Windows on the World – An Irishman’s Diary about Vermeer, Harry Clarke, and the new-look National Gallery of Ireland

 Johannes Vermeer, Woman Writing a Letter (detail). National Gallery of Ireland

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Writing a Letter (detail). National Gallery of Ireland

 

It has been a bit overshadowed by the (justified) fuss over the Vermeer exhibition, but among the other delights of the newly refurbished National Gallery of Ireland is a masterpiece by the great stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. Originally planned as a war memorial in 1926, The Mother of Sorrows became instead a memorial to the woman who commissioned it, a Scottish nun, after she died the following year. It stood for decades in the Glasgow training college where she had been principal. Then in 2002, the NGI bought it and took it back to Clarke’s native city.

But there are special challenges to displaying stained glass in galleries: you can’t just hang it against the wall. So the large, exquisitely beautiful triptych had to await redesign of the building to include a dedicated glass-house (as it were): a darkened room full of cabinets with in-built back-lighting.  

Now Clarke has finally taken his rightful place in the collection, alongside other graduates of An Túr Gloinne, the glass-making wing of Ireland’s cultural revolution, before and after 1916.

Glass is a running theme of the new-look NGI, in fact.  

Official artworks aside, a dramatic feature of the refurbishment is the reappearance of some of the building’s magnificent 19th-century windows, which most of us had never seen before.

Their problem was that, in a building where exhibition space is always scarce, they were too big. So they spent many years boarded up and exhibited over.  

Now, startlingly, they open from the galleries onto a light-filled courtyard, and in turn let the light in: although not, of course, without special clearance. The windows retain their original frames. The glass, by contrast, is new and high-tech, designed to admit only well-behaved light, of the passive kind.

Back among the official exhibits, meanwhile, windows are key features in Vermeer’s masterpieces too. They tend to be in the same place in his pictures: the top left-hand corner. But then, he did paint many of his 36 known works in the same two rooms of his house in Delft.

From this prosaic setting, he produced light effects that can rival any stained glass windows for the rapture they inspire in viewers. In his The Story of Art, for example, EH Gombrich likened seeing a Vermeer painting up close to witnessing a “miracle”. 

One of its miraculous features could “perhaps be described, though hardly explained,” Gombrich added. “It is the way in which Vermeer achieves complete and painstaking precision in the rendering of textures, colours and forms without the picture ever looking laboured or harsh.”

A painter of a later era, David Hockney, caused controversy some years ago with a theory that did seek to explain part of the miracle. Vermeer and most great artists from the Renaissance onwards, Hockney argued, had used photographic techniques, such as camera obscura.  

In effect, this would have allowed them to trace the pictures. And although he hastened to say that it didn’t make Vermeer any less great in his eyes, some critics were outraged at the implication of cheating. The writer Susan Sontag compared Hockney’s theory to a suggestion that all “the great lovers” in history had been using “Viagra”. 

Not that his success did Vermeer much good in life. He enjoyed a modest fame in Delft, but his painting left him far from rich, especially after marriage and 15 children. He supplemented proceeds from his own work by running an art dealership. 

Then he was ruined by the Franco-Dutch War, which destroyed the market not just for his own pictures but those of other artists with which he was stuck. As later recorded by his widow, the stress overwhelmed him, at age 43: “. . . he lapsed into such decay and decadence [that] in a day and half he went from being healthy to being dead”.

The pictures that survived him, by contrast, present scenes of profound calm: “still lifes with human beings” as Gombrich called them. The human beings are usually female, like the Woman Writing a Letter, although towards the end of his life, Vermeer did experiment with male protagonists, painting an astronomer and geographer in quick succession.

In this, he was following the lead of Gerrit Dou, another Dutch painter who was a big influence. And in general, the NGI exhibition shows how, like most artists, he had to respond to changing fashions.

But whether it’s a woman writing a letter, or a geographer studying a globe, one thing in his pictures tends to be constant.

In the top left-hand corner, there’s usually a window.