The aesthetics of domesticity: a parallel between Jane Austen and Johannes Vermeer

On Monday 24 May 1813, Jane Austen wrote:

Henry & I went to the Exhibition in Spring Gardens. It is not thought a good collection, but I was very well pleased – particularly (pray tell Fanny) with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; – perhaps, however, I may find her in the Great Exhibition, which we shall go tom if we have time; –  I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, & which we are also to visit. – Mrs Bingley’s is exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her. I dare say Mrs D. will be in Yellow.

There are quite a few ladies in yellow in Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, although I wouldn’t identify any of them as Elizabeth Bennet. She clearly belongs to a different time and place. And yet, in his review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott draws an interesting parallel:

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.

I’ve been drawn to both  Austen and Vermeer since well before I came across this text, perceiving a certain  kindredness of spirit that goes beyond this fleeting reference. Though aesthetic experience is not easy to explain, I’ve put together a list of similarities that might account for the association.

  • Focus on everyday life

Jane Austen was quite aware of the scope of her abilities:

I am fully sensible that an Historical Romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of Profit or Popularity, than such pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages as I deal in – but I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. – I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life, & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first Chapter. – No – I must keep to my own style & go on in my own Way; And though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other. –

After an initial attempt to portray historical (i.e. mythological and religious) scenes, Vermeer devoted himself to genre painting. This style sought to depict a variety of everyday life situations, being quite popular in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries. We can see why: it offered a glimpse into the way in which others spent their time and went about their daily business. But what I find unique about Vermeer is the atmosphere of blissful domesticity, of unobtrusive respectability that comes out of his secluded interiors. Just as in Austen’s case, the ordinary has been turned into an ideal.

Johannes_Vermeer_-_A_Lady_Writing_-_Google_Art_Project
A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer
  •   Women

In Jane Austen’s novels the world is seen mainly from women’s point of view. As we all know, gentlemen very rarely talk to each other when ladies are not around. In Vermeer’s paintings women are often portrayed alone, or with others of their gender. Men are usually in the company of women, The Geographer and The Astronomer being the only exceptions.

  • Social class

Both Vermeer and Austen describe the lives of those right above them on the social and economic ladder, whether it’s wealthy Dutch burghers, or the English landed gentry, knights, and baronets. But servants also feature prominently in his work, and even mundane chores are performed with sober grace.

  • Activities

Vermeer’s characters, pretty much like Austen’s, are engaged in receiving, reading, or writing letters, playing music, painting, courting, or interacting with their maids. They might be thinking of their beloved, like Elinor Dashwood, while doing something else, or putting things into perspective through ‘quiet reflection.’ One of them seems to be admiring her own pearls, like Mrs Elton …

  • Small groups

While Austen confines herself to ‘three or four families in a country village,’ Vermeer’s scenes include only a few human figures. Though he preferred canvas, he would have understood what Jane meant by ‘the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?’

  • Limited production

Jane Austen completed only six novels, whereas thirty-five paintings have been undisputedly attributed to Vermeer. His output may have been marginally larger, but nowhere near the hundreds turned out by Rembrandt or the surviving hundred plus by other contemporaries whose production was more limited.

Attention to detail, thoughtful composition, and a wish to follow his own artistic inclinations might account for this difference. And while I won’t deny I would have liked Austen to have finished Sanditon, which perhaps she would have, had she lived longer, I cannot help feeling that in her case, too, less is more. Had she been pressed for time, she might not have given us her carefully constructed plots, her structured, consistent, and smoothly progressing narratives, or her lively and witty prose.

  • Untimely death

As we know, Jane Austen died at 41, whereas Vermeer passed away at 43. Both were at the height of their creative powers.

  • Reluctance to ‘dwell on guilt and misery’

Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen’s novels do mention war, the militia, the slave-trade, duelling, crime, punishment, poverty, old age, disease, death, bad parenting, adultery, seduction, and divorce – to say nothing of the murder, hanging, steel traps, and child abandonment to be found in the juvenilia. Yet she refuses to ‘dwell on guilt and misery.’ Is she to be commended or reproved? Neither, I suppose. There is plenty of social critique in her books, anyway, at times thinly veiled in irony, chiefly focused on the marriage market.

530px-Johannes_Vermeer_-_Woman_Holding_a_Balance_-_Google_Art_Project
Woman Holding a Balance by Johannes Vermeer

When Johannes Vermeer was born his country was at war with Spain. After 80 years of armed conflict, the Independence of the United Provinces of the Netherlands was finally declared in 1648. Vermeer was 15. Three Anglo-Dutch wars, brought about by commercial rivalry, were fought during his lifetime: 1652-1654, 1666-1667, and 1672-1674, the last one being part of the 1672-1678 Franco-Dutch war.  In 1672, the ‘Year of Disaster,’ dykes were opened around Amsterdam to hinder the progress of the French invaders, and two republican leaders were lynched by an angry mob. Not everybody benefited from the economic prosperity generated by trade, and wealth coexisted with deprivation.

We see none of this turmoil or hardship in Vermeer’s paintings. True, there is an officer, but he’s sitting across the table from a laughing girl – maybe she thinks he looks ‘very becoming … in his regimentals.’ The Procuress appears to have been an early attempt at a brothel scene, reminiscent of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, but with no nudity in it: the prostitute is fully clothed.

Was the subject matter the artist’s own choice? It’s not known whether Pieter van Ruijven, who may have purchased over half of his production, had a say in it. Overall there is a sharp contrast between the male sphere of ruthless capitalist expansion and military action and the female realm of domestic harmony and quiet. A seemingly pregnant lady holds a pair of empty scales: she’s not weighing anything – perhaps she’s hinting at a deeply felt need for balance and fairness. A faint light that comes in through the window is all we get from the outside world.

The Vermeers’ home must have been a noisy place. They had fifteen children, four of whom died during their father’s lifetime. They lived with Maria Thins, his mother-in-law, who had been a battered wife. At some point her son moved in with them. He was a violent man who abused his mother, threatened to strike his pregnant sister with a stick, and had to be eventually committed. We wouldn’t have guessed any of this looking at his brother-in-law’s paintings: family tragedy is also kept at bay.

Admiring his masterpieces, we get the impression of someone desperately clinging to a private utopia, an elusive vision of serene dignity and calm that can only be achieved through art. A certain ideal of grace, proportion, order, and restraint, however far from realisation, also informs Jane Austen’s novels. Yet she failed to attain the happy ending she gave her heroines …

We cannot avoid the pain, the uncertainty, the heartbreak, the struggle that human existence involves, but we all need an inner haven, a restful place where we can hope for something better. Some of us are gifted enough to turn it, in Keats’s words, into a thing of beauty that’s a joy for ever.

References

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Barnum, Deborah. 2010. A Jane Austen Triple-Play in Montreal! Retrieved from https://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/a-jane-austen-triple-play-in-montreal/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Sanborn, Victoire. Emma. Masterpiece Classic. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/remotelyconnected/2010/01/emma.html

William, Ioan, ed.( 2010). Sir Walter Scott on Novelists and Fiction. London: Routledge.

http://www.essentialvermeer.com/index.html

https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio/artists/johannes-vermeer

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