The title "Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris" merely hints at the pleasures of this retrospective, the first devoted solely to this Dutch master. The exhibition is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., its only United States venue.
Van Mieris (1635-1681) painted mainly small genre paintings on panel or sometimes on gold-leafed copperplates. Nothing in the show measures more than about two feet by two feet; most works measure much less. These exquisitely painted oils often illustrate phrases associated with love-making or amorous situations, such as van Mieris’s Teasing the Pet (1660). He also specialized in portraits and was second only to Rembrandt in the number of his self-portraits. He painted his wife’s portrait, but the two often appear together in other works, too.
In Teasing the Pet, a young man (in reality, the artist) seeks to endear himself to a lady (in reality, his wife) by playing with one of her spaniels. Leiden, where Van Mieris was born and studied with Gerrit Dou, was a center for cloth-making. Van Mieris’ ability to depict different kinds of cloth in this picture -- her luminous figured blue dress, the light playing over the silken orange jacket with its rich white fur trim, the lace at the man’s sleeve, his grey-blue outer garment, plumed hat, and the turkey-work tablecloth, not to mention the upholstered chair -- made the sale of this painting a sure thing.
Van Mieris got ideas for many of his compositions from Dou and other Dutch artists, changing them, often infusing them with more narrative elements or clarifying existing ones, and using his ravishing technique to delight the eye with varied textures under raking light. He, in turn, inspired other Dutch artists.
The Little Dog from around the same time as Teasing the Pet brings back one of the spaniels, this time performing for his mistress and hinting at her success in making her suitors do her bidding as well. The show’s excellent catalogue (Frans van Mieris; 1635-1681) points to words for shoe and stocking being suggestively associated with women at the time, but the bedding being so prominent in the background, the empty shoe in the foreground and a letter on the desk make the title’s implication deliciously present in themselves.
Van Mieris quickly graduated from painting peasants and the occasional tronie, or portrait type rather than an individual, to concentrating on the upper classes in intimate amorous settings and in portraits. In 1658, at only 23 years of age, he painted his regal The Duet. It has a timeless quality that Jan Steen and later Johannes Vermeer would also convey when they essayed the same theme.
Around the same year, the artist still turned out a Brothel Scene, illustrating the saying, "Inn in front, brothel behind." A man and woman are seen through an open doorway, while another man in the foreground extends his glass toward a woman with a pitcher as he tugs on her apron strings. Two dogs copulate between the two couples. Restrained for its type, the dogs leave no doubt about the games being played.
Van Mieris’s earliest formal self-portrait dates from 1658 and reflects his dedication to art and his success at his calling. He borrows a pose from one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, although van Mieris is more jovial in his oil. Van Mieris celebrates his technical capacities, too, underscoring the illusion of the painting’s carved stonework by scribbling his name underneath it in a free and energetic hand.
By 1658, van Mieris was making a lot of money and enjoying it, often with his drinking buddy, Jan Steen, another of a group of painters called "fijnschilders" or "fine painters" whose skills in depicting everyday life with bravura textural realism were highly valued in their time.
In 1663, the artist received a commission for a genre scene from a prominent Leiden burgomaster for whom he had painted portraits previously. He was paid a gold ducat an hour, spending 300 hours on the painting and earning the equivalent of 1,500 guilders, more than enough at the time to buy a small house.
The resulting painting on panel, The Doctor’s Visit (1667), seems to have taken four years to complete. Brushstrokes have disappeared completely beneath layer after layer of delicate glazes. Despite its high price, Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, offered twice that sum for it and was refused.
The doctor holds a urine sample to the light, the 17th-century way of diagnosing whether a woman was pregnant or not. The fainting woman has taken the news badly but still looks elegant in her cream-colored gown, fur-edged jacket and chic shoe on her single charmingly-exposed foot.
In the 1670s, van Mieris continued turning out stunning society portraits, but began to do historical and Biblical works, often with a stylization that made for less lively and sometimes almost histrionic pieces, like his The Death of Lucretia (1679) with its odd anatomy. He was frequently short of money, and several commentators mention his liking taverns too much.
Frans van Mieris is called "the Elder" because at his death in 1681, two of his sons became painters, and one grandson took up the brush, too. His grandson is the artist remembered as Frans van Mieris the Younger.
Van Mieris like the other "fijnschilers" passed into disfavor in the late 19th- and early 20th-century when a less perfect, more personal facture came into favor. Only in the last few decades have we allowed ourselves to enjoy them again. It’s delightful to have them back.
"Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris" contains more than 30 paintings. It was organized by the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The curators are Quentin Buvelot of Mauritshuis and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. of the National Gallery of Art. Already seen at The Hague, the show is on view at the National Gallery of Art, Feb. 26-May 21, 2006.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.