Serene. Precise. Beautiful. These are the kind of glorifying words typically associated with the light-filled work of Johannes Vermeer, best known for his painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Reflecting on the largest Vermeer exhibition in history, now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Teju Cole points to the violence in the artist’s work and questions the dogma surrounding his aesthetic legacy:
But let us find the trouble now. All through Vermeer’s oeuvre are objects like those in “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” that remind us the world is large. This was the world that was emerging after the protracted struggle by the Netherlands for independence from Spanish rule. During the 80-Years war and in its immediate aftermath, the Dutch established trading posts in Asia, Africa and in the Americas. An efflorescence of capitalism at home and overseas followed, and with it the beginnings of a colonial empire. Their own experience of subjugation did nothing to temper their desire to subjugate others. The Dutch East India Company dominated maritime routes and its shareholders raked in profits. The Dutch West India Company, meanwhile, was a significant force in the trade in enslaved people. Ordinary Dutch citizens grew wealthy from these criminal enterprises. With a renewed sense of who they were in the world, they filled their homes with rare objects and far-fetched finery. You could have luxurious things, and you could also have them depicted in paintings. The paintings were helpful reminders that you were mortal, yes, but also that you were rich.
In his perceptive book “Vermeer’s Hat” (2008), the historian Timothy Brook draws out some of the global provenances of the things we see in Vermeer’s paintings. He suggests, for instance, that the silver on the table in the “Woman Holding a Balance” could have had its origin in the notorious Potosí silver mine, a hellish place run on the labor of enslaved people in what was then Peru and is now Bolivia. The felt lining the hat of the soldier in “Officer and Laughing Girl” almost certainly came from beaver pelts sourced by French adventurers from the violent trade networks of 17th-century Canada. Brook traces a connection between this lighthearted genre scene and the bitter history of the “starvation winter of 1649-50,” when European greed for pelts led to expulsions, wars and the mass deaths of Huron Indian children.