I have just booked tickets for the Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Like thousands of others I love Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) not only for the surface beauty of his palette and technique, but for the philosophy which underpins his work.
In fact, you might argue that despite no manifesto or written political declaration being made in his paintings, there is perhaps no European artist who reveals such a clear world view through his brushwork and draughtsmanship.
For Vermeer is the most perfect painterly narrator of the move from Medievalism into early Modernity, from the High Renaissance to Reform, a move which is Northern Europe’s finest contribution to civilisation and progress. A move which began in the Netherlands but which found its highest expression in the next century across the Channel in Britain.
Unlike a pamphleteer or a political activist, he reveals his philosophy quietly, tolerantly and with moderation, making it all the more attractive. His art is not a polemic but a calming exercise in empathy and persuasion, advocating a particular set of values.
Dutch Golden Age
At the end of the sixteenth century the Dutch rebelled against their overlord, Philip II of Spain. Led by William the Silent (the first head of state to be assassinated by a handgun), they launched a determined effort to shake off the Spanish yoke.
It is an interesting chicken and the egg question. What came first? The beliefs of the Dutch Golden age: Calvinism, religious toleration (of sorts), greater rights for women, international trade, a work ethic, and the founding of the first stock exchange; or rejection of Spanish occupation? They developed side by side.
Either way, as Dutch protestants fled northwards from Spanish domination towards Amsterdam, the Hague, and Delft, the result was a distinctive polity and civic culture. This was Vermeer’s world, which itself spawned new developments in science, optics, clockmaking, manufacture, pottery, horticulture, agriculture, engineering, craftsmanship, architecture and art.
The famous windmills transformed productivity by allowing the invention of wind-powered saw mills, initiating an era of maritime innovation and expansion.
In the terraced canal houses in Amsterdam, run by women but with an area at the front – the Voorhuis – for the husband to conduct business, every professional, middle class family could feel like aristocrats.
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Vermeer may be the finest painter of the age, but he is in good company alongside the landscape painters of the time. Yet what is most striking about his work is its domesticity. Its respect for middle class and merchant life, revealed subtly through his use of light and interior scenes. We take one look at his women or gentlemen sitting by a window and we see people we not only recognise, but we might aspire ourselves to be.
This was the period of what the economic historian Deidre McCloskey has called “the great bourgeoisification”. There may have been cruelty, but also a respect for education, for good taste and good manners.
The Treaty of Westphalia brought the 80 years war with Spain to a close. But in 1672 another tyrant, Louis XIV of France, attacked. In the end the Dutch shook him off too, but 16 years later the appearance of a pro-French King on the English throne, James II, was sufficiently worrying to encourage William the Silent’s grandson, William of Orange, to accept an invitation to invade England.
William of Orange brought with him to Britain many Dutch innovations, including Dutch finance, military tactics, wood carving and brickwork. The revolution of 1688 also saw the final legal shift of the British Constitution to one based on Parliamentary sovereignty, limited Monarchy, respect for property rights and the separation of powers. Only the Irish really had real grounds to regret his arrival, but that is another story.
Tickets to the Vermeer exhibition are selling out fast. One reason must be that he strikes a chord with millions of people, by holding up a mirror in which we might see our better selves.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
George Trefgarne is CEO and founder of Boscobel & Partners, an independent communications and political consultancy.
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