Category Archives: Week 2

Vermeer (National Art Gallery): A Little Explanation Never Hurt Nobody!

The museum exhibit curation was more impressive than that of ones I’ve seen in Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montréal, QC Canada, due to the fact that contexts in which the artworks were conceived, as well as their meanings, were provided. What I found most interesting was that the text accompanying the visuals features little to no explanations regarding the use of deep colors, the use of light and the extravagant and dramatic nature of these artworks. Further, it did not make use of the word “Baroque” to refer to the art movement and technique under which these painters fall. Rather, it utilized the word “genre painting”, highlighting the social significance rather than the artistic significance of these works.

The exhibit curation brought attention to the dominant so themes found in Dutch Genre Painting, showcasing works of Dutch artists, including but not limited to Vermeer, ter Borch, de Hooch, and Maes. Such highlighted themes included the use of music, the representation of women, specifically in unguarded moments, and that of men, as well as the use of animals such as parrots and dogs, the former – a motif for prosperity due to the newly established trade network – and the latter symbolizing loyalty in relationships. As such, through textual aids, the exhibition uncovers the underlying socio-cultural meanings and symbols found in these genre paintings (i.e. painting of scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people in work or recreation, depicted in a generally realistic manner), serving as a mini lens into the 17th Century Dutch Republic.

Despite the exhibit taking on after the Dutch painter’s name, the surprisingly low amount of Vermeer paintings presented in the exhibitions shows that to attract an audience to a museum like the National Art Gallery, curators must succumb to the commercialization of art. In other words, the name of renowned artists is often the most advertised to gain a large number of museum visits. Although the exhibition did not carry the “Girl with A Pearl Earring”, the boutique found at the end of gallery displayed commercialized goods, such as calendars, posters, and notebooks splattered with the painting, for sale. In short, the NGA is benefitting from the name of Vermeer to attract attention to the exhibition and produce financial gain.

As a result, interacting with the art becomes difficult: because there are many people surrounding the painting, and at times, pushing one another, to get a closer look of the work – specifically to admire the loose brush strokes of satin – in the context of a museum, the viewer grows tired of waiting and might skip some paintings; thus, not fully grasping the whole experience of the curated exhibit. While the digital aids provide relief in this aspect, still, appreciating the artworks becomes less powerful. In other words, while the digital aids render the art to be more accessible, quality of the paintings (i.e. to what extent they are appreciated) are comprised as they are captured digitally. Additionally, the exhibition was organized by themes – a gallery for each one (i.e. music, women), and at times, themes were coupled in order to establish relationships between each theme (i.e. “world of men” and “love and courtship”). While art should be open to interpretation, and this type of curating might tamper with one’s interpretation, this curating causes one to appreciate the art more because they are aware of its cultural meaning.

All in all, the exhibition surpasses expectations as it offered an acute perspective of the works by offering textual, material, and digital aids, rendering a wholesome understanding of the paintings and their social significance, not only in 17th Century Netherlands society but also in the context of being represented in the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Museums and cultural perceptions

The very first impression I have about the exhibition of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting is the crowdedness and the hustle and bustle of the room. After waiting in a long line, I shuffled along with all others struggling to see past the backs of so many heads. Though I want to spend a little more time with Vermeer’s artworks and look into the details of women’s skins, gestures and the folds of their dresses in those paintings, I feel that I cannot be selfish because so many others are waiting around me. On the one hand, I look the overcrowding as a good thing. Attendance numbers at Vermeer’s exhibitions reveal that this is a successful exhibition and National Gallery of Art has been sensitive to meet visitors’ needs. At the same time, however, I have some questions about this situation. Will the crowdedness build barriers in allowing visitor involvement and engagement? With so many people in the exhibition at a time, can visitor fully immerse themselves in a museum atmosphere? I know these questions can be tricky to tackle, because no matter how meticulous the advance planning, museums can’t always predict which shows will be megahits or whether the galleries will provide enough room for uncrowded viewing.

Another thing I would highlight about the exhibition of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting is the layout and the light. I really like the decoration and the color of NGA. I think the lighting system of the museum matches those paintings in exhibition well. I like Vermeer’s work Woman holding a balance especially for this painting gives me a feeling of harmony and serenity. In this painting, Vermeer uses his iconic palette of blue, grey and yellow that lends the scene its cool tonality and harmony. The skylight from the window lends the peaceful highlights of the young woman’s skin. Her hood and collar have a crispness. His brush is virtuoso. I like the fine reflections in the balance, the highlights of the pearls, and the contrast between the fine blue fabric in the left foreground and the coarser texture of the woman’s yellow wool gown – and subtle handling of light seeping in through a gap in the curtains.

