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vermeer's mistress and maid

9 september 2019

I haven't abandoned my quest to see all the Vermeers. But my pace isn't blistering at the moment. The big push will come, maybe two years from now, if I finally get to the Netherlands and then across Germany to Braunschweig and Frankfurt. If that trip materializes, I'll have seen them all except a couple in England (The Guitar Player at Kenwood House, and The Music Lesson, which belongs to the Royal Family and is only intermittently shown).

Though at that, trying to see all the Vermeers is like painting the Forth Bridge. They're widely scattered, some quite out of the standard tourist ways; they never all converge in one big show. (Nor would you want them to: what if an earthquake took out every last Vermeer?) The ones you've seen recently are fresh in your mind, but it has been decades since you saw some of them and the fact that you did has become largely notional. I have certainly seen the Vermeers in Dublin, Paris, London, and Washington; but I know them more as data points than as sensory memories.

New York, though, I visit often enough that I see the Vermeers there on a fairly regular rotation: the five at the Metropolitan and the three at the Frick: Girl Interrupted at Her Music, Officer and Laughing Girl, Mistress and Maid. Henry Clay Frick bought the first of those, Girl Interrupted, in 1901 for $26,000, which was a heck of a lot of money at the time. I'd reckon maybe $650,000 in 2019 dollars, just in terms of what it could buy you, no matter what various inflation calculators come up with. Though $650,000 would not come close to buying you a Vermeer today.

By the time he bought Laughing Girl in 1911, the price had soared to $225,000: let's call that between $5 and $6 million in our terms: still not a Vermeerish price these days, but not couch-cushion money either, unless you were Henry Clay Frick. Mistress and Maid, acquired after the First World War and just before Frick's death, cost the steelman $299,989.50. Never underestimate the power of $11.50 in establishing a price point.

Though as Margaret Iacono's groundbreaking research on the acquisition of Mistress and Maid suggests, it's harder to convert that postwar $300K straightforwardly into current dollars. Money can mean different things to a buyer and a seller. The Great War skewed the purchasing power of hard currency decisively toward the United States. $300K was still a middling indulgence to Frick, but it was suddenly life or death to the seller, Berlin collector James Simon. Before the War, Simon spurned offers in that range; afterwards, they suddenly looked like a godsend.

And so Mistress and Maid hangs on Fifth Avenue today, the largest and yet the most understated of the Frick Collection's three Vermeers. Unlike Officer or Girl Interrupted, Mistress and Maid features no paintings or maps in the background, no open window through which the light spills onto the central pair. The Mistress and her Maid emerge from the earth-toned ground reticently (like all Vermeer's people), but also animatedly. Iacono interprets the fuzzy rendering of their hands as a way of suggesting motion. The Maid hands the Mistress a letter; the Mistress is already writing one (to the same correspondent? to a third party?) The Mistress touches her chin as if in thought or distraction. The Maid opens her mouth: is she speaking, or setting herself in anticipation of having to answer a question?

Iacono points to several contemporary Dutch uses of the servant-and-employer motif, other depictions of maids (some by Vermeer himself), other depictions of letter-writing, other paintings (like the Girl with a Pearl Earring) where the background is reduced to dimness. None of them "explain" Mistress and Maid or one another, but the context is very helpful in establishing how Vermeer is at once conventional and unique.

Vermeer's Mistress and Maid came out last year in the Frick Diptych series, a venture which matches superbly-produced plates with art criticism and creative response. The creative response in this volume is a story by filmmaker James Ivory, imagining real-life events behind Vermeer's painting; I could have done without it, frankly. But Iacono's essay is exemplary, and greatly enhances the experience of Mistress and Maid.

Mistress and Maid is the odd one out among the Frick's Vermeers. The other two are smaller and physically matched; as I noted, they are busier and far more detailed. The dull background of Mistress and Maid is partly intentional and partly due to the toll of time on Vermeer's pigments, and has always given the painting a feeling of incompleteness. The British National Gallery was briefly interested in Mistress and Maid in the 19th century, says Iacono, but balked at offering very much for it because it was such a drab, second-rate thing. Tastes have changed, and I am glad that they changed in time for Frick to acquire the picture for New York and America.

Iacono, Margaret, and James Ivory. Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. New York: The Frick Collection, 2018. ND 653 .V5A77