Following the wild success of our previous cultural combat events – Verdi vs Wagner, Jane Austen vs Emily Brontë and Shakespeare vs Milton – Intelligence Squared turned to the two greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age: Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Rembrandt van Rijn is the best known of all the Dutch masters. His range was vast, from landscapes to portraits to Biblical scenes; he revolutionised every medium he handled, from oil paintings to etchings and drawings. His vision encompassed every element of life – the sleeping lion; the pissing baby; the lacerated soles of the returned prodigal son.
Making the case for him in this debate wass Simon Schama. For him Rembrandt is humanity unedited: rough, raw, violent, manic, vain, greedy and manipulative. Formal beauty was the least of his concerns, argues Schama, yet he attains beauty through his understanding of the human condition, including to be sure, his own.
But for novelist Tracy Chevalier it can all get a little exhausting. Rembrandt’s paintings, she believes – even those that are not his celebrated self-portraits – are all about himself. Championing Vermeer, she claimed that his charm lies in the very fact that he absents himself from his paintings. As a result they are less didactic and more magical than Rembrandt’s, giving the viewer room to breathe.
Chevalier has been obsessed with Vermeer since the age of 19, when she first saw his Girl with a Pearl Earring. The girl’s startled eyes and luscious, inviting mouth produce a tantalising sense of mystery and contradiction.
An other-worldly mystery also veils Vermeer’s Delft street scenes and interiors. Apparently so everyday, they are lifted to a higher sphere by the indirect gaze and the turned back, all bathed in that fuzzy, filmic Vermeer veneer. And so often they, too, ask a question. Who wrote the letter that the woman in blue reads so attentively? Who does the girl in the gold jacket strum her guitar for? The questions are never answered but we are lured back again and again in search of an answer.
Which of these two titans is the greater master – Rembrandt or Vermeer?