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Maria de Knuijt, the woman with an eye for Vermeer's talent

Art historians have long believed that the latter, Pieter van Ruijven—a wealthy citizen of Delft—contributed to Vermeer's success by purchasing much of his work. They now believe that his wife, Maria, played a more important role

Published: Feb 10, 2023 04:31:31 PM IST
Updated: Feb 10, 2023 05:58:43 PM IST

Maria de Knuijt, the woman with an eye for Vermeer's talent Maria de Knuijt is said to have acquired at least 20 of the 37 or so known paintings by the artist, including "Girl With a Pearl Earring." Photography Stan Honda / AFP©

Historians know little about Vermeer's work. As the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam prepares to stage a major retrospective on the artist, museum curators claim that the Dutch painter's main patron was, in fact, a woman, rather than a man, as has long been assumed.

The patron in question is said to be Maria de Knuijt, the wife of Pieter van Ruijven. Art historians have long believed that the latter, a wealthy citizen of Delft, contributed to Vermeer's success by purchasing much of his work. They now believe that his wife, Maria, played a more important role in the career of the most famous figure of the Dutch Golden Age (along with Rembrandt), according to The Art Newspaper.

Curator Pieter Roelofs writes in the catalog of the Rijksmuseum's "Vermeer" exhibition, seen by the trade publication, that Maria de Knuijt was a close neighbor of the artist. She is thought to have started collecting his paintings in around 1657, a period during which Vermeer turned away from religious and mythological scenes in favor of those of bourgeois interiors. In 17th century Dutch society, women were essentially confined to domestic roles. As part of this, it was their duty to take care of their home by furnishing and decorating it with the paintings of their choice. "Everything points to De Knuijt being the collector of the [Vermeer] paintings," says Pieter Roelofs in the exhibition catalog.

Maria de Knuijt is said to have acquired at least 20 of the artist's 37 or so known paintings, including iconic pieces like "The Milkmaid" and "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Fourteen of them have been brought together in the Rijksmuseum's major retrospective, which opens on February 10. It is billed as the largest Vermeer exhibition ever held, according to the museum. The Rijksmuseum says it has already sold more than 200,000 tickets and has set strict limits to ensure that art lovers who want to admire Vermeer's work can enjoy the exhibition in comfortable conditions.

Also read: When AI takes on the role of an artist

The discovery of Maria de Knuijt's role as a patron of the arts is part of a broader trend to re-evaluate women's contribution to art history, and not only as artists. Indeed, until April 9, Madrid's Prado museum is offering a thematic tour paying tribute to the female patrons and donors who enriched its collection over the centuries. Titled "El Prado en femenino," or "The Female Perspective," it focuses on masterpieces such as Rogier van der Weyden's "Descent from the Cross," Titian's "Equestrian Portrait of Charles V" and Rubens' "The Holy Family surrounded by Saints" that would not adorn the walls of the museum without the generosity of several female patrons of the arts. It invites visitors to take a closer look at some 30 works that were commissioned or purchased by patrons such as Isabella Clara Eugenia of Austria, Isabella I of Castile and Mary of Austria.

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