Bent over a small wooden table, a woman is writing a letter. Elsewhere, another woman is making lace, and another one is teaching a child to read. In the narrow streets and smoky taverns, the men gather to talk and drink. These are snapshots of the calm and peaceful life in a Dutch town, brought to us by 17th-century "genre" painters. Smaller in size and affordable to a wider public, the paintings depict ordinary people going about their daily existence, carrying out ordinary activities. Through the artist's perception, the details of these people's costumes and customs, their interiors, and their lives become extraordinary in our eyes. After centuries of commissioned historical and religious art in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, painters found this source of employment and funding effectively disappeared with the Reformation. They had to adapt to the new social and economic circumstances and target a new market segment: the commercially successful burghers. This new audience was more interested in secular themes: landscapes, flower arrangements and interiors.
The art of depicting small subjects is not new. Peiraikos, an ancient Greek painter, was producing small works representing "barbers in their shops, cobblers' stalls, asses, eatables, and similar subjects." None of his paintings survived, but we know from the record of Pliny the Elder that "in these subjects he could give consummate pleasure, selling them for more than other artists received for their large pictures."
The great outdoors
It is said that Peter Bruegel the Elder would crash wedding parties to observe and sketch villagers dancing, drinking, and having fun (Karel van Mandel). The painter laid the foundations of "genre" by populating his landscapes with peasants and burghers. His depiction of common occurrences, lively and unsentimental, sometimes amused by human folly, presented an opportunity for the artist to paint the finest details and complex compositions.
Genre painting was born in the Netherlands; its best-known artist, Johannes Vermeer, was called "The Sphinx of Delft" because very little was known about him. We don't have more information on his contemporary, Pieter de Hooch, and until recently, their forerunner, Jacobus Vrel, was not even recognized, with his work often attributed to Vermeer.
Their work presents some similarities. Vermeer's "The Little Street" is a small canvas (54x44 cm) featuring the façade of a house in a quiet Delft street. The houses are painted with attention to minute details, including the cracks in the masonry and the peeling paint. Women in doorways and passages are engaged in mundane activities and small chores. Among Jacobus Vrel's early work, there are several street scenes. Here, in an unremarkable street of a Dutch town, not the most elegant area nor the poorest, a baker displays his loaves on a white cloth. A shop sign from which hang a few bleeding bowls indicates the premises of a barber-surgeon. A few anonymous figures, wearing black cloaks and hats, go about their business and stop to have a chat. A woman walks by, holding a basket; in another, a woman rests on a bench. The tall houses, the narrow windows, the cobbled ground, and the grey skies take us into a typical Dutch cityscape.
And what goes on behind the portal? Pieter de Hooch has shown us a number of scenes that take place between the street and the living quarters. In "A Woman and Her Maid in a Courtyard," we may be looking at the other side of the house, just outside the kitchen, where a maid is preparing to pour away the water from a cauldron with her mistress supervising. The atmosphere he created in one of his most famous paintings, "The Courtyard of a House in Delft" (1658), is one of tranquillity. A smiling maid is holding a little girl's hand as they step towards the courtyard, while the mother, viewed from the back, is walking towards the street. In the warm light of the afternoon, the architectural details, the muted colours, and the calm expression of the characters suggest quietude and peace.
But now the narrative leads us inside these brick and cream houses.
The great indoors
Behind the tall wooden doors, we glimpse mothers and children, maids and mistresses captured in their own homes, at ease, engaged in everyday activities: spinning, cooking, tending to the sick, reading and home-schooling.
If it seems that there are more women than men in Dutch genre painting, it is because of the painters' interest in interiors, which provide such good opportunities to exercise their skill in composition, lighting, and fine detail. The prosperity enjoyed by the Dutch Republic led to more distinction between gender roles in middle-class families. Women—housewives, mothers, maids—stayed at home, and that is where the artists painted them. Through these women, their home environment, and their mundane pastimes, we get a glimpse into seventeenth-century Dutch society, its customs, its people, and its daily lives.
There is "The Lacemaker" by Nicolaes Maes, absorbed in her meticulous and skilful work, still aware of the baby sitting calmly in his highchair, looking directly at us. The red of the woman's jacket, the baby's bonnet, and the tablecloth contrasting with the white of her skirt and the pitcher on the table act as a unifying theme in the painting.
Combing a child's hair and hunting for lice was a necessary task that turned into an agreeable one because of the opportunity for the mother to share a moment of gentle attention with the children. Jacobus Vrel and Gerard ter Borch captured this moment of tenderness, noting the facial expressions of calm and concentration and the play of light on the duo's clothing.
We see many paintings of the era featuring women reading or writing, as well as scenes of children being taught to read and write. In the 17th century, the Netherlands had the highest rate of literacy in Europe, and they were probably, and rightly, proud of this fact. Jacobus Vrel painted a mother reading aloud to her son from an alphabet book; Jan Steen shows a young boy's attempt at writing under the benevolent gaze of his mother.
The most important painter of the time, Johannes Vermeer, depicted women carrying out various activities, depending on their social standing. A woman is seated at a virginal, another is tuning her lute, and a girl is distracted from her music lesson. In an apparent allegory, a woman is holding a balance with a painting of the last judgment on the wall behind her. Elsewhere, we catch a young woman preparing for her morning ablutions, writing a letter, reading a letter, pouring a jug of milk, and wearing a pearl earring. The women look serene, the interiors are often minimalistic, and depth is skilfully created through the magic use of light. The viewer feels it is a privilege to be allowed a glimpse into this calm domestic scene and to enjoy the charm of its profound tranquillity.