Johannes Vermeer
Dutch, 1632 – 1675
Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664
oil on canvas, stretcher size: 42.5 x 38 cm (16 3/4 x 15 in.)
painted surface: 39.7 x 35.5 cm (15 7/8 x 14 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Widener Collection

In fact, I am really looking forward to more knowledge about how to utilize recent advances in lighting technology, such as LEDs, new lighting control options, the use of daylight to improve visitor’s visual experiences. What I know is many museums have adopted the new LED lighting system to illuminate paintings. Although emerging technologies such as LEDs provide wonderful new tools for improved illumination, the flood of new technologies has created confusion about selecting appropriate lighting solutions. How to enhance the visual experience and minimize light-induced damage is a question I would like to know the answer.

Paintings, Space and the arrangements of artworks

Went to the exhibition of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting on the second last day before it ended, my biggest impressions are the crowds of people visited, the well-organized arrangements of the artworks and the exhibition setting that helped convey the message of the exhibition in the desired way.

First, I think the setting of the exhibition is very suitable. The national gallery of art is a large art museum with beautiful and clean decoration. The museum itself provides a good atmosphere for this exhibition. It is with elegant and classic style, the main color of white outside the exhibition creates an impression of appreciation to the art, as well as the decoration of some green plants and marble pillars that help provide an interface. Settled in the west building of the national gallery, it contains European paintings and sculptures from the thirteens to the sixteens centuries, which correspond with Vermeer’s and the other painters’ time frames.

While I entered the exhibition, I observe how the other people appreciate the artworks, their behaviors, and actions, also the design and arrangments of the exhibition. There are different divisions and parts designed for the audience. There are different categories, such as the occupation of musicians, to the people of the world of men, from Vermeer’s painting to other painters like Gerard ter Borch, from love and friendship to certain object and settings like pendants, parrots, doorways. This design of the classifications of all these artworks created an interface of an organized and well-designed exhibition.

As for the decoration, the use of light colors like white, pink, mint creates a relaxing and soft atmosphere.


Last but not the least, it is interesting to see how people interact and behave in the art exhibition. It was crowded, and one painting usually filled with several people around it, sometimes even hard to look closely the painting itself, but the people who watch it. Everyone take out their cell phone or digital camera to capture the precious paintings, which is a phenomenon that widely occurred in today’s digital world.

The Museum as Interface: The NGA Vermeer Exhibition

How the NGA promotes arts education using inclusive space

Museums are often considered a non-inclusive space (only for a certain audience). Part of this comes from a gap in dialogue about art in education. The education system sometimes views the arts as a luxury and therefore does not invest in arts programming (particularly where funding is low). Exclusivity (especially of classical art) is also reinforced in media and popular culture.

That being said, my first impression of the National Gallery of Art is that it had free entrance. This immediately opens up access and establishes this museum as an inclusive space.

To further the idea of inclusiveness— I found the design of the exhibit to be in line with this concept. The design was simple and accompanied with clear descriptions. The rooms were set up in a way that you could start on either side of a room, keeping the space open to exploration and movement was encouraged. All staff on site was very friendly. I thought the descriptions were a vital part of understanding the exhibit as a whole, which was about comparison and influence the artists had on one another (rather than just featuring Vermeer). This choice to use a comparison lens promotes deeper learning (especially for those not familiar with Dutch Genre painting).

Personally, the descriptions provided me with useful social and historical context that resulted in my ability to relate to and be moved by the work (that I otherwise would have missed out on). For example, there was a contemporary biblical reference done by Steen, where he showed the importance of choosing virtue over vice (which I think transcends time and will always be relevant). This was my favorite piece of the exhibit, not because of the work itself, but rather the meaning behind it.

As a whole the museum and exhibit show consistency in inclusivity: free attendance, cohesive design, easy to digest written description, helpful staff, and an online interactive map (online access that is engaging + access for non-locals). This contributes to a larger conversation about what role museums are playing in the community as a means of education and inclusivity.

Linking back to the readings/ other postings: Everything in the museum (interacting with each other) creates a multi-faceted exchange of meaning. I understood the art from the historical context provided, from un-stated social constructs, and from my own personal connections that I drew from (accessibility to art, artist influence and originality, the current social climate, etc).

Some questions for thought: How did they achieve the diversity of audience at this exhibit? What modes of media were most effective in attracting people tho this exhibit? Is the marketing done also in line with the other inclusive features found at this exhibit?


