Being Irish and it being St Patrick’s Day, it is with particular delight that I write about the Louvre’s current exhibition ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting’ as it has been organised in collaboration with the National Gallery of Ireland and The National Gallery of Art, Washington. The exhibition explores the relationship between Vermeer and his contemporaries during the Dutch Golden Age period of 1650-1675 and aims to show that despite the traditional view of Vermeer as an isolated figure, he was in fact part of a group of artists who admired, inspired and competed with one another.
Vermeer’s output was low only producing around 45 paintings of which only 36 are known today. The exhibition brings together 12 of these paintings, the most interesting of which, from an Irish point of view, is ‘A Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid’, it being one of the paintings on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland.
The painting is considered one of Vermeer’s outstanding works incorporating many of his recognisable components such as the quiet inactive figures in a domestic scene, his preoccupation with light, back wall painting, window frame and tiled floor. The painting has a mysterious quality to it with the viewer wondering who is the lady writing to, is it her lover, is the maid complicit in the act or is she merely bored and gazing out the window?Vermeer did not sell this painting during his lifetime instead it was sold by his widow after his death to cover her costs for bread. The painting ultimately ended up in Ireland in 1952 when Sir Alfred Beit, a British politician who became an honorary Irish citizen, bought Russborough House in County Wicklow moving there with his wife and bringing with them their art collection. At Russborough House the painting had an eventful history being the subject of two robberies. The first was in 1974 and was led by an IRA gang during which the elderly Beits were tied up. The thieves got away with several paintings including ‘A Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid’. Fortunately, all were recovered a few weeks later in a cottage in County Cork.
In 1986 the painting was again stolen, this time by a criminal gang from Dublin and unlike the robbery in 1974, it took seven years to recover the painting when it eventually turned up in Antwerp in 1993. By this stage the Beits had donated the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland.
Two other paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland included in the exhibition are two works by Vermeer’s contemporary Gabriel Metsu and entitled ‘Man Writing a Letter’ and its companion piece ‘Woman reading a Letter’. The pair are considered to be Metsu’s finest achievement. Like ‘A Lady Writing a Letter, with her maid’, these works came into the National Gallery of Ireland as a donation from Sir Alfred and Lady Beit and both of which were stolen during both the aforementioned robberies at Russborough House.
There is one very well known Vermeer masterpiece missing from the exhibition and that is ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which has stayed in Mauritshuis in The Hague but on the other hand the iconic ‘Milkmaid’ has been loaned out by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The exhibition runs until the 22 May 1017 but the crowds have been flocking in such great numbers since the exhibition opened that visitors have had to queue for hours with resulting chaos at the Louvre. Be aware that visitors must obtain a specific time to enter the exhibition but this can be done online in advance. If you miss the exhibition in Paris, not to worry, as it travels to Dublin (without the ‘Milkmaid ‘) in June where it will be on display until the 17th September 2017. After that it makes its final trip to the National Gallery in Washington where it runs from the 22nd October 2017 to the 21st January 2018. Happy St Patrick’s Day!