Peer Pleasure

Vermeer and his contemporaries

Jan Vermeer, the master of Dutch genre painting, rarely left his hometown of Delft. He lived in relative obscurity, produced two or three paintings a year, and sold almost half of his work to one patron. But according to Walter Liedtke, curator of Vermeer and the Delft School, opening in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on March 8, this romanticized biography doesn't allow for any historical context. "Vermeer is often portrayed as this isolated genius," says Liedtke, "but placing his work within that of his contemporaries shows how much he was influenced by regional traditions and inspired by the current art trends." The exhibition features more than 80 paintings by 30 artists, including 15 by Vermeer (such as Young Woman Seated at a Virginal) and others by Pieter de Hooch, Emanuel de Witte, and Carel Fabritius. The paintings by Vermeer's contemporaries—from genre interiors to history pictures to sweeping landscapes—not only illuminate the master's oeuvre but also provide ravishing examples of the innovative Dutch treatment of perspective and light. The background of Carel Fabritius' brilliant View in Delft, for example, appears almost as if seen through a fisheye lens; the painting's modern touches leave us wondering what else Rembrandt's talented pupil might have produced had he not died at the age of 32 in an explosion that also leveled much of Delft.