Thanks to the availability of art education, particularly art appreciation classes with their heavy emphasis on art history, and the easy accessibility of the huge, mega-museums in all our major cities, we often come to a certain mindset in which we elevate our greatest artists a godlike level of perfection. We tend to think that all great artists were completely successful all the time. Absolutes are dangerous and that's three in just one sentence. Not only is such overkill not the case, it would be untrue even it we limited it to only two. Yesterday, I discussed the evident problems the great Edouard Manet encountered in trying to learn how to use photography as a tool in his painting. Several of his major works from the 1860s and thereafter, while not artistic disasters, nonetheless exhibited technical difficulties quite evidently photographic to modern eyes. Possibly because he may have tried to hide his use of photographs in creating his work, his Academic enemies simply chalked them up to his brazen flouting of the rules of good taste and the rejection of the technical virtuosity he'd been taught as a student. At his best, Manet was most successful when he succeeded in stretching the definition of fine art and when he worked exploring the use of new visual aids in his painting. For that we should give him high marks, but stop well short of deification.
Two hundred years before Manet there was a Dutch artist in very much the same vein. He was quite unlike Manet in temperament and style, but quite similar in his embrace of scientific aids in creating his works. His name was Jan Vermeer. During his lifetime, he was a quiet, modestly successful, journeyman artist, living in a very modest household in Delft, Holland, with his wife, mother-in-law, and eleven children - about as different from the bon vivant Manet as imaginable. After his death in 1675, his work was virtually unknown until about the time of Manet. He left behind a meagre collection of but 35 exquisite masterpieces of Dutch genre chronicling the intimate home life and times in which he lived. His quiet, trademark scenes of pleasant women involved in various acts of domestic tranquillity are instantly recognisable the world over. Perhaps not so well known, but just as evident, was his customised use of the room-size camera obscura as a drawing aid. This tool gave his work a remarkable level of consistency in style, composition, setting, and technical virtuosity. But it also imposed limitations.
You'd never know it from looking at his work, but Vermeer lived during turbulent times in Holland. Political and religious strife between Protestants and Catholics in Holland was at a peak during the mid-1600s. Vermeer was born and raised a staunch Protestant. But, much to the consternation of his parents and friends, he fell in love with a Catholic girl, converted, and married her. Even today, the saying goes that, "There is no more devout Catholic than a Catholic convert." This was probably even more the case in Vermeer's troubled time. His faith was important to him. That's why, when he was asked by his church to paint an allegory of faith, he could neither refuse nor resist the challenge, even though such a work was completely foreign to his artistic background. This also accounts for the fact that his Allegory of the Faith, painted in 1670, is easily his least satisfying, least successful work.
First of all, the painting is larger than he was accustomed to working. His female figure, emoting melodramatically before a painted crucifixion, which occupies the major portion of his background, is relatively smaller than those in any of his other "female" paintings. Moreover, her pose, leaning against a draped altar, her foot resting uncomfortably high upon a globe, is decidedly un-feminine, seemingly unstable, anatomically awkward at best, even bordering on the impossible, given her modest height. To the right of this stylishly dressed female figure symbolising faith is a gold chalice, an open Bible, and a towering crucifix. Her foot, resting upon the globe, symbolises the trampling of worldly temptations. At her feet lies a "sinful" apple and a serpent, its head crushed, its blood spewing across the familiar checkerboard marble of Vermeer's studio floor.
The hallmarks of Vermeer's typical interior scenes are all present. A massive, intricately painted drapery in the form of a brocade tapestry depicting worldly delights is drawn back to reveal symbolically the private nature of faith. A strong light from the left, likewise typical of Vermeer, illuminates the drapery and displays the artist's complete mastery of its volume, texture, light, and colour. It is by far the strongest, most satisfying part of the painting. But the painting as a whole is little more than an intellectual exercise, a carefully contrived work in which all its many parts simply fail to mesh. To call it Vermeer's "least admired" work is putting it kindly. Compositionally, it doesn't "come together" at all like virtually every one of Vermeer's other paintings. One has to wonder if the artist himself saw this valiant effort as a failure or if he was, instead, caught up solely in the effort to convey a faith which he deeply felt yet was quite ill-equipped to realise in paint. In any case, one is forced to admire an artist with the strength, faith, and daring to allow himself to be vulnerable in stretching to accomplish that which was beyond his reach.