The Invisibility of Women: Vermeer and the Dutch Masters at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go to the very last day of the Vermeer’s Women exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We arrived by train, and walked from the station, timing our visit so we would reach the museum about half an hour before the museum actually opened. And imagine our surprise to find the queue already snaking out of the door and into the gardens!

I am not one for queues but this one actually passed with remarkably little unpleasantness. For a start, it travelled all round the museum galleries, giving us waiting hordes an excellent opportunity to view elements of the collection at our leisure. Secondly, everyone was very polite. And, thirdly, there were some folding stools available for anyone who thought they might have problems standing. So we took them and used them – and had a much more comfortable wait as a result.

The exhibition room was insanely crowded. People were clustered three, four and five deep around the pictures. This is a big deal when the pictures are as small and jewel-like as some of the Vermeers are. But, you know what? It actually didn’t matter nearly as much as it might have.

What mattered were those present in the paintings to a far greater extent than those present in the gallery (although they were heavily outnumbered.) There were girls, young women and older women. We saw rich women, poor women, those living in luxury and those who are servants. The women portayed by Vermeer often have their heads turned away from the viewer, or swathed in huge caps that hide their faces. They are glimpsed in mirrors, through doorways, from behind or partially obscured, always busy about something that is far too important to brook interruption, even if it is their own inner thoughts.

If women are ambiguously present, then the absence of men is striking in this collection of Vermeer’s work. We see one partially from behind, seated on a settle in front of a hearth. The presence of a second is hinted at with the presence of a sword, cloak and gloves in a feminine bedchamber. And two fishmongers are allowed into the frame of a picture to present their wares to the lady of the house, or her proxy, the maid. This is perhaps more a function of the choice of pictures made for this exhibition than a statement about Vermeer’s wider work.

The striking things that remain with me are the multifaceted feats of composition; the jewel-like colours and brilliant details, often of textured items like fabrics and needlework; and sharing in the joys and sorrows of the many women that featured in the pictures. I got here by the skin of my teeth, queued for an hour or more to enter the gallery, had to duck and stretch, push and shove to get a close look at almost anything and still felt myself immensely privileged to have seen these wonderfully-curated pictures.

That’s quite something they did there.