a value estimated at over $200,000,000.

The heist has been referenced numerous times in documentaries and television dramas, but most surprisingly it even got a shout out in an episode of The Simpsons called American History X-cellent (episode 17, season 21) in April 2010. In the episode Mr Burns is arrested for possessing stolen art and one of the pieces is Vermeer’s The Concert, although it’s never revealed how he got his hands on the stolen artwork.

The Concert by Johannes Vermeer (From the collection Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum)

Banksy's Girl with a Pierced Eardrum, 2014

Another creative inspired by Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring was famous street artist Bansky, who parodied the artwork in 2014. Located in the Spike Island area of Bristol, UK, the artist has used the placement of an outdoor alarm box as the woman’s earring. The news of the homage’s appearance broke through the artist’s own website, who posted a picture of the work and titled it, Girl with a Pierced Eardrum.

This isn’t the only time Banksy has looked to fine art for inspiration having also previously parodied: Rodin's The Thinker statue in 2004 through an unauthorised sculpture; Claude Monet's 1899 painting, Bridge Over A Pond of Water Lilies in 2005; and Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers the same year.

Girl with a Pierced Eardrum by Banksy in Bristol

All The Vermeers In New York, 1990

In this 1990 arthouse film two characters, Ana (a French actor) and Gordon (a financial broker), meet in the hall of the Metropolitan Museum before the paintings of Vermeer. At first, the movie pretends to be a romantic comedy, but it quickly turns into a philosophical parable, where the stock market becomes linked to art galleries selling works of art. The film quotes the paintings of Vermeer both as scenery and rather profound metaphors. The introduction, the culmination, and the epilogue take place against the background of his works.

While All The Vermeers In New York received praise from critics, as well as awards and nominations from independent film festivals, it unfortunately failed its American release withoutearning back the budget spent. It’s remained an underground appreciation for Vermeer’s works ever since. American film critic Roger Ebert said of the film: “If All the Vermeers in New York had been in French with subtitles, I would have known right away what to expect. It’s unusual to find a film this brainy in English.”

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