One feature that the Vermeer Exhibition curation stuck me as remarkable is the emphasis it puts on “relations.” It does not introduce Vermeer as an isolated individual painter, but puts him in a set of relations with other artists of the same time period; it also contextualizes Vermeer’s paintings with other genre paintings in the later 17th century. This effect is reached through the online introduction and the onsite exhibition arrangement.

On the exhibition website, there is a link to “Connect Vermeer,” which is a digitalized diagram that shows the relationship between artists that are involved in this exhibition. As the explanation on the website notes, “the distance between the central artist and a satellite artist is determined by the level to which the central artist influenced the latter.” Remarkably, it puts an artist into a set of relations through demonstrating each of his unilateral relationship with the others. The diagram thus creates a network of relationships that allows the viewer to understand a single artist’s status within his community, and to make comparisons within the same frame of reference. Take the Vermeer-centered diagram as an example (see below), we not only know who have been influenced by Vermeer, but can also see that, for instance, Vermeer had a greater influence on Jan Steen than on Gerard Dou. 

Likewise, the actual exhibition also forces us to acknowledge how the artworks with similar themes are related to each other. In the first exhibition hall, which has a theme of “musicians,” different artists’ paintings that deal with the same theme are put together. For example, Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at a Virginal and Dou’s Woman at the Clavichord are deliberately put together (see below). The resemblance of the two pictures are foregrounded immediately: both have a piano and a cello in the painting, and both of the protagonists sit in the same direction with their heads facing towards the viewer. The similarity between the two works might make one wonder the relationship between the two artists. At this point, if one goes back to the interactive diagram, one will find out that when Vermeer is in the center, Dou is on the outermost layer to the center, and when Dou is in the center, Vermeer is also on the outermost layer to the center. This obvious balance between their relationship may shed light on our understanding of the above discussed two paintings, and may suggest that Vermeer and Dou compete with each other as they hone their painting skills.

As it is helpful to contextualize the artists and their works with other artists of the same group and their works, this arranging method might also influence our sense of unity of a single artist’s works. For example, Vermeer’s paintings are scattered in different exhibition halls and are separated from each other. How do we deal with the situation that the current arrangement makes it harder to get a better sense of Vermeer’s style as we cannot view his works altogether in one exhibition hall?




taken at the National Gallery of Art

Art, Movement and Space

After walking through the five rooms that comprised the Vermeer exhibit, I left feeling incomplete. The exhibit was largely focused on Vermeer’s competitors and those who influenced the 17th century dutch artist, with little attention on the artist himself and his works. Yet looking again through National Gallery of Art’s brochure, the exhibition’s website and Connect Vermeer (an interactive website dedicated to Vermeer and his contemporaries), the end-goal of the exhibition became a little bit more clearer to me. Such different forms of media presented by the museum provides an interface to observe a 17th century painter through a 21st century lens.

As Professor Irvine aptly states in our last class, interfaces are access points to a system of meaning , providing one with a method for asking questions where discovering “meaning” largely refers to “cultural meanings.” From an anthropological standpoint, I was able to better understand the relationship between Vermeer and his contemporaries by looking at the visitors of the exhibit. I observed the way they moved around the exhibit, in a circular way, reminding me of the way priests or monks circumambulate around churches as a form of prayer and devotion. The people are devoting their time and energy for such an exhibit to find meaning in the nine kinds of genre themes laid out by the exhibit’s curators. Some people walked across the room to look at two paintings side by side, whereas others followed the regular path of the exhibit. Others turned left at an entrance of a new room whereas some turned right. They created pathways that charted the way they interpreted the exhibit.

I sat down to take note of all these observations on various groups of peoples’ trajectories in the exhibit. It also got me thinking of space and the concept of space. Why the curators set up the exhibit in such a way? What ways did they incorporated various forms of media in all of the five rooms? Why did they do so? I believe that the physical space of the exhibit adds to the conceptual meaning of the exhibit, where such an intersection also forms a new interface, an interpretive apparatus that creates a touchstone for the viewer to think about art, genre painting and the connections or dissonances among Vermeer and his contemporaries.

“Vermeer & the Masters of Genre Painting” — My Reactions

Having grown up in next-door Belgium and visited many art museums in Europe, I have encountered a good deal of artwork from the Netherlands, and I knew that Johannes Vermeer was one of the big names in that field (the book and movie Girl With A Pearl Earring also made me more familiar with his story). But I have to say, I’d never really thought about the many ways in which Dutch paintings reflected the many important truths about life in Holland during this era. I had yet to really explore the historical context of 17th-century Dutch artwork, in other words.

