Courtship Scenes by Vermeer and Renoir
Written by Katelyn Fagan
Love, marriage, and families are as old as time, and attraction to the opposite gender is as prevalent today as it always has been. Desire to be with the opposite gender has remained intact throughout the centuries, but the way and extent in which these desires are met can vary drastically from culture to culture. In Jan Vermeer’s painting The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-1660) and in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting In the Garden (1885) we witness similar scenes of courtship, yet these two paintings were created over two hundred years apart, the products of two different cultures, painted in two different styles (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). Jan Vermeer was Dutch and Renoir was French. Different courting rituals and social norms of men and women in their different countries and centuries played a role in how courtships took place. However, both artists created similar unique works of art despite their different times and cultures.
Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) of Delft derived most of his income from working as an inn keeper and art dealer. He only painted around thirty-five genre paintings—art of the everyday—mostly of interior scenes of Dutch middle-class dwellings. He captured everyday happenings with naturalism and realism. Women were often depicted in the home—a women’s traditional place in seventeenth century Dutch culture.
At this time it was the Golden Age in the Dutch Republic. Holland had just won its freedom from the King of Spain. Because of their victory however almost every facet of men’s lives underwent drastic changes wrought by war. Holland emerged as an aggressive, Protestant Republic with a capitalistic economy and bourgeois society.  But, they experienced an abundance of wealth, and it was the first time in history that the majority of a country’s citizens were comfortable. Their protestant religion, Calvinism, did not allow for opulence in everyday life.
The Dutch Republic saw a huge population growth from 1600-1647, especially in the number of youths. Males were considered youth ages from their early teens to their late twenties, while females were considered youth aged from twelve to twenty-five. The increased number of youth led to an increased amount of tomfoolery. Early modern Dutch courting rituals allowed young men and women to be together without a chaperone, and to have physical contact with each other. They believed that teasing bodily contact between the sexes was an important part of the courting ritual. Unmarried couples were probably limited to kissing, cuddling, hugging, and perhaps heavy petting. The Dutch population was full of young, educational optimists. However, students in early modern Europe often lived in all-male environments with minimal exposure to women.
Vermeer’s painting The Girl with the Wine Glass was created in 1659-1660 for the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Brunswick, Germany, and it shows a young lady looking at the viewer, drawing him in, making him interpret this scene of seduction. In the scene she is hesitating giving in to her admirer’s offering of a wine glass. Her expression is interesting, one of double meaning. She is happy to have a suitor, curious about his intentions, and excited for what is ahead, yet has a slight hesitation behind her eyes. Her smile is playful, yet knowingly aware of his motives. The suitor is intensely staring at the maiden, offering the wine glass, a smirk across his face. He is very interested in courting this young woman, in getting her under the influence. The man in the background seems out of place in this playful courting scene. He seems unaware of what is happening, perhaps because he is already drunk. One thing is for certain: he is in a sort of melancholy mood, pointed out by his profiled, dark shadowed face, and vague expression. As a viewer to the scene, you would have to determine the deeper meaning. Is this a friendly offering or an aspiration for bedroom entertainment?
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was part of the French Impressionism movement. Impressionism was art of industrialized, urbanized Paris, France. The extensive industrialization and urbanization that occurred in France during the latter half of the nineteenth century can be described only as a brutal and chaotic transformation. This made the world seem unstable and insubstantial. Therefore, impressionist art tried to capture a glimpse of their ever changing world. Depicted subjects were often the busy streets of Paris, city life, and leisure activities. Impressionistic paintings were done with speed, abbreviation, and spontaneity. They captured an artist’s subjective and personal response to nature or their surroundings. In France Renoir’s works became an outlet for poetic forces for he knew that visual impressions were abstract communications to the spectator’s senses.
Courting during this time was different than the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. The courting ground was cramped and perilous. Social conventions restricted the number of places couples could meet. Often couples would seek secret spots to avoid the required chaperones and town gossipers. However, inwardly they regulated themselves by religious confines, family obligations, and restrictive social morality. Men faced dangers in the public realm, like war, religion, and politics which oftentimes would lead them away from love.
In a world where women had to make their way to marriage and motherhood by being sexually appealing, the line between seductress and victim was often unclear. By the 1860’s the distinction between good and bad women began to blur in France as a rising number of prostitutes moved into urban areas, servicing a larger range of social classes. A first meeting often played a decisive role in their relationship. A modestly clad woman unaccompanied on the street was a good indicator that she was not a prostitute, but a single woman waiting for a suitor.
In art women often appeared as sex objects. Renoir liked his women to be practical and simple, staying at home, engaging in physical work. He did not like intellectual and educated women, women who thought on their own and aspired to a profession. (15) Women in his paintings were never given an active role. A woman’s beauties were on display for the male eye, to be put at his disposal. Often his women were visual pageantry of the everyday world, either in fashionable dresses, or as objects of courtship. (16). His paintings were of earthly paradise and the mythic realities and its beauties. Renoir wanted to invoke within his male viewers the desire to stroke a breast or a back, especially with his nudes. His art was different than his contemporaries because his paintings were of interactions of real people on specific occasions, creating domestic realism. His art was paintings of love and love of painting.
Renoir’s In the Garden, created in 1885 as part of the collection in Gerstenberg/Scharf, Berlin, shows a woman’s eyes are connecting with the viewer as they are the center of the work and the center of attention. The woman is a beautiful redhead who is holding hands with a young gentleman, who is charming, and very much in love with this woman. His eyes and whole body lean in towards her. His arm is lovingly around her waist. Flowers lie on the table, perhaps ones he had just presented to her. This man’s whole persona screams of desire and love for this elegant and religious woman, designated by the cross she wears. Yet we find her facial expression to be a little bland. She is not smiling. Her eyes are void of real desire or passion, but perhaps it is because a bystander, the viewer, has intruded in on her moment alone with her beau. She is still leaning in towards the man, representing an intimate connection, but she is looking away from him.
These two artists, Vermeer and Renoir, came from two different countries, Holland and France, two centuries apart. However, common among their art is one theme: courtship. Both artists had different motives and different reasons for creating their art. Vermeer was unsuccessful as an artist in his own day, while Renoir was well-known. Though both artists participated in genre painting, painting scenes of everyday life, the styles in which they painted where vastly different. Vermeer was intrigued and inspired by the use of light, especially how is rested in a room and on the inanimate objects in the room. Renoir was preoccupied with color and light which made him avoid contours and solid surfaces. Renoir used large, visual brushstrokes, while Vermeer used smooth, clean lines. Both used women as their primary subjects, but each had a different view on women. Vermeer held women in a higher esteem than Renoir, who did not feel that women were equals, as many felt in Vermeer’s Dutch Republic. Women’s rights were being suppressed in France during the Industrial Revolution. Though both viewed women as desirable and seductive, Vermeer did not paint nudes like Renoir often did.
But both artists managed to do something remarkable in their times. They transcended above their contemporaries and created unique works masterfully. These two paintings give commentaries on the role of courtship of their era. Surprisingly courting was not all that different. Attraction to the opposite gender is constant. Women were considered beauties of both centuries and fine women of the highest quality. Both loved their sensuality. Men always wanted to be with the ideal beauties pictured.
Fig. 1. Vermeer, The Girl with the Wine Glass (1659-1660), Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum in Brunswick, Germany.
Fig. 2. Renoir, In the Garden (1885), Part of the Collection in Gerstenberg/Scharf, Berlin.
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