Wednesday, 9 November 2011

busy hands

My mum visited recently and we went to a wonderful exhibition at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge: Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence. It was centred around Vermeer's famous painting The Lacemaker and featured paintings of women by many other Dutch 17th-century painters.
The Lacemaker (detail), Johannes Vermeer, c.1670
The exhibition showed that Dutch women at that time were expected to spend almost all their time within the confines of the home. Some of the most important activities for a virtuous woman were sewing and needlework. It even became a metaphor for female virtue. It kept women concentrated on productive tasks (even if fine lacemaking and embroidery were considered luxuries) and away from any temptation: it kept their hands busy.
A Young Woman Sewing (detail), Niolaes Maes (1655)
However as Marjorie E. Wieseman points out in her essay in the exhibition catalogue, such activities also gave women the opportunity to exercise their creativity, both in the production of creative work and also in the freedom to think about whatever they chose as they stitched or wove.
Pieter de Hooch {source}
It was fun to go with my mum as she is a very expert seamstress and has learnt pretty much every craft imaginable, so she knew all about how pillow lace is made - a very complex system with lots of tiny bobbins, as seen in the Vermeer painting. I imagine it would take years of practice before the movements became automatic enough to let the mind wander freely while making lace this way...
Woman Sewing by a Cradle, Gerard ter Borch (c.1656)
This painting struck me as the women is sewing beside a cradle. She seems to be fitting in some craft time while her baby has an afternoon nap (something I might have related to if only my son had been good at napping. I have to wait till he's in bed for the night before settling down to my sewing or badge making. I never tried covering his bed with a dark cloth however!) I notice the woman in this painting has a servant to look after the housework, so I'm guessing she is not too stressed about having to get everything done...

Although sewing and needlework are still largely 'women's work' today, and are still a source of joy and creativity for many women (me, in particular!), it is worth celebrating the fact that in the Western world today we have so many more options for expressing ourselves. Also, whether we work or not (which isn't always a choice, of course) we can come and go much more freely from our homes.
Girl Peeling Apples, Cornelis Bisschop (1667)
As a woman looking at these paintings, I have an ambivalent reaction. Although they are luminously beautiful and there is, at first glance, a sense of serenity and calm in them, there is often something slightly disconcerting too. The women seem tranquil but they also feel confined, often seen in dark corners very distinct from the light spaces outside that illuminate them.
They don't look back at us - too busy with their work - so in a sense we are spying on their intimate home lives. And yet often we don't quite see what it is that they are doing. Just like her thoughts, the lacemaker's elegant work is kept secret. Painted by men as ideals of feminine virtue, these women retain some mystery that will forever escape the male painter-viewer's grasp.


Juliette Crane said...

i love looking at all of these pieces! very inspiring! so happy to have found your blog...i'm also a lover of owls :) thank you for sharing so much inspiration on your blog!

best wishes!

Maša said...

how interesting, I have really enjoyed reading this post. you have a cool mum! :D

Mamasita said...

I absolutely love reading your blog! Your words flow so freely and I am instantly CAPTURED in the story, thoughts, comments, concerns, etc.. What a beautifully written post... it has me thinking, and also gives me great gratitude for the creativity that I am allowed to express so very freely!

Immie said...

This was such a lovely read Suki :) You said what I was thinking as I looked on the paintings much more eloquently than I ever could! The Girl Peeling Apples is such a beautiful piece. Shes sitting just inside, her home clearly visible while the outside world is merely a small sliver of the painting. It's very moving and symbolic, but it does give a feeling of slow, purposeful tranquility. It's an odd mix, but it works so well :)

Also, I wish my mum would come to exhibitions with me ;)

Jessi said...

Amazing - I would love to go see a Vermeer exhibit. I love the way you feel like you are getting a quiet peek into their lives, and I love the quiet sadness of his work. Which reminds me I need to watch the Girl with the pearl earring - I have been meaning to watch it for years!

Lauren Hairston said...

Oh I would love to see this exhibit--too bad I'm stuck in Kansas! Thanks for sharing it with me so I could visit vicariously!

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