The setup of this exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was definitely an effective way to better appreciate the dominant themes of Dutch artists. For instance, whereas I might otherwise have seen paintings of girls writing letters and not thought twice about why they might be writing so many letters, this exhibit underscored the very reasons. It’s because their husbands were often out at war, or off conducting trade, which tells us something about the constant state of affairs in Europe throughout this time period. Also, it was pretty clear that pearls were recognized as objects of wealth in that time– much of the conflict of Girl With A Pearl Earring revolves around the social consequences that might arise if people were to see a common girl wearing such a luxury item in painting– but I had never guessed that parrots might be seen in the same light until this exhibit pointed that out.

Who knew that there was so much underlying social commentary in all of these Dutch paintings? Furthermore, I’ve now been acquainted with some of the other big names from this period beyond Vermeer, including Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, whose works were prominently featured in the exhibit alongside those of Vermeer. The next time I visit the National Gallery of Art, the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands, or the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels, I will have a lot more to keep an eye out for, thanks to this assignment.



Vermeer and Networks of Influence

The roped-off line leading up to the Vermeer exhibit reinforced the importance and hard work of curating an exhibit. Similar to the pushing crowds in front of the Mona Lisa, clusters of people formed around the Vermeer works, often impeding my view. However, when I did get the chance to experience his works up close, I was amazed at the vibrant colors, use of light streaming through the windows, and the meticulous brush strokes that were almost invisible. The digitized images I saw prior did not do these artists justice and although the paintings were smaller than I imagined, the attention to detail was immense.

Visitors of an exhibit often come with preconceived notions, which is evident from the clustering of people around Vermeer’s artwork. While the use of space and light make Vermeer’s work stands out, it seems the curator was trying to provoke the viewer to question the originality by comparing the same thematic representation of other Dutch artists. The exhibit allows the works of many other Dutch artists to be showcased alongside Vermeer, whom is recognizable by our national culture. It made me wonder if the curators intentionally were commenting on American culture in how we tend to focus on the “masters” – CEOs, celebrities, and outliers – while often denying credit to those who may have influenced them in the first place.

The network of influence transcends the viewer into 15th century Dutch culture, questioning the relationship between these artists. Were they in competition to be the ‘Rembrandt’ of their genre? Were they in unison commenting on aspects of Dutch life? How, where, and when did they communicate? Or were they just products of a larger culture that provoked them to start seeing everyday Dutch life as important enough to document? My last observation is that so many people had their iPhones out taking pictures of the art, themselves, and themselves with the art. Here is a Ted Talk that discusses the same phenomenon:

Vermeer at the NGA: Conversation and Commercialism

By Jordan Moeny

I have two main thoughts as I reflect on my visit to the National Gallery of Art. The first is that, despite being referred to as “the Vermeer exhibit” by everyone I’ve heard mention it lately, the exhibit didn’t really highlight the works of Vermeer in particular. While there were a few exceptions, for the most part the Vermeer paintings were spread throughout the gallery without distinction from the rest of the works. In a way, I thought it provided a commentary on how we as a culture (and particularly those of us who are just casual/occasional observers of art) view great artists. While Vermeer may be the only Dutch painter most Americans can name, in his time he was part of a community of artists who were in constant dialog with each other. In putting Vermeer on a level playing field with his contemporaries and highlighting the similarities in their subjects and styles, the exhibit reminded viewers that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It provided a level of context that isn’t really possible when viewing the work of just one artist.

My other, rather different, observation regards the very end of the exhibit—that is, the gift shop. While this certainly isn’t exclusive to this exhibit, I’m fascinated by the interaction of culture and commercialism that happens when museum-goers are spit directly from a carefully curated exhibit into a gift shop. This one had every sort of Vermeer-related souvenir you could buy, including many featuring paintings that weren’t even in the exhibit (like “Girl with a Pearl Earring”). It was an interesting contrast: I started in a contemplative space in which I as the viewer was reminded that Vermeer, though justly celebrated, was one of many Dutch painters whose works are just as worthy of being remembered and studied. I ended in a space in which I was given the opportunity to buy scarves, notebooks, stickers, and postcards featuring whatever limited art I recognized when I entered in the first place, as if I had absorbed nothing of the exhibit I had just come through. (To be fair, I have no real opposition to this approach to gift shops, given that a free museum needs to fund its activities somehow.)

There’s a commentary here on how museums must cater both to those who wish to engage with art and those who wish to consume it—with the recognition that those two groups may or may not overlap. Which, perhaps, makes my two interests above not so different after all. Both demonstrate that the museum-going public may not be particularly concerned with more than a superficial visit to see the “great” artists. The difference is that while the gift shop embraces this, the exhibit itself challenges that superficial approach to art.